Entrepreneurs + Toilets: A Matchup that Won’t Go Down the Drain

This week at the Case Foundation, we’ve been celebrating entrepreneurs — their role as innovators, job creators and the heart of economic growth — as part of National Entrepreneurship Month and Global Entrepreneurship Week.

It just so happens that within this busy week falls another day that is close to our heart — World Toilet Day — focused on raising awareness of the 2.4 billion people around the world who lack access to clean water and sanitation. Today’s efforts will also shine a spotlight on the incredible people and organizations working towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

For me, it’s a not just a happy coincidence that these two important world celebrations — entrepreneurs and toilets — fall in the same week. In fact, I see them as closely intertwined. Admittedly, it’s an odd couple at first glance… what do entrepreneurs and toilets have to do with each other? Actually, quite a lot.

We talk a lot at the Case Foundation about the role that entrepreneurs can — and must — play to solve some of our most intractable social challenges. And opportunities abound to bring entrepreneurial thinking and approaches to address the sanitation crisis.

One of the organizations living this idea is Sanergy, a social enterprise and a grantee of the Case Foundation. We’ve written about its groundbreaking work in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya and had the opportunity to spend time with the Sanergy team during our visit to Africa this summer. But what’s particularly worth highlighting about Sanergy on this year’s World Toilet Day is its unique approach to leveraging the power of entrepreneurship. Through its franchise model, Sanergy has created a community of 370 micro-entrepreneurs — known as Fresh Life Operators — who purchase and operate Fresh Life toilets, providing their communities with access to clean, safe and affordable hygienic sanitation.

The Sanergy team mentors and assists these entrepreneurs along the way: from providing training in basic business skills, to partnering with Kiva to provide access to interest-free loans, assisting in the set up of savings accounts and holding regular forums on best practices. Creating a community of successful Fresh Life Operators goes well beyond enabling these entrepreneurs to provide hygienic sanitation to their friends and neighbors (via the 764 Fresh Life Toilets deployed to date), but they are also helping them create jobs. To date, nearly 150 Fresh Life Operators have hired attendants to help run their toilets, creating new, steady jobs in an area with 40 percent unemployment.

Sanergy certainly isn’t alone in this endeavor to leverage entrepreneurship to address the sanitation crisis — our long time partner Water for People has piloted a “sanitation as a business” initiative, which it intends to build on in 2016. And WSUP (Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor) has been a leader in this space, incubating a number of new initiatives that leverage the power of business and entrepreneurship to provide sanitation solutions in places like Ghana, Bangladesh, Kenya and Zambia, through its innovative WSUP Enterprises effort. And companies like Sanivation (an alumni of the incubator program run by our friends at Halcyon House), Pivot, x-Runner Venture and many others are making an impact by providing toilets and removing waste from communities in places like Kigali, Naivasha and Lima. The list of innovative organizations leveraging entrepreneurship to address the range of challenges in the sanitation crisis goes on and on.

It is my hope that someday, we won’t need a World Toilet Day because each and every person will have access to safe, hygienic sanitation, forever. But until that day, let’s celebrate the unexpected and critical role that entrepreneurs and innovators can play in changing the status quo.

Show your support for World Toilet Day by tweeting: Celebrate the innovative entrepreneurs working to address the global sanitation crisis this #WorldToiletDay! http://bit.ly/1NEDuT4

A Fearless Approach to Ocean Conservation

Earlier this month, I found myself in a sea of sleepy-eyed millennials in a Georgetown University auditorium waiting for the first annual Sustainable Oceans Summit to begin.

The Sustainable Oceans Alliance (SOA), founded by Georgetown student and Case Foundation intern Daniela Fernandez, hosted the summit. SOA is one of the first student-led initiatives started in direct response to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s call to action at the State Department’s 2014 Our Ocean Conference. In his speech, Kerry laid out the crucial steps each of us must take to ensure the health and sustainability of our oceans.

The opening announcement quickly set the tone for the event – we were going to learn exactly how we, as individuals, could change the tide. After seven hours of remarkable speeches and panel discussions from world leaders in ocean conservation, environmental policy and earth and biological sciences, the 400 in-person and hundreds more webcast attendees were indeed invested in keeping our planet blue.

Speakers like the legendary Sylvia Earle from Mission Blue and Maria Damanaki of The Nature Conservancy eloquently illustrated the interplay between the health of our oceans and the health of humankind. “We must protect our oceans as if our life depends on it – because it does,” said Earle. “Eighty five percent of corals are already lost; eighty five percent of fish are endangered, threatened or already gone,” stated Damanaki. After a long pause to let those statistics sink in she went on, “But there is hope in this hopeless situation. Human activity is ocean’s biggest threat and biggest hope. We have the power to change the fate our planet’s lifeline.”

An important focus of the summit, and a reflection of Fernandez’s interest in identifying multi-sector solutions, was the role of three vital industries: science and technology; corporations; and local and national governments. The summit proposed that by exploring the interconnectedness of ocean health and human behavior and wellbeing, these three sectors could realize a range of opportunities for innovative collaboration. The summit provided a new platform for champions of ocean conservation to highlight these opportunities: better business practices, effective legislation and cutting edge technology. The speakers emphasized how multi-sector approaches catalyze solutions to issues such as the global fisheries crisis.

The summit attendees were asked to do more than listen, and 7,500 signatures later the audience and social media activists had successfully made their voices heard. Together, we petitioned the United Nations to include ocean sustainability as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). SDGs are a comprehensive collection of actionable, social development goals designed to build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). SDGs should holistically address social inequalities, issues of poverty and environmental concerns, and it is essential that responsible ocean management does not get left out.

Palauan Ambassador, Stuart Beck, will deliver this very petition directly to the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon prior to the September 2015 vote to confirm the SDGs. We made our mark; but if the speakers made anything clear, it was that our mission doesn’t stop here.

As the summit came to a close, I found myself in a new environment – in a sea of wide-eyed millennials in a Georgetown University auditorium. We knew that it was our responsibility to take action now. Our naturally innovative and motivated spirit must be directed toward ocean sustainability to ensure a healthy and stable environment, economy and global community for future generations to come.



Click here to watch the full Summit.