In this guest blog, David Auerbach discusses how his organisation, Sanergy, is helping community residents in developing countries become entrepreneurs by creating sanitation solutions. 

David Auerbach helped found Sanergy to address the dire lack of sanitation in informal settlements like Mukuru, a slum of Nairobi.

More than a half million people there live in 100-square-foot shacks that are occupied by five to 10 family members each.

Most of Mukuru’s residents lack access to adequate sanitation. Water-borne disease is a huge issue, exacerbated by the discharge of “four million tonnes, or 90%, of fecal sludge from Kenya’s slums into waterways and fields every year,” according to Sanergy.

Sanergy is providing a sustainable solution to this crisis by helping slum residents become entrepreneurs who operate Fresh Life Toilet facilities as a business. The waste is safely treated and transformed into organic fertilizer – a boon to West African farmers who bear the cost of importing 1.2 million tons of synthetic fertiliser every year.

Sanergy provides the low-cost, high-quality toilet; business training; access to financing; ongoing operational and marketing support; and a daily waste collection service.

1. What was your “a-ha!” moment? That is, what inspired/drove you to take on the tremendous challenge of solving the world’s sanitation crisis?

For me, it was when living and teaching in central China for two years. However, the real a-ha moment came on our first scoping trip to Kenya.

Our team came together while we were students at MIT. We all had had various experiences around the lack of hygienic sanitation. We met with a youth group that was trying to run a sanitation facility as a business.

They had a lot of passion, but they lacked direction for how to generate demand or to deliver services that customers wanted. We realised that we could help with the appropriate technology and support services, and their passion would be really well-directed in generating demand.

2. What does it mean to take a "community-based" approach to sanitation? How does Sanergy work at the community level to tackle the root of the problem?

We engage the community at every step of our model. Over 50% of our staff comes directly from the community – including masons, sales agents, and the Fresh Life Frontline (our waste collectors).

We sell our Fresh Life Toilets to residents of the community – if they did not think this was a good solution, they would not invest their hard-earned savings in us.

But, it’s not a simple, one-time transaction. The Fresh Life Operators are our partners: they offer feedback and advice on everything – from toilet design to marketing campaigns to engaging the government. In all of these ways, we have the strongest guarantee that the community supports our mission.

3. Where does Sanergy primarily create its impact?

We create our impact all along the sanitation value chain: residents gain access to hygienic sanitation, which reduces disease; operators generate viable incomes that enable them to afford education, healthcare, and good food; farmers boost their productivity and income using our organic fertilisers; and the environment becomes much cleaner, as harmful waste is eliminated from it.

4. How is solving sanitation issues linked to sparking more economic opportunity in communities? 

There are two ways that economic opportunity is sparked: job creation and healthier residents. Sanergy has created nearly 600 jobs during the last three years in an area that has 40% unemployment: 180 people are on staff, 260 are Fresh Life Operators, and 130 are attendants.

But, just as important, hygienic sanitation increases productivity. In fact, the World Bank estimates that Kenya currently loses $330 million in productivity due to sanitation-related disease. We’re just at the beginning, but working to make that statistic obsolete.

5. What are Sanergy’s plans for 2015? Can you share with us what’s on the horizon?

We are looking to double our size next year. We’re slated to move into another massive informal settlement in Nairobi, and we’re beginning to look outside of Kenya at other parts of East Africa.

At the same time, we’re excited for our organic fertiliser – Evergrow – to hit the shelves of farming shops throughout Kenya.

Editor’s note: Arthur Guinness Projects and Ashoka are supporting ideas that go beyond the ordinary to help unlock the potential of communities around the globe. For more information, and to share your idea, visit Makers of More: Your Idea, Your Community, Your Action.