Cover image courtesy of Design Indaba
–by Ryleigh Navert & Anthony Conroy–
Note: the following article contains a brief mention of sexual assault.
Sanivation is a startup operating in East Africa that aims to provide a sustainable and multipronged alternative to existing waste disposal practices among the urban poor. It operates on a “triple-bottom line” of people, planet, and profit motivations. The organization aims to promote social good by finding alternatives to some of the problems associated with traditional waste disposal in impoverished urban areas. Sanivation works to contribute to environmental sustainability by providing an alternative to charcoal harvesting, and it operates as a for-profit commercial startup rather than a nonprofit. Sanivation’s unique take on a commercial business model avoids some of the negative externalities commonly associated with Western-originated nonprofit operations in Africa, such as unanticipated effects on local employment and the fraying of community ties. Sanivation’s model effectively addresses some of the challenges associated with energy consumption, toilet use, and employment in the area. However, the organization’s leaders should continue to work to mitigate Sanivation’s negative effects on perpetuating racial stereotypes in the region and align the firm’s environmental goals with practiced energy consumption behavior among its target customer base.
“Sanivation is a social enterprise dedicated to improving the overall dignity, health, and environment of urbanizing communities in East Africa through delivering clean, safe, and efficient sanitation services.”
Sanivation sells composting toilets and maintenance services to government agencies. It currently operates in Naivasha, Kenya with plans to scale to other municipalities and cities in Kenya, and eventually expand to more of East Africa. Sanivation uses the revenue from the government contracts to install its low-cost composting toilets in the homes of recipients free of charge, and charges a small monthly fee to the residents to service the toilets. The service is provided by African employees, who then take the compacted and sanitized waste to a processing center where it is converted into briquettes that can be sold and used by customers for fuel. The enterprise aims to address each of the following issues, its success with which will be explored further and evaluated:
- Operational challenges and benefits specific to East Africa
- Existing sanitation behaviors and their shortfalls
- Existing energy sources and their shortfalls
- Economic opportunities among local community members
- The relationship between American founders and African employees, stakeholders, and consumers
- The assumptions and implications of a social entrepreneurship model compared to a traditional nonprofit
- The impact of governmental control on sustainable solutions
The social and economic landscape of East Africa has proven to be conducive to Sanivation’s operations, due to the area’s high level of need for these services as well as its robust economic opportunities. Emily Woods, Sanivation’s Chief Technology Officer and Cofounder, stated in an interview that Kenya has a waste disposal culture that needs changing and a business environment that is entrepreneurial and open to new ideas (Woods 2018).
In 2014, only 30% of Kenyans had access to sanitation services, and 13% of the population had no choice but to defecate in the open, with that proportion reaching up to 80% in certain rural locations (United Nations 2014). In a comprehensive report by the World Bank on Nairobi’s most pressing issues, the number one issue identified by both the researchers and the local respondents was a lack of sanitation infrastructure (2006). Government officials, international researchers, development experts, and local residents concurred that the underdeveloped neighborhoods of Nairobi are poorly served, and that improvements in infrastructure would improve living conditions, enhance public health, and decrease expenses of basic services. As of 2010, a Guardian report found that only about 25% of these households had access to private toilets, while 68% rely on shared facilities and another 6% have no access whatsoever, disposing of waste in “flying toilets” – plastic bags that are tied up and flung away (IRIN 2010). Of those who have access to toilets, nearly two-thirds of the households disposed of human waste through pit latrines, while others had running water or composting toilets inside the home (IRIN 2010). This is not only an issue of poverty: there was no significant variation in waste disposal techniques between poor and non-poor households.
Odhiambo and Manda describe these living conditions as a “poverty of access”, where the poor lack basic infrastructure and services (2003). Toilets are a particularly politicized aspect of urban life, and the tensions between residents and governments in the provision and oversight of public toilets can lead to abandonment of responsibility altogether (Chalfin 2014). This leads to heightened vulnerability, as residents in infrastructure-poor areas are at higher risk of disease, infection, unemployment, and crime. One key component to overcoming this kind of poverty is the ability to earn stable income. The desire for income has inspired many Kenyans to begin their own entrepreneurial endeavors, and local innovation is on the rise (Ekekwe 2016).
