Humanure as a Path Out of Poverty For Slum Residents

If you don’t know what a flying toilet is, consider yourself very lucky.

Slums around the world are largely lacking on sanitation. A 2006 UN report found that two-thirds of residents in one section of Nairobi use a plastic bag as their main disposal method. Many times these bags are heaved through the air, sometimes by passersby, into the slums. In addition to being what will hopefully be the grossest thing you hear all day, these flying toilets create real problems for human health both inside the slums and out, as diseases breed and spread.

Now, thanks in part to funding from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures fund, slum residents will soon have viable market-based solutions to these challenges. The answer is called Sanergy, a startup that grew out of a MIT business school class that has raised a total of $600,000 (including about $100,000 from the USAID’s DIV program).

The concept is to sell low-cost toilets to microenterprise entrepreneurs who will then collect the waste and bring it to central processing areas, where it will be broken down for energy and fertilizer. The entrepreneurs can either bring their own money (the toilets cost $450 each) to the table, or they can work with several microloan sites that have signed on to help out.

It’s the ultimate win-win situation, but that doesn’t mean it’s a charity, or that there isn’t profit motive. Sanergy expects Kenya alone to be worth $72M. The profit motive is a different approach, and might be sufficient to help a program succeed where traditional aid programs have failed.

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Photo courtesy of Sustainable Solutions on Flickr Creative Commons

Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.