They’re not getting personal, and they’re not being crass. But when social entrepreneurs Ani Vallabhaneni and David Auerbach speak to audiences, they’ve been known to ask questions akin to “Who here has used a clean toilet today?” and to exclaim such minor expletives as “Holy crap!”
About 2.6 billion people — 40% of the world’s population — lack access to sanitation in the developing world, and 1.6 million children die every year as a result, from easily curable diseases including cholera and diarrhea.
Auerbach’s and Vallabhaneni’s solution is to build and install a network of low cost, high impact toilets, starting in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, home to Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, and one of the largest slums in the world. Kenya, where 80% of the country’s 10 million slum dwellers lack access to basic sanitation, is at the epicenter of the crisis, Auerbach and Vallabhaneni say.
As Auerbach told the Echoing Green Fellowship judges, he and Vallabhaneni drew inspiration from early research trip to Kenya. “In Nairobi’s slums we met a guy who called himself Kanye West who was operating a toilet as a business. While he lacked a good product, his entrepreneurial spirit to improve his community truly inspired us,” Auerbach recalled.
Auerbach and Vallabhaneni, who both earned their MBAs from MIT’s Sloan School of Management this year, just won this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.
“In these areas with no sewage infrastructure, tackling the sanitation crisis requires more than just building toilets,” Vallabhaneni explained in MIT‘s press release about the prize.
So here’s the kicker: Sanergy’s toilets not only provide a critical hygiene and public health service, they’re sustainable to boot. Sanergy’s system collects the waste and converts it into biogas, electricity and fertilizer. Sanergy in turn sells the electricity to the national grid and the organic fertilizer to farmers.
It’s an idea that’s rooted in part in Vallabhaneni’s youth. “I grew up in India where we used cow manure to make biogas for cooking fuel,” he told the Echoing Green judges.
Sanergy wants to make an even greater impact by involving local entrepreneurs in the process. The venture aims to expand its sanitation centers, which include hot showers and clean toilets — to every block of the slum, and franchise them to local entrepreneurs with direct financing from a local microfinance bank.
Right now, Auerbach and Vallabhaneni have two toilet facilities up and running, which serve about 150 people each day. Their five-year plan: to provide facilities to more than 500,000 Africans, generating 7.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and 11,000 tons of fertilizer.
“At each step, Sanergy creates jobs, opportunity, and profit, while addressing serious social needs,” Vallabhaneni said.
And who knows, maybe Kanye West will buy a franchise.
Watch this video to see how Sanergy works:
Photo courtesy of Sanergy