Waste to Watts: DIV announces first WASH for Life grant to Sanergy

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$100,000 grant goes to award-winning startup building sustainable sanitation in urban slums

In Lunga Lunga, a slum of Nairobi, Kenya, plastic bags filled with human excrement line the footpaths.

Photo of a "flying toilet”—plastic bags are used as makeshift containers to collect and discard human waste

No toilets are hooked up to any sewage infrastructure, and existing communal latrines present risks of crime and disease. Waste, when it is collected, is often spilled or dumped into open waterways. As a desperate measure, residents opt to use “flying toilets”—plastic bags as makeshift containers to collect and discard human waste.

Where most would see an insurmountable problem, students at MIT’s Sloane School of Management saw a golden opportunity. From a classroom project they founded Sanergy, a private company that is building a network of pay-per-use sanitation centers around Lunga Lunga. Every day, Sanergy engineers collect the waste, take it to a central processing facility, and convert it into high-quality organic fertilizer to sell to commercial farmers and biogas that feeds into the electric power grid.

At an event co-hosted by the MIT Media Lab, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures announced its first WASH for Life award to Sanergy of $100,000 to help build its network of latrine franchises. The grant will also support the construction of Sanergy’s specially designed waste processing facility for the fertilizer and biogas production.

An award-winning business model to scale sanitation solutions

Photo of the modular hygenic toilets, designed by MIT engineers and architects

Designed by MIT engineers and architects, the modular hygenic toilets cost $450 to fabricate and can be assembled in one day. The sanitation centers are franchised to local entrepreneurs and youth groups, who earn income through fees, membership plans, and sales of complementary products. Revenue from the organic fertilizer and biogas energy add to the model's profitability. The 10 million residents of Kenya’s slums create a potential $72 million annual market. Within five years, Sanergy will expand to 3,390 centers reaching 600,000 slum dwellers – creating jobs and profit, while aiming to reduce the incidence of diarrhea by 40%.

Sanergy co-founder David Auerbach spoke to an audience of students and faculty as well as international development professionals and social entrepreneurs. Of DIV, he said, "We are excited to work with the DIV program because of their incubator style approach to development. They are focused on creating the environment and providing the resources needed to catalyze innovative solutions that will ultimately improve the lives of millions of people around the world."

Providing effective development solutions at a fraction of the cost

Maura O'Neill, USAID's Chief Innovation Officer, presented Sanergy with the award, which is the first to be issued from the WASH for Life program – a partnership between DIV and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify, test, and transition to scale promising approaches to achieving cost-effective, sustained, scalable water, sanitation, and health (WASH) services in developing countries. “The world has been struggling to discover good business models to scale sanitation solutions that are sustainable,” explained O’Neill. “We are excited about Sanergy’s technology, approach and innovative business model to tackle this problem. We believe they have a real promising model that, if it works, could scale to solve sanitation problems for millions globally.”

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) congratulated Sanergy "on having been selected for a USAID Development Innovation Ventures grant. This award is a testament to MIT’s commitment to finding innovative solutions to the world’s development challenges. DIV grants open up the space for great ideas that ultimately provide effective development solutions at a fraction of the cost.”

DIV will evaluate Sanergy's program along metrics that include the amount of fertilizer and fuel generated from the collected waste, the number of toilet users by gender, and the number of jobs created to operate and maintain the toilet network. Through Development Innovation Ventures, USAID is proud to support the work of young entrepreneurs whose ideas have the potential to change the lives of millions of people around the world.

To learn more about Sanergy:

  • Read FastCompany's story about the "toilet entrepreneurs"
  • Read BostInno's take of the Sanergy story from MIT to DIV
  • Listen to PRI The World’s story about Sanergy

To read about more DIV grantees, please visit our full portfolio.

Last updated: May 26, 2016

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