This rise in entrepreneurship has been coupled with healthy economic growth over the last decade, with at least 70% of this growth attributed to the exploitation of natural resources (Melik 2012). In order to create jobs in this sector, however, there must be value-adding processes for these resources. This is where Sanivation has found its niche. By creating a useful product out of a previously underutilized yet ubiquitous natural resource, the firm has developed an economically sustainable solution to common waste treatment issues while also providing economic activity via processing, installation, and maintenance jobs that add value to what few would consider a common natural resource, human feces.
Traditional waste disposal methods in Sanivation’s target markets usually involve pit latrines, a type of toilet placed over a deep hole that collects waste. Pit latrines typically last anywhere between two and five years before they need emptying, a difficult process in dense urban areas with little space or ability to shut down access to the service for the time it takes to empty (Nakagiri et al 2011). The waste can also leak into nearby water supply or soil, causing the spread of cholera, typhoid, and other diseases (IRIN 2010). Public outdoor latrines are located at a distance from the residences, and the act of walking between the home and the toilet can make one vulnerable to harassment and assault as well: women and girls in underdeveloped parts of Kenyan cities have been assaulted when making the trip, especially during nighttime (Al Jazeera 2010).
By putting sustainable private toilets in the homes of the poor, Sanivation aims to prevent these health and safety consequences. While it has not yet undergone significant scaling, Sanivation may face the same challenges that other efforts in this sector have experienced with the difficulty of conversion from old practices to new among its target population. As Chelsea Wald of Nature writes, “promising projects have met with resistance because they failed to address cultural elements, which can affect buy-in” to new methods of waste disposal (2017). In areas that have taboos against open discussion of human waste practices, local people may resist the implementation of a new toilet system, and Sanivation’s enormous upfront effort and expense to negotiate the contract for the area and install the toilets may be lost, along with the foregone operational revenue associated with servicing the toilets and the profit associated with downstream sale of energy briquettes.
Energy And Environment
In addition to providing a safer, cleaner space to use the restroom, Sanivation processes the waste into fuel that can be sold for an additional revenue stream. Biomass is currently the dominant source of energy among Kenya’s poor, and as of ten years ago represented about 75% of the urban poor’s energy supply (Karekezi, Kimani, & Onguru 2008). Biomass in Kenya is usually in the form of charcoal. Charcoal production in East Africa is an extremely inefficient process, and the practice is a main contributor to the alarming rates of deforestation and degradation experienced in Kenya (Chidumayo & Gumbo 2013). Briquettes like those produced by the Sanivation toilets provide an alternative energy source that is cleaner, more efficient, and less expensive than traditional charcoal (Gicobi 2018).
The provision of a superior product does not necessarily spell its adoption. Yonemitsu (2014) argues that behavioral studies among Kenya’s urban poor suggest that the availability of the more efficient briquettes often causes families to incorporate the product into their energy consumption strategy, but they usually stop short of altogether ending consumption of other energy sources. This knowledge poses two problems for Sanivation: first, it creates a cultural ceiling on its ability to expand the sales of briquette products. If cultural norms prevent the full adoption of the briquettes, that limits the company’s ability to produce revenue through sales, which can affect other parts of the business model. Second, Sanivation uses this environmental sustainability value proposition to convince governments to enter contracts for its services. If a government feels that Sanivation’s operations are already solving the issue, there could be decreased effort or initiative on the part of local governments to take further steps to address the environmental problems associated with charcoal harvesting.
Employment and Local Labor Markets
In order to adequately evaluate Sanivation’s impact on local employment, its operating model needs to be fully understood. Sanivation installs the toilets in homes for free, and the home occupants pay a small monthly fee of about two dollars to get the toilets serviced and the waste removed (Woods 2018). The toilet servicers are local employees contracted by Sanivation for the work, and other Kenyan nationals operate the waste processing plants. An estimated 20 to 40 people are employed for every plant opened- although it is unknown how many plants are operating at this time or how many toilets each maintenance employee can service (Woods 2018). Kenyan and foreign nationals can be found throughout the organization’s structure, although the two co-founders and C-suite executives are Americans.
