Why is there a sanitation problem?

It’s basically because providing sanitation is expensive. You need not only toilets, but treatment of the waste, and we tend to approach that with western ideas which require huge amounts of infrastructure. Plus, that kind of infrastructure requires long-term planning, which is hard in fast growing cities in the developing world. People have good intentions, but in reality, implementation is going far too slowly.

What is ‘Smart Sanitation?’ What are its benefits?

It’s applying digital techniques to make the system more efficient and more visible to the public, as well as to deliver new services which are valuable to society. The benefits may be optimizing the operation of several little treatment plants around a city, with telemetry telling the maintenance worker where to go next. Or they could be having city-wide visibility of river pollution levels, so people know they are safe to go to the river, and know their public services are doing their job. Most radically, they could be about using the sanitation system as the ultimate early-warning system for disease. It might be possible to detect cholera pathogens in the outflow from a community toilet, even when only a few families are infected and hardly anyone has felt ill. At that stage no one would even have gone to the doctor, but steps could immediately be taken to prevent further outbreak.

How does the sanitation crisis impact the global economy?

Various studies by the World Bank and by our member company, Lixil (owner of American Standard), have shown that the lack of sanitation is a drag on the global economy worth over $200 billion per year. Mostly that’s the effect of poor health, shortened lives, reducing productivity and increasing healthcare costs. Less tangibly, history shows that providing sanitation was one of the keys which unlocked huge growth in the world’s great cities, as they became clean, safe places to live. The cities in the developing world could have that same opportunity.

Are there opportunities for capital growth within the sanitation market?

Our studies show that the business models providing sanitation can be profitable if they can operate at city scale. That shouldn’t surprise us — utilities are often profitable at that scale today. But the difference is that most of the revenue is coming from a range of products and services, not just from the taxpayer and the government. These are profitable commercial businesses, which should be able to generate competitive returns. Our job is to help them reach the scale where these returns kick in.

Can you provide an example?

Sanergy in Nairobi, Kenya, is a good example.

Sanergy’s vision is to build healthy and prosperous communities by cleaning up growing cities via containing, collecting, and converting waste into valuable end-products. In a team of 240 people, 93 percent are Kenyan with a locally based and internal governance structure. Their leadership team brings extensive global and cross-cultural experiences while their technical experts have backgrounds in mechanical engineering, environmental engineering, partnership and systems building, policy and advocacy and sales and operations. The Sanergy team collectively operationalizes an innovative, systems-based approach to address the entire sanitation value chain and their three distinct customer markets in Nairobi, Kenya. Their sustainable sanitation system features four major parts.

  1. Build: the business arm through which they design and construct innovative toilet products for business-to-customer purchases

  2. Franchise: the business arm through which Sanergy facilitates a cohesive network of local, slum- dwelling residents that purchase and operate the toilet facilities as small businesses, and that receive ongoing operational support from Sanergy headquarters (HQ)

  3. Collect, the business arm through which Sanergy ensures that the waste from the toilets are collected regularly and that the franchisees, known as Fresh Life Operators, receive the tools needed to safely remove the fecal waste from the community

  4. Treat: the business arm through which Sanergy facilitates waste treatment by converting it into a host of useful byproducts such as fertilizer.

Sanergy’s waste treatment arm, known as Farm Star, offers safe, high quality and organic agricultural inputs derived from effectively treated human waste. With Farm Star’s main product, Evergrow Organic Fertilizer, farmers have reportedly less weeds, faster crop growth and a 30+ percent increase in yields. This business solution is comprehensively rooted in a circular economy ethos, whereby Sanergy’s agricultural output products help to ensure national food security while also improving farmer welfare by sustainably contributing to the health of Kenyan soil and crops. Sanergy builds healthy, prosperous communities by making safe sanitation, accessible and affordable for everyone, forever.

How can citizens help support the affected communities?

Citizens in developed countries can obviously donate to charities supporting sanitation, and can vote for governments committed to international aid. But there are other subtler things we can also do. Our vision is a world where we have proper biological cycles working. Does our food waste go to landfill or an incinerator, where most of its value is destroyed, or is it composted so it can return to the soil? What about our human waste? Why are so many things made of plastic instead of biological materials? I would encourage everyone to be curious and challenging, as consumers and as citizens, and promote a world where anything biological, including our own waste, is regarded as part of the natural cycle, and used as a resource - extracting clean water, energy, and compost. If this becomes the norm in the USA, it will make it much easier to make it the norm globally.