Sanergy: Making the most of the sanitation value chain

There are a multitude issues that social innovators and social entrepreneurs are trying to tackle in meaningful ways around the world. However, throughout the course of our conversations and travels, there has been one issue in particular that has crossed boundaries and continents. This issue is that of sanitation.

Sanitation plays an important role in ending poverty, creating gender equality, and keeping children in school. Sustained progress on the Millennium Development Goals depends on the international community paying more attention to the sanitation gap: right now, nearly 40% of the world’s population (over 2.6 billion) are without sanitation.

However, water, rather than toilets, tends to receive more attention and resources under the common subject of sanitation. Responding to this, many people and organisations are turning their attention to toilets and sanitation, and how to deal with this issue in sustainable ways and at a global scale. The World Toilet Organisation, based in Singapore, was established as a global network and service platform wherein all toilet and sanitation organizations can learn from one another, and leverage media and global support to influence governments to promote sound sanitation and public health policies. Its founder, Jack Sim, who is campaigning for toilets around the world, has been working tirelessly to break the taboo of toilet and sanitation and legitimize it for mainstream culture.  In another powerful example, the ‘Community-led Total Sanitation’ approach focuses on the behavioural change needed to ensure real and sustainable improvements – investing in community mobilisation instead of hardware, and shifting the focus from toilet construction for individual households to the creation of “open defecation-free” villages. Today, CLTS is in 20 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Sanergy, based in Nairobi, Kenya, is a social enterprise focused on making sanitation profitable in urban slums by making it affordable, accessible and clean. The name has come from the amalgamation of two words: sanitation and energy. Sanergy is tackling the issue of sanitation like many of its peers do by building toilets, but its innovation is really in its business model – creating value out of waste by really examining the value chain. The theory is that if you can create waste as a valuable product that people will buy or buy into, then everyone on the value chain will gain something.

Its business model is novel and unique – ensuring that it is a win-win-win scenario for residents of slums, for the entrepreneur, and for Sanergy. The business model and the system that Sanergy has created relies on local entrepreneurs who buy toilets from Sanergy and then charge a nominal fee (4-6c per use) to its fellow slum dwellers. The incentive for the entrepreneur is to provide good and clean facilities to ensure there is maximum usage from residents. The entrepreneur who buys the toilet to install in his or her community is a local resident, not only ensuring community buy-in but also enabling people to become entrepreneurial. The system is also dependent upon those who collect the waste for a fee; and for Sanergy, they get revenue ultimately by using the by-product of waste to use as fertilizer and/or biofuel. Everyone on the value chain becomes incentivised to see and do things differently.

The surprisingly low-tech solution to the toilet conundrum is part of Sanergy’s success. Toilets (plus the installation, marketing, branding, business support and daily waste collection service) cost approximately $500 US for the first year. Each of the toilets are made from local materials, using local labour, and is all prefabricated to ensure ease and efficiency. Added to this is special branding which David Auerbach likens to Coca-Cola – bright colours, and generally positive messaging on all its toilets.

Sanergy is breaking away from traditional ways that sanitation projects have been conceived and implemented in the past. Sanergy is looking in a truly holistic way at the issue of sanitation – from the hesitant and skeptical users, to those local community entrepreneurs who own and operate the toilets in the slums; to using waste as a bi-product to produce revenue; to branding and messaging; and to ensuring that there is usage of toilets through community buy-in. In so doing, the initiative also counters the the erroneous (western) assumption that simply by putting a toilet into a village or a slum, it will be used. Sanergy is thinking creatively and looking at the problem of sanitation in the sum of all its parts – it is looking at the value chain of human waste and ensuring positive outcomes for all.


Resources:[i]

[i] http://saner.gy/

David Auerbach, Sanergy, Interview February 2012,

Algoso, Dave. Sanergy: making a sustainable business out of the sanitation value chain. March 2, 2012. http://findwhatworks.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/sanergy-making-a-sustainable-business-out-of-the-sanitation-value-chain/

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