Because Sanivation’s products need reliable, regularly scheduled monthly servicing, they provide not just a durable good to the owners of the toilets but also employment opportunities for local people. Sanivation can provide an employee with a stable job, reliable income, and an opportunity to leave the “informal” economy for the “formal” one. The formal economy can mean a more reliable income, but perhaps most importantly can provide the employee with access to finance. Large Kenyan banks have traditionally avoided loaning money to informal enterprises because they often have a lack of financial and identifying documentation (World Bank 2016). Because loan officers don’t have the information they feel is needed to assess an applicant’s risk, that can increase the risk profile of a loan and lead to a prohibitively high interest rate or flat-out denial. When a Sanivation employee has access to capital, she can increase her likelihood of receiving loans to educate her family, invest in equipment for another job, or make the kinds of financial risks needed to leave a substantial impact on the local economy.
Race- and Nation-Based Stereotypes
Woods said that during her engineering studies in college, she was told that ninety percent of technological innovation went to ten percent of the world’s population. She was inspired to help bridge that gap, and that drove her to develop a career in urban development technology and eventually launch Sanivation. If the founder team aimed to solely address the technological gap between the US and the Global South, there are probably less time-consuming methods to do so: Woods could have sponsored an African citizen to study in the US, or developed technology and then given the patents or designs to African entrepreneurs. Beyond just the direct behavioral effects of the technology, there are additional motives at work: the hope of profit, personal fulfillment, and a conviction that an internationally diverse organization is more successful.
Sanivation’s executive team aims to incorporate local and national perspectives into every business decision (Woods 2018). Woods admitted to the limitations of a foreign entrepreneur in understanding the cultural attitudes and challenges facing an African community. She argued that the best organizational structure is one that contains expert foreigners and locals: she says that Kenyans care more about the solution, as she feels that they are more emotionally grounded in the populations that Sanivation serves. Foreigners can bring a perspective and expertise not available among the local population due to educational and resource-access inequalities.
While the differing nationalities of its employees can certainly help widen the firm’s perspective, Woods says that there are challenges associated with being a white American engineer running a company in Kenya. Kenyans have experienced decades of white foreigners spearheading development projects, hugging orphans, ministering to the sick, and making demands about how the Kenyan government and community leaders should use funds. After generations of patronizing treatment from the US and others, Woods says, Kenyan development professionals like those with whom she works have developed an expectation that any Americans involved in an organization will immediately take charge of the work, and she says that her Kenyan colleagues are less likely to challenge her ideas and assumptions when working on projects. Woods expressed that it can be frustrating to not meet resistance or criticism from her peers the way that she feels she would among Americans. While Woods is conscious of the historical context of development projects between Africans and Westerners, she and her cofounder still perpetuate that stereotype by remaining at the head of Sanivation even as it focuses its operations entirely in Kenya.
“Being an international means that you’ll never fully understand the situation and the context–how much change should you be making in this environment?”
-Emily Woods, Sanivation CTO and Cofounder
While the executive team takes steps to ensure that local perspectives are heard and respected, the fact that they are not Kenyan nationals mean that barriers remain for seamless integration of Sanivation into the Kenyan economy and society, which can limit the firm’s overall impact.
As a for-profit company, Sanivation’s business model can be described as a “social enterprise”, which Rafe Mazer defines as an organization that is mission-related, naturally arises from a perceived need of clients, and may generate profit, but only as long as it isn’t the company’s primary motivation (2009). While many of these characteristics exhibit similarities to those of a nonprofit organization, the social enterprise model affords unique benefits that the nonprofit model does not: financial sustainability and autonomy, reduction in costs of services that may already be offered on the market, improved client relationships, innovations in management and organizational structure, and a stronger connection to the local economy (Mazer 3). For entrepreneurs who are also interested in having an impact, a social entrepreneurial venture enables a firm to have a social and financial return.
