In Ghana, just 15% of the population has access to decent sanitation. In the city of Kumasi, for example, around 40% of the population relies on public toilets, yet there’s just one such toilet for every 1,000 people. Human waste is often left out in the open or funneled into the ocean, where it contaminates the water supply–leading to nearly 20,000 deaths each year due to diarrheal diseases.
Sanitation might be “the dirty industry,” but to Cheryl Hicks, CEO of the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC)–an alliance of companies like Kimberly-Clark and Unilever, and nonprofits like The World Bank and WaterAid, dedicated to providing sanitation worldwide by 2030–it’s “the business opportunity of the decade,” Hicks tells Fast Company. The TBC was founded in 2014, and in January 2016, it launched The Toilet Accelerator as a way to provide business support to emerging sanitation entrepreneurs in the developing world.
The first year of the accelerator focused on the toilets themselves–TBC brought together a small cohort of businesses like Svadha in India, which were working to manufacture toilets at scale. Under the guidance of executives from Kimberly-Clark and Unilever, Svadha was, for instance, able to grow its sales by 200%, but as those toilet manufacturing companies scaled, they hit a bit of a wall: They still didn’t know what to do with the waste itself.
“They were becoming more and more successful at selling toilets, but they had customers coming to them and saying they still had an issue with the waste,” Hicks says.
So for the cohort launched at the beginning of this year, TBC is supporting businesses that are tackling waste in the developing world by employing circular economy principles. In the field of sanitation, a circular economy necessitates thinking of human waste as “resources” that can be recycled and effectively reused.
One of those businesses is Safi Sana, which was founded in 2010 with offices in Amsterdam and Accra, Ghana, when a group of executives from businesses and NGOs including Aqua for All, Shell, and Rabobank came together with the idea “to do something in sanitation, but something more groundbreaking than the traditional building of toilets,” Aart van den Beukel, managing director of Safi Sana, tells Fast Company.
Van den Beukel, who had a background in small business entrepreneurship, came on board to direct the initiative that would become Safi Sana soon after. He traveled to Accra in 2010 to launch a small pilot, the idea being that they could collect fecal waste from toilets, mix it with organic waste from agricultural operations and food markets, and use an anaerobic digester to convert the waste into biogas that fuels electricity generators; the remaining waste can be turned into compost.
Ghana, van den Beukel says, was the perfect testing ground for the Safi Sana model, being both in need of a solution, and developed enough that said solution could be implemented at scale. After working with smaller-scale digesters for several years, Safi Sana opened its first plant in Ghana in the fall of 2016. The factory is situated in Ashaiman, a town in the region of Accra that’s home to a large slum, where waste is often left out in the open or flows into the sea. Safi Sana estimates that it’s able to treat 13 tons of toilet waste daily, and mix it with 12 tons of organic waste that would otherwise be left to clog sewers. The factory can provide 3,000 families with clean energy and generate enough fertilizer to spread over 720,000 square meters of farmland; the sale of those products is enough to cover the operational costs of the factory, and Safi Sana intends to develop eight more factories across Ghana by 2023.
“By partnering with Safi Sana, we’re testing how upcycling of waste can happen in the microcosm of a factory site,” Hicks says. Implementing this model at scale in Ghana, she adds, essentially leapfrogs the waste-management issues currently plaguing more developed countries. If sanitation models can be built out in the developing world with circular economy initiatives already in place, countries like Ghana will be set on a more sustainable path.
But conversion to energy is just one possible circular economy solution to human waste. BioCycle, which was founded in Durban, South Africa in 2014, uses a very efficient natural process to upcycle human waste, though admittedly, not one for the squeamish: The company deploys Black Soldier Fly larvae–which are voracious consumers of human waste and manure–to essentially eat up and digest waste that’s brought into the facility. The larvae can then be fed directly to fish or chickens, or further processed into feed, pet food, biodiesel, or even lotions and creams.
Given that the TBC has already supported toilet manufacturing companies in the developing world, and is halfway through setting companies like BioCycle and Safi Sana on their way to scalability, the coalition is already looking ahead to next year’s cohort. The focus then, Hicks says, will likely be on businesses cropping up to fill in critical links of the sanitation supply chain–namely, the collection and transport of the waste itself. It’s one thing to build the toilets and the waste-treatment facilities, but quite another to ensure that the “resources” make the journey between the two. “Our idea is that if we can link all these business models together, they can begin to solve problems for each other and scale even faster,” Hicks says.