Turning Waste into Wealth: Sanergy’s Vision for Toilets, Jobs, and Energy

Posted By: Hilary Fischer-Groban|Dated: September 17, 2012

In Kenya’s slums, 8 million people lack access to adequate sanitation.  Inadequate sanitation is a breeding ground for disease and the cause of pre-mature death for many, but for Ani Villabhaneni and David Auerbach, two business school classmates, improper sanitation also bred an innovative business model.

A Sanergy Fresh Life toilet in Nairobi.

Co-founders Ani Villabhaneni and David Auerbach became aware of the urgent need for reliable sanitation solutions in a “Development Ventures” class at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a class that, “challenge[s] students to craft enduring and economically viable solutions to problems faced by at least one billion people worldwide.”[1]

Worldwide, some 2.6 billion people in the world lack access to adequate sanitation.[2] For many, that means using pit toilets, or defecating in the open, often near food and water sources.  The disease and water pollution caused by inadequate sanitation causes 1.7 million deaths and the loss of $84 billion in worker productivity each year.  Auerbach and Villabhaneni turned their focus to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.

A Sanergy Fresh Life toilet at a maternity clinic in Nairobi.

“We knew there was already a paid market for sanitation; that wasn’t something we had to develop.  There were already eco toilets set up in parts of Nairobi.  Bringing eco-toilets to the slums – that was our challenge,” said Villabhaneni.

The Sanergy model centers on the low-cost eco-friendly toilets called Fresh Life that the Sanergy team designed with their community’s needs in mind. The toilets are distributed through franchising to local entrepreneurs who take ownership of the toilets and charge 5 choo (around $.05). The resulting waste is collected by trained Sanergy Fresh Life Operators and fed to an anaerobic digester to produce biogas.  The biogas is processed into organic fertilizer for local farms. At each step, this model creates jobs and improves livelihoods while simultaneously addressing the serious sanitation needs in the community.

Collecting waste from a Sanergy toilet in Nairobi that will be turned into fertilizer for local farmers.

Thirty-four toilets have been established so far in Mukuru, a slum of 250,000 people in east Nairobi.  Each toilet has about 60 users per day, the number that the Sanergy team focuses on to gauge their progress, instead of tracking the number of toilets that might remain unused. From these toilets, Sanergy has created 35 tonnes of fertilizer.

Currently, Sanergy employs 42 full-time staff and 10 part time staff, about half of whom come from the local community.  “All the jobs we are creating are all in the formal sector.  Pension and health coverage; it’s important to be able to provide these social safety nets,” said Villabhaneni.

By the end of this year, Sanergy aims to have established between 80-100 toilets and will be expanding to other parts of Kenya.

On World Toilet Day 2011, Nairobi Town Clerk Phillip Kisia cuts the ribbon to open the newest Fresh Life toilet, while its owner, Caroline Mueni Mutua joyfully looks on.

Sanergy has proven that for-profit and ecologically-friendly sanitation is a viable business and realistic model for developing countries.  In the words of one of Sanergy’s Fresh Life Operators, Victor Omondi, when asked how his work makes him feel about himself, “I feel good. I know that when I leave my house, I will earn my daily bread. I see the message on Sanergy’s shirts – Be You, Be Clean, Be Fresh – and I know that I am there.”[3]

Hopefully, more young entrepreneurs will take on similar challenges now that the precedent is set for turning the unglamorous into something that promotes living standards through environmental and economic sustainability.

You can learn more about Sanergy and follow their blog at http://saner.gy/ and through this video at http://vimeo.com/16095397.


[1] http://www.media.mit.edu/about/academics/venture-classes

[2] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=34078&Cr=mdg&Cr1

[3] http://saner.gy/2012/01/25/from-the-field-waste-collection-fresh-life-style/#more-648

About the Author

Hilary Fischer-Groban

Hilary Fischer-Groban is a freelance writer based in Mumbai, with a background in corporate social responsibility.  She has been studying India since she first visited in 2004. Originally from Boston, she previously worked at ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth and the Harvard Business Review Press.  Hilary graduated from Brown University with a degree in South Asian Studies and made the move to Mumbai in 2010.  She enjoys exploring opportunities to apply top of the pyramid, process-driven efficacy to bottom of the pyramid issues.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group. 

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