On the face of it, a free toilet for a community without toilets sounds like a great thing. When people can visit a proper bathroom, they’re less likely to defecate out in the open, and you get less of the filth and disease that occurs in places without sanitation.
The problem is a toilet is only as good as the maintenance that goes with it. If the facility isn’t cleaned regularly, it quickly becomes unusable, and it’s not so much a convenience as, literally, a disgusting shit-hole.
That’s why people like Andrew Foote think charging for sanitation is better than giving away mere hardware, as the international development community has sometimes done. By creating a business around toilet service, he argues, you’re more likely to develop toilets that are hygienic and reliable.
“What we realized is that [solving] sanitation crisis is about more than designing cost-effective treatments. It’s about understanding the whole value chain,” he says.
Foote’s startup, which he founded with Emily Woods, is called Sanivation. It installs lightweight sit-down toilets in people’s homes for nothing upfront, but charges a monthly fee (about $7) to take away the waste twice a week. Then, at a processing plant, it neutralizes the pathogens and combines that with carbonized agricultural residues. After grinding, the mixture eventually becomes charcoal briquettes that look like medieval cannonballs. These can be sold as fuel.
“We didn’t necessarily want to get into the whole business of building toilets, servicing them, treating the waste, and selling a product. But we felt that in order for sanitation enterprises to succeed, they really needed a whole value chain,” Foote says.
Based in Naivasha, a lake-side Kenyan town, Sanivation has installed 55 toilets so far. And it recently opened a processing plant with a capacity of up to 150 tons of briquettes a month (currently it’s producing about 10 tons a month). Foote, who is American, says he has orders for most of the fuel, which costs the same as traditional charcoal made from wood.
The business model is designed to be self-financing on both the toilet service side and the fuel side; the company treats the revenue and expenses from each separately. By next spring, Foote hopes to service 500 houses and produce between 60 and 70 tons of fuel a month.
Foote’s business has a lot in common with Sanergy, which we wrote about recently. The latter business also turns poo into something useful (fertilizer) and also charges for toilet service (via a franchise system where local entrepreneurs oversee their own bathrooms).
With millions of people in East Africa still living without sanitation, there’s plenty of need for new services. And plenty of opportunity for entrepreneurs, too. Sanivation’s model has the added advantage of saving trees in the process. Foote estimates that each ton of his cannonballs keeps 88 trees standing in the forest.