Sustainable Sanitation in Urban Slums: The path to permanently reducing sanitation-related disease

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Sustainable Sanitation in Urban Slums: The path to permanently reducing sanitation-related disease

Organization type: 
for profit
$100,000 - $250,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Sanergy is permanently reducing sanitation related disease in urban slums by making hygienic sanitation accessible, affordable, and sustainable. 2.6 billion people in developing countries and 8 million in the slums of Kenya, our initial market, lack of access to adequate sanitation. The resulting disease kills 1.6 million children each year. Improved sanitation can reduce the incidence of sanitation-related disease by up to 40%. We are taking a systems-based approach that combines technical ingenuity and innovative business models to engage the local communities and build out the entire sanitation value chain. This sustainable system provides and maintains affordable access to hygienic sanitation, reducing significantly sanitation-related disease in the urban slums.

About Project

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We take a systems-based approach to overcome key challenges that currently disrupt the sanitation value chain: 1: Existing sanitation options are unhygienic, inaccessible, and unaffordable. Our low-cost toilets are: Hygienic: Sanergy toilets are made of high-quality materials that make it easy and cheap to construct, clean, and maintain. Accessible: Measuring just 3’x5’, our toilets have a small footprint so they can be installed close to homes, improving safety and convenience. Affordable: Sanergy toilets provide a better product and service at the existing market price in Kenya. We increase affordability through pricing models such as membership plans. 2: Current waste collection methods are unsanitary, expensive, and difficult to maintain due to bad design and lack of infrastructure. Our sanitation units use a Urine-Diverting Dry Toilet (UDDT) system, where urine and feces are separated into double-sealed 30-liter barrels, avoiding any human contact or leaching. Waste collectors collect the barrels using handcarts, reducing cost and improving access on unpaved roads. 3: Existing waste conversion methods are inefficient and use out-dated technology. At Sanergy, the waste from our sanitation centers is brought to our processing facility, where we leverage economies of scale to increase output by 30%. 4: Providers of existing sanitation services are marginalized in their communities. Sanergy provides sanitation workers with proper equipment and training in hygiene, making them more respected in their community and drawing newfound respect to sanitation.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Our operations and activities are divided into four primary areas: Increasing Demand: We are developing new consumer marketing approaches to convert the need for sanitation in the slums into a demand for high-quality sanitation services. We work with community organizations to educate residents about hygienic sanitation’s critical importance for their health. Then, through an intense product branding campaign, we make the use of hygienic sanitation aspirational. Increasing Supply: Throughout the slums, we are building a dense network of small-scale, high-quality sanitation centers. Developed by our team of MIT and University of Nairobi engineers, each toilet costs only $200 to construct with local materials and labor. We franchise each toilet to operators from the community and provide them with business training and support. Waste Collection: The waste from our toilets is collected into double-sealed 30L containers, rather than into unsanitary pits and septic tanks. We employ youth from the community to collect the full containers of waste daily from the franchisees and provide clean empty containers. The waste is removed from the community, thereby reducing the spread of pathogens. Waste Conversion: We safely transport the waste to a central processing facility, where it is converted into electricity, sold to the national grid, and organic fertilizer, sold to farms. Today, that waste is too often dumped into the rivers, putting the community’s health at great risk. By providing an alternative use for the waste, we systemically insure that it is removed from the community.
About You
About You
First Name


Last Name


About Your Organization
Organization Name


Organization Phone


Organization Address

15 Gem Lane, Kileleshwa, Nairobi, Kenya

Organization Country

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Country where this project is creating social impact

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How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Tell us about the community that you engage? eg. economic conditions, political structures, norms and values, demographic trends, history, and experience with engagement efforts.

10Mn people in Kenya live in slums, and this population is growing at 7% per year. In Nairobi, 75% of the residents live in slums that comprise just 5% of the city’s land area.

At present, slum residents resort to three untenable sanitation options. They pay to use public toilets in commercial areas, which are located far from homes and are therefore inconvenient and unsafe for women. More often, they pay to use unhygienic makeshift toilets that drain into pits and waterways. Finally some defecate in the open or use “flying toilets” (plastic bags). Because these areas lack sewers and are often inaccessible by road, laborers typically remove the waste with buckets. Even when the waste is removed, there is a lack of effective waste treatment and disposal options. The waste is dumped into open drains, polluting water and spreading disease.

NGOs and government have failed to provide long-term sustainable sanitation infrastructure in these areas because of inappropriate technology and inadequate management. These organizations have, though, worked extensively in increasing awareness of health consequences of improper sanitation. We partner with the government and community organizations to increase awareness and then to implement our system that addresses the challenges around technology and business models.

Because sustainable access to hygienic sanitation reduces the community’s incidence of sanitation-related disease, our model will restore productive, income-generating time and reduce health expenses - providing more than $150 of annual social benefit to each resident.

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

Growing up in India, my family and I faced the daily reality of the lack of sanitation, and the reuse of waste was a necessity. After moving to the US for studies, I launched a technology start-up in India and worked in the US health care industry. Three years ago, I moved to the Philippines to turn around a chain of dialysis clinics serving low-income patients. In 8 months, I used my operations, finance, and engineering skills to lead the company to profitability – preserving jobs for the 100-person staff and critical services for the hundreds of patients.

