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! https://bit.ly/1NEDuT4

We Can’t Wait – World Toilet Day 2014

These days, it seems like there’s a dedicated “day” for pretty much everything – to raise awareness for important issues, to give to local charities, or to celebrate important people in our lives. I don’t ultimately think it’s a bad thing, as it causes us to pause and reflect on important moments and issues. One of these “days” that has gained momentum and attention in recent years that I’m particularly passionate about – is today, World Toilet Day.

A day dedicated to toilets may seem a little silly at first glance – it’s a big slab of porcelain in a room in our house that we generally take for granted. It’s easy to forget that they were an important innovation that dramatically improved our quality of life. In fact, readers of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) chose the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal—“the sanitary revolution”—as the most important medical milestone since 1840, when the BMJ was first published.

But it’s an innovation that is not taken for granted by the more than 2.5 billion people worldwide that are still living without access to improved sanitation. It is not taken for granted by the young women who face the choice of defecating out in the open or risking rape and assault to walk to the nearest public toilet. Nor is it taken for granted by those who are subject to cholera, diarrhea and a whole host of other health issues that are caused by overrun sewers and as the result of so-called “flying toilets.” Makes you think a little more carefully about that slab of porcelain in your house – or even public rest stops that we have to duck into during road trips, doesn’t it?

Addressing the sanitation crisis has the potential to not only improve quality of life for nearly 40% of the world’s population, but to have a tremendous positive impact on a whole host of other issues – from global health, to safety for women and girls. Over the years, the world water crisis has deservedly gained great global attention – but only recently has the issue of sanitation has really come to the forefront, with the UN officially recognizing World Toilet Day in 2013 (after several years of “unofficial” World Toilet Days in years prior).

Some of the most interesting and exciting innovations in global development are happening in the sanitation space – from organizations like Water for People focused on transparency in bringing access to clean water and improved sanitation to everyone, forever; to major international organizations like the IRC International Water & Sanitation Centre and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor; or initiatives like the Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” Not to mention the growing number of companies and nonprofits like re.source, SOIL, Humanure Power, Clean Team, Toilet Hackers and others that are delivering major innovations in both design and approach for deploying toilets in both urban and rural settings.

I’m particularly proud to serve on the board of one of these innovative organizations – Sanergy – which is focused on providing access to affordable, hygenic sanitation in urban informal settlements. To date, Sanergy has launched more than 575 of its Fresh Life Toilets in Nairobi, Kenya, where more than eight million people lack access to clean water. The organization doesn’t just stop at building and franchising toilets that offer a clean, dignified place for residents to use the bathroom (and a steady income for the Fresh Life Operators who purchase and manage the toilets) – Sanergy also safely collects and transports the waste from Fresh Life toilets, and is converting it into useful byproducts like organic fertilizer. The importance of waste removal and conversion can’t be understated in communities where a sewer system typically doesn’t exist – or is rarely working properly if it does.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Sanergy and see first-hand the impact of their work in Nairobi twice over the last two years, most recently just two weeks ago. It has been beyond inspiring to hear directly from the Fresh Life Operators on how their lives, and the areas around them, have been transformed by the use of the Fresh Life Toilet, is an understatement. It is also powerful to witness Sanergy’s efforts to truly ensure that everyone in the community has access to a clean, dignified sanitation facility by working not just in commercial areas, but with schools and in residential areas to install the Fresh Life Toilets (you can read more about their impact in schools here and here).

I’d be selling Sanergy short, however, if I only talked about their groundbreaking work in addressing the sanitation crisis in urban settings. It’s impossible not to notice the culture of the organization they’re building – as one of Kenya’s fastest growing social enterprises, Sanergy has a team of more than 190 young, energetic, talented individuals on a mission to change the world and global health as we know it. The impact of the more than 600 jobs they’ve collectively created – including those within the community they’re serving – is a critical part of their work.

So today, on this World Toilet Day, I’m pausing to reflect on one of our most unsung, and often taken-for-granted innovations – and celebrating the work of amazing organizations who are working towards a healthier future, where everyone can take their toilet for granted, forever.

To learn more about World Toilet Day efforts led by UN Water, click here.