Turning Sh*t Into Gold

Have you ever wondered what happens when you flush your toilet? In Kenya? If you live in one of Kenya’s urban slums then your toilet does not flush. Your toilet could be a plastic bag known as a flying toilet or a bucket whose untreated contents are later emptied directly into your environment. During rainy periods residents - particularly women and children - become susceptible to deadly waterborne illnesses like typhoid and cholera.

So now that you're completely grossed out, I hope you find this idea refreshing... What if each flush meant money for small businesses and fertilizer acceptable for use in agriculture?

team of recent MIT Sloan School or Business graduate are out to permanently reduce sanitation-related disease by making sanitation profitable. Their company, Sanergy (“sanitation” plus “energy”) has been called “the single most innovative sustainability initiative on the planet”.

The Sanergy team is building a network of low-cost sanitation centers in urban slums. Sanergy’s “Fresh Life” toilets are painted a bright turquoise blue color and have been designed so that they are easy to clean. The toilets are offered as franchises to Kenyan entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs, who receive training from Sanergy charge residents a small fee to use the Fresh Life toilets. Sanergy also plans to sell the Fresh Life toilets to landlords and organizations that attract high concentrations of people such as schools, restaurants, and churches, and will be offered to customers as a value-added good.

Sanergy’s pilot toilet  is utilized by the students of a Bridge International Academies school in Nairobi slum Lunga Lunga. Another one opened on International Toilet Day in Nairobi’s informal settlement Mukuru Kwa Njenga.

The Fresh Life toilets are serviced daily by waste collectors and the waste is transported in sealed containers to a centralized biogas digester. The biodigester converts the human waste to methane gas energy, which is then combusted in CHP engines to generate electricity. Once Sanergy has more toilets (and more waste) the company plans to sell the energy back to the grid. The output from the biogas will be processed into fertilizer and sold to Kenya’s farms.

In recognition of the company’s potential to scale, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures program recently awarded Sanergy a $100,000 grant. Maura O’Neill, the Chief Innovation Officer of USAID, said that USAID is supporting Sanergy because “We believe they have a real promising model that, if works, could scale to solve sanitation problems for millions globally.” If Sanergy reaches its milestones then USAID will award Sanergy an additional $1M and $3M to help the company scale. Indeed the Sanergy model has the potential to be replicated around the world, anywhere where people need access to sanitation solutions. Keep up with all of the recent developments on the company’s website as they “turn sh*t into gold”.