In addition to these specific appeals, Woods describes her personal experience that led to Sanivation’s creation. She was originally drawn to work in Kenya through a highly integrated Western-led NGO that used donor funding to create pit latrines as a means of waste control. When she voiced concerns about the short-term nature of this solution (pit latrines fill after two to five years of use), she was told that the organization’s managers knew that pit latrines were not a long-term solution to waste control problems, but they could not explore more sustainable options because their funding was earmarked specifically for this type of latrine. Because the organization’s funding relied on donors, many of whom were thousands of miles away and knew little about waste management, they could not adapt to realities of waste management and develop more innovative or successful solutions.
According to Woods, “the nonprofit model creates a huge disconnect between beneficiaries and funders. In a for-profit model, they are one and the same. They’re culture customers. They’re buying a product, but in a non-profit model, your funders can be millions of miles away, and your beneficiaries are the ones here” (2018). Woods feels that a for-profit firm can more accurately gauge its own success because the quality of its technical solution is constantly under evaluation by the market that it serves. If people are willing to pay into a solution, it demonstrates that it is worthwhile for them. Because both institutional and individual customers continue to buy Sanivation’s product, Woods is confident that her technology offers value to its consumers on both an institutional and individual level.
“If you want to create sustainable solutions, then you need an instant feedback loop.”
-Emily Woods, Sanivation CTO and Cofounder
The social enterprise model is not without its faults. Nega and Schneider (2014) posit that the most common challenge faced by African-focused social enterprises is one of scale. Microenterprises such as Sanivation may have such a narrow initial focus that it becomes difficult to apply that model to new situations, even when the need is the same. For example, Sanivation has success in Ninvasha slums, but as the firm attempts to reach more consumers it may struggle to find maintenance employees in less dense areas, or have the access to energy and raw materials needed to construct a new processing plant.
Additionally, the pressure for financial sustainability that social enterprises face can further limit their ability to expand, and often their niche solutions are too narrow to generate large-scale economic development (Nega and Schneider 2014). Sanivation has attempted to address this limitation through its triple-bottom line of people, planet, and profit motivations, which allows it to impact multiple layers of social issues. As Nega and Schneider note, the social enterprise model is still experimental in nature, and successful scaling is possible but often requires support from the state.
Selling to Governments
Lack of proper sanitation and human waste removal is not only a problem for the East African urban poor. The Kenyan government “loses” an estimated $330 million every year from premature deaths, healthcare costs, and productivity losses as a direct result of poor or limited access to sanitation (UN News 2014). Because city governments have a financial and moral stake in improving waste management infrastructure, and because governments often have access to capital that private individuals or landlords do not, Sanivation has chosen to focus its sales efforts on governments rather than the individuals who receive the toilets.
This market, however, is not without its own challenges. Woods said that these sales efforts require the government customers to reconsider their urban planning priorities and become more acclimated to this unusual business model. The question she asks herself and every potential government customer is, “how much of a long-term change do you want to make?” Governmental support and commitment to implementation are imperative for Sanivation’s business. Woods does acknowledge, however, that this desire to change opinions should be constantly under consideration, given the historical and racial context in which the firm operates. After living in Kenya for six years, she notes that she is only beginning to understand the most basic issues that the locals face, and that there should be a balance between her a desire to cause change and her own willingness to adapt to what is already occurring there (2018).
Sanivation in Context
Through Sanivation’s triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit motivation, it has begun to develop sustainable waste management solutions in urban Kenya on a multifaceted level. Its for-profit model provides an “instant feedback” loop that allows the firm to continually evaluate its effectiveness in addressing issues of sanitation, energy production, community safety, economic development, and international aid norms. While it has proven to be successful in many of these areas, Sanivation still faces many challenges in subverting damaging norms of racial and transnational interaction. Though Woods is proud of her company’s ability to integrate Kenyan nationals at every level, Sanivation still perpetuates a post-colonial attitude of white Western experts at the helm of an otherwise African organization.
Additionally, Sanivation may find that its customer base may not expand forever, as cultural adoption of new waste management behaviors and fuel sources is, at best, a very slow and hesitant process. Sanivation’s multipronged business model has allowed it to begin to address many of the issues that more traditional Western-sponsored NGOs and nonprofits overlook. There are certainly limitations to what the private sector can do to solve the Global South’s most pressing issues, but Sanivation is a model social enterprise organization because it is aware of its shortcomings and is actively working to address them.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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