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Turning waste into profit

With $50,000 capital, Sanivation has penetrated the market, turning feacal waste into fuel

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By Caroline Theuri                                     

Four years ago, two scientists set up shop to do something different in a town commonly known for floriculture, a farming practice that earned Kenya Ksh113 billion in the export market last year. Surprisingly, the two engineers, Emily Woods and Andrew Frost, were not into this kind of farming, but in sanitation.

And not any other sanitation business, but that of turning feaces into fuel. It is common to see feacal waste in some drainage blocks in big cities like Nairobi since there always lacks proper sanitation facilities to dispose it; this despite having companies that can collect and dsipose such waste.

The National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) states that there is a close correlation between poor waste management in the country and rural-to-urban migration. This is because as people move into cities from rural areas, waste management facilities get scarce, leading to poor disposal methods, such as dumping it into the streets. This is a pointer to poor adherence of county by-laws.

According to the World Bank, 50 percent of Kenyans lack access to basic sanitation.  This means that they either lack access to lavatory facilities, such as toilets, sewers and even enough water to dispose off feacal waste. Hence, some people either resort to bucket toilets, pit latrines or openly dispose off their waste.

The breadth of sewerage in the country stands at 16 percent, according to the World Bank, which is 84 percent less than is envisioned by the country’s national policy document Vision 2030. It also means that Kenya will be unable to attain the sixth Sustainable Development Goal of having clean water sanitation in the next eleven years.

But lack of proper sanitation also has an economic angle. Without it, Kenya stands to lose Kshs33.3 trillion, states the global financial institution. One of the companies trying to address the challenge of proper feacal sludge management in the country is Sanivation.

The company’s founders, Andrew Frost and Emily Woods wanted to find a solution that would be cost-effective, that is, cheaper than it would be in the market whilst having an impact on the environment.

So in 2014, they started Sanivation with a capital investment of $50,000 grant. Their initial business model was to sell household bucket toilets at a subscription-based fee of Kshs200. They would then collect the waste twice a week and heat the feacal waste with their own proprietary technology to make fuel such as briquettes (charcoal).

According to Kate Bohnert, the firm’s Business Development manager, Sanivation has since inception scaled up from the manual system of bucket toilets to a cost-effective feacal treatment plants- one of the few that can convert human waste into charcoal balls and superlogs.

This, she says, is important because previously, local governments would have water treatment plants for treating the feacal sludge, which would have a limited capacity of 240 percent. Such plants would not be able to wholly treat the feacal waste, thus disposing the remainder into the environment and consequently leading to pollution.

Since 2014, Sanivation has moved from household sanitation to feacal sludge treatment. The company also collaborates with the local government, such as Naivasha, to use their feacal sludge treatment plant to treat the region’s waste. From this, the company is able to extract fuel, such as briquettes or superlogs.

“Our plant is designed to wholly take in the feacal sludge. We hope to scale the treatment plant  to treat all the feacal sludge in Naivasha, which has more than 300,000 people. Some people in Naivasha use pit latrines, others do not have their septic tanks emptied while 85,000 of the population have their feacal waste emptied using exhauster trucks, owned by an existing network of entrepreneurs,” Ms. Bohnert says.

Before introducing Sanivation treatment plant, people used septic tanks and exhauster trucks to dispose their feacal waste, but now they go to the company’s waste treatment plants. They are also providing local governments with much needed technical capacity and resources to treat all the feacal, non-sewered waste that has been collected.

Engineering training of the firm’s founders has been of great deal when it comes to designing the city-wide feacal treatment plant. By turning feacal waste into fuel, such as briquettes and superlogs using their plant, the company has created innovative fuel products that not only earns them income but also creates environmental impact.

“We could not have evolved from bucket toilets to treatment plants without government partnerships. From our initial capital investment of $50,000 we have also managed to raise millions from a blend of contracts, grants and private investments. While we are externally funded, we also earn our internal revenue from our fuel products,” Ms Bohnert says.

She says one of the challenges facing the sanitation sector is that there is lack of funding for non-sewered sanitation that is pit latrines, septic tanks and container-based toilets. The conventional practice is that investors prefer to fund sewerage sanitation. The latter consists of flush toilets connecting to networks where the waste is pumped to a centralised treatment facility.

The company currently has 100 employees. And its customers and business partners include Kampala Capital City Authority, Java House, Unilever, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and local governments like Malindi, Naivasha and Turkana. Other customers are also found in the pharmaceutical and industrial sectors.

According to the company’s Senior Product Risk and Research Officer, Naomi Korir, while they use the feacal treatment plant in Malindi and Naivasha, they employ a different approach in Turkana.

From their base in Kakuma town, the company has been contracted by UNHCR to provide containerised toilets to the refugees, which they use to collect feacal waste to turn into cost-effective fuel. The rationale for pricing their fuel products- briqeuttes and superlogs, is based on the cost of production. For instance, a tonne of superlogs is able to save 22 trees. The company started producing the superlogs this year.

Paul Manda, the Fuel Production Manager based at the company’s treatment plant in Naivasha, says that the feacal waste is taken through a treatment process that may take about five days before the briquettes and superlogs are produced

“The company has been able to produce 20 tonnes of superlogs since last year. They are held together by the feacal waste and lignin that is present in the biomass. The advantage of the logs is that they are 40 percent cheaper than firewood, they emit less smoke and take twice as much time to burn as normal wood,” he says.

Such innovation of turning waste into an economically viable venture is what has made Sanivation to gain international recognition, says Christine Lindi, the company’s head of Communications. Sanivation, for instance, was a finalist at “The Venture”, a competition held every two years by Scotish whiskey manufacturer Chivas Regal- for being among the leading innovators in the industry.

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