A Clean Act: An Interview with David Auerbach
For some people in the world, going to the bathroom requires little to no thought. All they have to do is find a toilet and do their business. For others, it’s not so cut and dry. Over 4 billion people lack access to safely managed sanitation services according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, and 153 million people don’t have access to piped water, relying on surface water instead. Both figures underscore the fact that sanitation remains a big challenge in the world, especially for rapidly urbanizing countries struggling to keep up with demand.
With every challenge there are people and organizations that work to face it, and Sanergy is one of those organizations. Sanergy is working to improve communities in Africa by making hygienic sanitation more accessible and affordable, with the help of their Fresh Life Toilets. The facilities are made with high-quality yet cost-effective materials, and are run by local operators to ensure they remain clean. In addition, all waste is collected and converted to make fertilizer and animal feed, doubly helping communities. I reached out to Sanergy co-founder David Auerbach to learn more about the challenges of sanitation, Sanergy’s methods to solve these challenges, and the Fresh Life Toilet network.
What was the original inspiration behind Sanergy?
My co-founders Ani Vallabhaneni, Lindsay Stradley, and I won the MIT $100k Business Plan Competition for pitching alternative sanitation systems that address the global sanitation challenge.
We packed our bags and came out to Kenya to gain a better understanding of the sanitation challenge within Kenya’s urban slums. We realized that the people in the community were extremely entrepreneurial and determined to change their community, but didn’t have the right technology or the right business model. It was here that we saw the potential for a franchise model for selling toilets.
In the Photo: A professional waste collector. Photo Credit: Sanergy.
On your website, you talk about how you don’t want to just solve sanitation problems, but you want to solve them sustainably. Could you talk more about those sustainable methods?
Sanergy takes an innovative 5 step systems-based approach to sustainably tackle sanitation in cities.
- Design and manufacture – Using local materials and labor, we design and build high-quality, low-cost sanitation units known as Fresh Life Toilets.
- Franchise – We distribute them to the community through three different methods: a commercial model, a residential model, and a school’s model. The residents who run our toilets are called Fresh Life Operators.
- Support – We provide a variety of support services to our Fresh Life Operators to ensure that they are running successful businesses.
- Collect and treat – On a regular basis, Sanergy’s waste collection team collects the waste from each Fresh Life Toilet and safely transports it from the community to our central waste processing facility, where it is then properly treated.
- Covert and distribute – Sanergy converts this waste into saleable by-products like organic fertilizer and insect-based animal feed, which we sell to Kenyan farmers.
In the Photo: Waste removal and transport. Photo Credit: Sanergy.
What factors went into the design of Sanergy’s Fresh Life Toilet’s to make them what they are today?
The Fresh Life Toilets’ design was highly inspired by our customers. Our brand colors (blue and yellow) represent the vibrancy, optimism and entrepreneurial spirit of our customers. Our Fresh Life Toilets are very compact and fit into the small available spaces in the heavily built up slums. Water is a scarce resource in the informal settlements and Fresh Life Toilets are dry toilets meaning they don’t require water. This allows the community members to use the available water to cater for other household needs.
What has the impact of Sanergy on communities been?
We have franchised over 1,300 Fresh Life Toilets to over 650 community members. We safely remove over 6,000 tons of waste every year and we have created over 900 new jobs. Our Fresh Life Toilets are serving over 50,000 people every single day with hygienic sanitation for the very first time.
In the Photo: Fresh Life Toilet operator Susan Wangari alongside Sanergy co-founder David Auerbach. Photo Credit: Sanergy.
What is the future of Sanergy in your eyes?
4.1 billion people still lack access to sanitation. There are many developing cities just like Nairobi that still continue to grapple with the sanitation challenge. Urban populations are rapidly urbanizing and the sanitation infrastructure is struggling to keep up. We would like to partner with governments and municipalities to offer non-sewered sanitation solutions in the areas that they can’t reach. Private sector innovation is critical to addressing the global sanitation challenge.