My success in the Philippines showed me the power of market-based solutions to solve social challenges. As an MBA student at MIT, I continued to look for such solutions. Drawing on my youth in India, I recruited MIT teammates to explore whether hygienic toilets that provided gas could reach millions in need.

We went to Nairobi to find out. In the Mathare slum, we met River Jump, a youth group. They were a tough lot, yet they wanted to improve their community. They took us to a former trash yard which they had cleared and developed into a garden of crops. Then, they took us to a toilet facility which they had been operating as a business without any technical expertise. When we saw the facility, we understood why sanitation had failed in the slums. It was expensive to construct, dependent on water delivery, and located far from homes.

Although the statistics on sanitation are daunting, I realized that the determination of groups like River Jump combined with our model could have a slum-transforming impact.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

Since September 2010, Sanergy has operated two pilots in the slums of Nairobi, serving 150 users. We are collecting the waste each day and converting it to biogas, one step towards our goal of producing electricity and fertilizer.

Sanergy’s mission is to permanently reduce sanitation-related disease among residents of Africa’s slums. We believe that if slum dwellers have sustainable access to hygienic sanitation infrastructure, the incidence of sanitation-related disease will decrease. We have therefore integrated into our daily operations the measurement of three leading indicators of such infrastructure:

1. Number of people using Sanergy Sanitation Centers: We track the number of people using each sanitation facility in our network through two data points. First, each operator reports usage on a daily basis through our SMS-based data collection platform. Second, we cross check this data with the quantity of waste collected for that day from each particular center.

2. Income earned by toilet operators and Sanergy staff: As part of the ongoing business training and support that our field managers offer to the operators, we will track each toilet’s profitability. We will also track the total income earned by the Sanergy waste collectors, construction teams, and other staff as part of our normal payroll activities.

3. Cumulative human waste collected and processed into saleable byproducts: All waste collected and transported to our central facility will be weighed and then processed into energy, fertilizer, and other marketable products.

How many people have been impacted by your project?


How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

By the end of 2011, Sanergy will expand to 60 toilets in the Mukuru slum of Nairobi serving 5000 customers and will build new anaerobic digestion waste processing centers.

Task 1

Identify and recruit 60 people from the community to own and operate a Sanergy toilet. We must ensure that they have access to secure land.

Task 2

Generate demand in the community for the Sanergy toilet, focusing on the social, economic and health benefits of improved sanitation.

Task 3

Recruit a team of waste collectors who will hygienically remove the waste from the community to a biodigester where it is converted into fertilizer.

Identify your 12-month impact milestone

By the end of 2012, Sanergy will expand to 660 toilets, daily serving 50,000 customers and removing 50 tons of waste from the community.

Task 1

Evaluate the effectiveness of the initial pilot of 60 toilets. Undertake basic evaluation of improved health, social and economic benefits. Adapt model as appropriate.

Task 2

Identify new slums to enter and recruit people from those communities to own and operate a Sanergy toilet, ensuring they have access to secure land.

Task 3

Generate demand in these new communities for the Sanergy toilet, focusing on the social, economic and health benefits of improved sanitation.

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

By the end of 2011, Sanergy will expand to 60 toilets serving 5000 customers and will build new anaerobic digestion waste processing centers. Next year, we will add 600 locations and begin producing fertilizer. In 2013, when 1800 toilets will serve 150,000 customers, we will construct an industrial-scale processing facility that will generate electricity and high-quality organic fertilizer.

As we expand, we will rapidly scale our impact in our key metrics. Increased use of hygienic sanitation facilities will significantly increase the community’s income-generation ability and reduce health expenditures. By 2013, more than 2000 Sanergy franchisees and employees will earn living wages. Finally, the 58,000 metric tons of waste processed will cut dangerous pollution and carbon emissions.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

User Adaptation: Sanergy must generate demand for its services. Although users already pay $0.06 to use other latrines, many resort to free methods such as open defecation. Sanergy is implementing Community-Led Total Sanitation, a grassroots methodology in which community members teach each other about sanitation’s critical health importance. We then market Sanergy as one specific solution.

Land Rights: Building permanent structures in the slums is complicated. Success requires community involvement from the village chief down to individual residents. We are learning from local partners to emphasize sanitation centers’ local ownership, creating an incentive for the entrepreneurs to participate in the land acquisition and negotiation process. Also, the compactness of a Sanergy toilet makes it easier to identify and secure viable land. Finally, we are working directly with the Ministry of Water and the National Water Services Trust Fund to ensure that we receive necessary government approvals.

Fertilizer Distribution: Sales of waste by-products, especially fertilizer, are critical to Sanergy’s financial sustainability. East Africa has minimal fertilizer production and currently imports 1.2M metric tons per year. As a result, Kenyan farmers pay twice the global average price, with 75% of that cost due to transportation and tariffs. Although fertilizer from human waste will be new in the local market, organics face a growing demand that has driven prices to $500/ton. We are working with partners like Profarm Africa to develop, produce, and distribute our products across Kenya.

