For this article, Think Tank Committee member Lisa Shmulyan interviewed Medora Brown, a member of Sanergy’s communication team.

Sanergy’s Social Impact by the Numbers:

  • 639 Fresh Life Toilets opened in informal settlements
  • 26,000 daily uses of Fresh Life Toilets by community members

  • 4,630 metric tons of waste safely removed and converted to fertilizer

  • 600 jobs created by Sanergy in Kenya

Sanergy is a social enterprise that takes a systems-based approach to sustainably solving the sanitation crises.  It makes an impact at each stage of the sanitation value chain – from building and franchising Fresh Life Toilets, to collecting waste and converting it to fertilizer, and to selling that fertilizer at premium rates to African farmers.

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The Sanergy Team in Kenya

Q: Can you tell me a little about the issue that Sanergy focuses on?

A: We focus on the sanitation crisis. There are 2.5 billion people in the world without proper access to sanitation.

In Kenya alone, there are 8 million people that don’t have access to proper sanitation. The main forms of sanitation in Nairobi’s informal settlements include flying toilets, which is basically open defecation. In the privacy of their own homes, people will defecate in plastic bags, which they will later dispose in the streets or on rooftops. People also use pit latrines—which are often not lined and infrequently cleaned—so the waste seeps into the ground and the water table. This lack of proper sanitation causes all sorts of problems including a lot of water borne illnesses. For example, diarrhea is one of the top killers of children under the age of 5.

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Example of the situation: unhygienic toilets that funnel waste into a river

Q: From my own research and experience, I know that many social enterprises and non-profits have trouble engaging locals. How has Sanergy addressed this?

Partner organizations introduced us to community leaders and youth groups who have a lot of influence in Nairobi. It was mainly through having connections with people who were able to initially vouch for us.

We have about 220 employees – about 90% of whom are Kenyan and about 2/3 of those are from the communities in which we work. We have about 300 franchisees which also employ attendants for their toilets to keep them clean and do the day to day running. Sanergy has created more than 600 jobs in Kenya alone.

Q: What is the business model for the toilet owners or “fresh life operators”?

A: The initial purchase of a toilet is about $500. Operators can either pay up front or take out a loan for these toilets. We provide access to interest-free loans for them through our partnership with Kiva. The Fresh Life Operators then set up prices for their Fresh Life Toilets, usually charging anywhere between 3 and 5 shillings per use. Most operators pay off their loans between 12 to 24 months and have a profitable Fresh Life Toilet after that.

A Fresh Life Operator standing next to a Fresh Life Toilet

A Fresh Life Operator standing next to a Fresh Life Toilet

Q: I know Sanergy provides farmers with fertilizer created from the Fresh life Toilets. What are the economic impacts for farmers who are using the fertilizer instead of importing it?

A: Our fertilizer is sold at a competitive rate and we are just now seeing the crop yields, but in tests, farmers reported a 30% increase in crop yields, which means an increase in their profits. Not only are they spending less than they would on fertilizer, but they’re also receiving more profit.

Q: Sanergy provides schools with sanitation, incentivizing a lot of students to attend. Do you plan on continuing to do this?

A: Absolutely. We have partnered with schools and school administrators to ensure that they have what they need to maintain the Fresh Life Toilets. Administrators have said that families are very interested in this. Whenever a school installs a Fresh Life Toilet, enrollment skyrockets. I was recently at a school in Mukuru called Bright Star Academy, and the head teacher told us that between her announcement of a Fresh Life Toilet being installed and its installation, 50 students had enrolled.

We think the Fresh Life Toilets are a huge benefit, especially for adolescent girls who miss school when on their period because they don’t want to use the facilities available at school.

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