Impact Spotlights

Waste Not: Sanergy’s hygienic sanitation solutions changing Kenyan slums

April 2, 2015

Most of us take our indoor plumbing for granted, but about 40 percent of people in the world do not have access to adequate sanitation. Many of those people live in cramped slums, where human waste ends up in rivers or the street, where it can contaminate drinking water and the food supply and cause disease. 

A company called Sanergy is helping to solve that problem in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya with a cost-effective solution that is not just providing hygienic sanitation, but also creating badly needed jobs and taking the waste out of the community.

Sanergy By The Numbers

2.6 billion: People worldwide who lack access to adequate sanitation.

2 million: Annual global deaths attributed to disease caused by poor sanitation.

$500: Cost of a Fresh Life sanitation center that can provide a clean toilet and hot shower for 75 people.

623: Fresh Life toilets opened in informal settlements.

600: Jobs created by Sanergy, including 100 people on the Sanergy team, Fresh Life franchise operators, and the attendants that they hire.

26,315:Daily users now with access to affordable hygienic sanitation.

4,200: Metric tons of waste safely removed from the community and treated.

Co-founders David Auerbach, Nathan Cooke, Lindsay Stradley, and Ani Vallabhaneni met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while taking a course, Development Ventures, that Auerbach calls “audacious.” 

“They’re telling you to think about solving a challenge that affects the lives of a billion people,” Auerbach said. “That’s not small-scale thinking.” 

The course attracts engineering and business students from MIT’s D-Lab, Media Lab, and Sloan School of Management. The Sanergy team came up with the idea of providing hygienic sanitation through a franchise model in slums in Nairobi.

“We would franchise these toilets, and people would run them as small businesses,” Auerbach said. “We would collect the waste, then take it out of the community and recycle it into useful byproducts.”

Sanergy's Fresh Life Toilet is a cost-effective solution for sanitation challenges.

The concept looked strong enough in class that MIT gave them a grant to travel to Kenya to explore the possibilities in greater depth.

“When we came back, we needed to design a toilet that met the demands and the constraints of the community that we were trying serve,” Auerbach said. “That’s where VentureWell stepped up and provided a generous grant to design and develop the product that is now called the Fresh Life Toilet.”

The grant from VentureWell, which is supported by The Lemelson Foundation, was for just under $50,000, but Auerbach said it was “huge” for Sanergy. 

“It gave us a prototype to work with and test out in the community, and we were able to roll out a full model once we graduated,” he explained. “It was key transitional funding for us at a time when we were just an energetic team with a good idea.” 

The grant bought more than just a design. Auerbach said it also gave Sanergy a certain amount of stature that helped bring in more funding. The team entered the MIT $100K business plan competition and won the grand prize in 2011, then raised additional funds through MassChallenge, a startup accelerator, that same year. 

`The first Fresh Life Toilet went into operation, fittingly enough, on World Toilet Day—November 19—in 2011. Since then, Sanergy has sold more than 600 Fresh Life Toilets to nearly 300 Kenyans who operate the facilities in their neighborhoods. Microfinance loans help these local entrepreneurs own and operate the toilets. Users pay a modest fee to assist with operating costs. The Fresh Life Toilets are serving 26,000 people every day. 

“We’re safely removing about sixty tons of waste every single week from the community,” Auerbach said, “That waste would have gone into the soil, rivers, and waterways. It would have been a huge public health risk.” 

Sanergy collects the waste from the toilets daily and takes it to a treatment facility where it is turned into organic fertilizer that meets the standards of the World Health Organization, providing a valuable asset for farmers in East Africa. The company also is working on ways to convert the waste into biogas, and then into electricity that can be sold to the national grid. 

Sanergy is a successful business that has created economic opportunity for hundreds of Kenyans. At the same time it is bringing hygienic sanitation to neighborhoods, removing a large volume of human waste, and doing it in an environmentally sound and cost-effective way. Best of all, the Sanergy model is scalable, and provides hope to bring sanitation to millions of people around the globe.