Tell us about your partnerships

Community Partners:

Community Cleaning Services (CCS) has partnered with Sanergy to create incentive-driven processes to improve hygiene and maintenance of sanitation facilities in slums, and to implement Urban Community-Led Total Sanitation in the slum of Mathare.

Carolina for Kibera, which has spent a decade working with youth groups to promote health and economic development, has partnered with us to identify and organize youth entrepreneurs to own and operate Sanergy sanitation centers.

Bridge International Academies, which provides low-cost schools in the slums of Nairobi, has partnered with Sanergy to provide improved sanitation in their schools.

The Lunga Lunga Youth Group and Kibera Waste Recyclers are key partners in operations of our current pilots and identification of franchisees for our upcoming expansion.

Technical Partners: PATH, an international NGO, is leveraging 30 years of sanitation product development and commercialization experience to partner with us on new toilet designs and sanitation marketing techniques.

Government: The Kenya Ministry of Water and the Water Services Trust Fund are working with us on selling Sanergy sanitation facilities to registered water services providers in Nairobi. They are also providing support around licensing issues.

Monitoring and Evaluation: We are working closely with the African Population Health and Research Centre to develop a baseline survey to understand and articulate the health and socioeconomic benefits of the Sanergy model.

Explain your selections

Sanergy has received funding from several fellowships, including Echoing Green and the Mulago Foundation’s Rainer Arnhold Fellowship.

We have generated additional financial support through participation in a range of competitions such as the MIT100K Business Plan Competition, the Global Social Venture Competition, the UW Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, and the Net Impact Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge.

Finally, we have won the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) Sustainable Vision Grant and are currently in contention for a USAID Development Innovation Ventures grant.

As we scale from two to 60 toilets this year, and then to more than 600 next year, revenue from sales of toilets and waste collection service contracts will eclipse philanthropic funding. More dramatically, by 2013, electricity and fertilizer income will grow to more than $1.5M, dwarfing other revenue sources.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

For the next 3 years, Sanergy will continue to focus on the 45 slums of Nairobi. By 2013, Sanergy will provide sustainable hygienic sanitation to 150,000 people through more than 1800 sanitation centers.

Sanergy prices our toilet sales and waste collection services to cover our marginal costs. Sales of electricity and fertilizer generate net revenues that we plough back into our expansion, funding recruitment, training, and ongoing support for our franchisees.

Most of 2011 and 2012 will be spent establishing the necessary operational and technical infrastructure; expenses will be high and income will be constrained during these years. Large scale waste processing will come online in 2013. We will achieve profitability in 2013, and through economies of scale, we will be cash flow positive by 2014 and improve net margins to 29% by 2015.

As we grow, we will also being measure our health and social impact in detail, tracking three leading indicators by integrating them into our daily operations:

1. Number of people using Sanergy Toilets. We track the number of people using each facility in our network through 2 data points.

2. Income earned by toilet operators and Sanergy staff. As part of the ongoing business training and support that our field managers offer to the operators, they will track the each toilet’s profitability.

3. Cumulative human waste collected and processed into saleable byproducts. All waste collected and transported to our central facility will be weighed and then processed into energy, fertilizer, and other marketable products.

Which barriers to health and well-being does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.


Lack of physical access to care/lack of facilities


Health behavior change


Lack of affordable care

Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

Accessibility: The Sanergy toilet is compact, measuring only 1m X 1.5m. This requires a very small footprint, which means that it can be located throughout the slums, including close to where people are living. Many solutions require lots of space and therefore are less accessible.

Behavior Change: Sanergy is implementing mass branding campaigns to make hygienic sanitation aspirational. We are also incentivizing locals – by them running the toilet as a business - to entice behavior change rather than have us enter the slum and try to force change.

Affordability: The Sanergy toilet is also cheap – costing $200 to construct compared to market solutions that cost between $1000 - $25,000 – so it is more affordable for potential operators, which means we can reach more people quickly.

How are you growing the impact of your organization or initiative?
Please select up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.



Leveraged technology


Grown geographic reach: Multi-country

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

Over the next 12 months, we are focused on fine-tuning our operations by expanding from 150 customers to nearly 5,000 customers in the Nairobi slums. In the next 3 years, we will replicate the model in other parts of Kenya. During this time, we are identifying capable partners in other developing countries to expand our impact in 3-4 years.

Finally, we are employing and engaging members of the communities in every aspect of our operations, thereby increasing their capacity to learn the technologies we develop, to run successful businesses, and to provide quality services.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Government, Technology providers, NGOs/Nonprofits, For profit companies, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

The support of the Kenya Ministry of Water and the Kenya Water Services Trust Fund has helped us navigate local power structures while rolling out our pilot in the informal settlements. We are working with commercial technology providers, especially in municipal waste management, to understand how to take technologies we are developing in the labs to commercial scale effectively. Our partnerships with NGOs like PATH and universities like MIT and the University of Nairobi have provided us with engineering support and talent in the US and locally in Kenya. Finally, we are exploring partnerships with for-profit consumer goods companies to provide complementary sanitation products for our franchisees to sell along with the sanitation service and increase the franchisees’ profitability.