Toilet Entrepreneurs, Powered By MIT Innovation

Sanergy is a business full of waste. The startup–funded in part by the U.S. government–gives toilets away to business people in the slums, who charge for use. In exchange, Sanergy gets the… leftovers, which they convert into electricity and sell.

Toilet Entrepreneurs, Powered By MIT Innovation
Chef Cooke

About 8 million Kenyans lack access to proper sanitation, and in some urban areas the problem of “flying toilets,” a plastic bag used for defecation and then flung into the slums, is legendary. A 2006 UN Development Programme report found that in the Kibera section of Nairobi two out of three residents used a plastic bag as their main disposal method.


To help solve this problem–which, apart from creating a heinous living environment, also causes multiple diseases–a group of recent MIT graduates has come up with an ingenious solution, and today USAID and its new Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) fund gave the project $100,000.

Their idea, which has grown into a business called Sanergy, is to franchise out low-cost toilet units to on-the-ground entrepreneurs, and then collect the waste for conversion to fertilizer and electricity. By taking a market-based approach, they reckon they can create a sustainable development model that will not only make a dent in the sanitation problem, but also generate income and jobs for local people.

The idea grew out of a Development Ventures class at MIT’s Sloan School of Management taught by Professor Sandy Pentland. Since graduating in May, the students have raised a total of $600,000, including the cash from USAID.

Sanergy hopes to install more than 6,000 toilets, reaching up to 600,000 residents, by 2015. Each toilet costs about $450, which the entrepreneurs fund either with their own money, or through a loan from one of two micro-finance organizations that have agreed to take part. The entrepreneurs make money by charging for-use fees, signing up residents for membership plans, and by selling additional hygiene products.

The waste is collected daily and wheeled to intermediate processing points, and from there to a centralized facility where it is broken down in an anaerobic digester. The digester produces both methane, which can be burned in a plant to make electricity, and an effluent that can be turned into fertilizer and sold on for agriculture.

“As my grandmother likes to say, this is an input that never runs out,” says cofounder David Auerbach. “It is chucked everywhere, and causes disease if it’s not treated properly. We’re adamant about reducing sanitation-related disease, and in the end this is what this is about.”


The profit motive is important, though. Sanergy reckons that Kenya’s 10 million slums represent a potential $72 million market, and it says that incentivizing the entrepreneurs to take the toilets is vital. Meanwhile, USAID DIV, which is seeking market-based fixes to development problems, will only provide further funding if Sanergy can prove its waste-management system works.

Sanergy is starting with a 60-toilet pilot in Kwa Ruben, Kwa Njenga, and Lunga Lunga areas of Nairobi, before it scales up. It has its own facility to build the toilets, which it designed in consultation with local people, and it is currently building the digester unit. It can start producing electricity once it has franchised its first 1,000 toilets.

“The Nairobi City Council has plans for sewers to come in, but these are the most marginalized areas of the city and it will be years before that happens,” says Auerbach. “In the meantime, our facilities are a pragmatic solution that helps clean up the slums.”

It is too early to call an end to Nairobi’s notorious flying toilets. But hopefully Sanergy’s fresh approach can succeed where traditional aid programs have failed.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.