The power of poop

Last year’s FoT winner, Lena Tünkers, visits a Kenyan startup that’s turning human waste into affordable fuel.

The wooden shed sits prominently in a green, open field that doubles as a production space. Before I get up from the table, Milli says, “When we see someone going to the toilet, it is like Christmas for us”. And that’s exactly where I’m headed. I open the door, lock it behind me and sit down. It doesn’t feel very Christmassy, but this mundane act of going to the toilet is, quite literally, what Sanivation runs on.  

Tackling sanitation

Most of us are aware that humanity is littering the Earth. Plastic bags from the supermarket, straws from iced coffees, spoilt milk in the fridge, or unused cables and phones gathering dust in a forgotten corner: these types of waste are an everyday reality. And they contribute to the climate-change crisis in a major way.

From my experience, this holds true in Kenya. Waste is a big problem there. Issues with waste collection, management and reduction are impossible to ignore on the streets of Nairobi. Plastic bottles and chocolate wrappers are strewn all over the place. But there is another type of waste that presents a problem for future sustainability: human waste. And the truth is, most of us don’t think about what happens after we flush.

Our species is growing. Global population is set to rise dramatically over the coming years, especially in Asia and Africa. According to the book Factfulness, Africa will host an additional one billion humans by 2040, effectively doubling its population. Suffice it to say, that means a lot more human waste. Though we don’t perceive it as an issue in Denmark, it definitely is in other parts of the world.

A basic human need

One of the biggest refugee camps on Earth, Dadaab, is in Kenya. It is home to 211,701 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Basic human needs such as sanitation are barely met. Communal toilets are the only sanitary option provided. At night they hold certain dangers, such as sexual harassment, for women and children. As a result, many residents avoid using communal toilets, leading to unsanitary conditions.

In addition, Kenya lacks a national waste management system. Human waste is hardly ever collected from slums or refugee camps, and when it is, it’s often not treated safely. We don’t even need to talk about sanitary sewage systems: they barely exist.

A new solution

The solution to this mass of intertwined issues is a new toilet made by Sanivation. It is designed to make human waste usable. The team has set itself the goal of recycling, and upcycling, human waste into charcoal, thereby tackling multiple social and environmental issues. Their toilets are placed in homes, providing safe and clean sanitary access for women and children. Twice a week, tuktuk-like vehicles pick up the filled containers from each toilet and bring them to the facility in Naivasha. Essentially, the company is selling a sanitation service, not a product.

Image courtesy of Sanivation

On a sunny Thursday, I had the pleasure of visiting Sanivation’s site and trying their inspiring innovation for myself. Milli, who works in procurement and administration, welcomed us at the gate. When I say “us”, I mean Hany (my Nairobi guide), our driver, John, and me. John was closely following Milli throughout the tour and took some selfies with freshly collected waste. He was extremely excited about the end-product – charcoal briquettes made from human waste – and bought a big bag of it for a family BBQ. The product’s efficiency won him over. It’s cheaper than regular charcoal and burns for an hour longer. Plus, Milli did a great job in dispelling the obvious yuckiness.  

The sweet smell of sustainability

The first and most surprising thing I noticed when I entered the facility was the lack of a bad smell. I had been expecting the worst. Maybe it was due to the facility being set up in an open field, not the classic factory building I had pictured. Instead, I saw multiple long wooden structures filled with piles of small black balls, covered by a roof structure. Those balls are the end-product of a complex process for treating human waste.

As we toured the production facility, I must admit that I got a bit lost. Paul, the manager of the second site, introduced each step with a speed that I could not follow. He threw around lots of technical terms I had never heard of. Obviously lacking the knowledge of basic chemical processes and engineering terms, I struggled to follow the details. But I think I managed to get the gist. This is how the process works:

  1. Poo gets delivered to the site.
  2. It’s heated up to 120 degrees Celsius with a renewable energy-producing  machine from Germany that kills off any leftover bacteria.
  3. The waste is then dehydrated to less than 10% water by adding a specific polymer powder.
  4. It’s mixed with charcoal dust, and small black balls are formed inside rotating buckets.
  5. Lastly, the charcoal balls are housed in those wooden structures, where they dry for at least three days.

Sanivation has two facilities. The first facility handles a capacity of 1.2 tonnes of waste per day and produces burning material for households and small companies. The second facility is partnering with the local government and creates a substitute for wood to be sold in the industrial sector.

Image courtesy of Sanivation

An evolving business model

After the tour, we drove to the Sanivation office to meet one of the co-founders, Andrew, a happy and energetic guy with curly hair. You could tell that he loves his job. He bounded down the stairs to meet me with a huge smile on his face. As we shared a typical Kenyan lunch, Andrew explained ideas for the future of the business.

The team started by producing and selling their service to single households, but they are now transitioning to a business model that targets institutions, such as the government or the UN. This new model enables Sanivation to cover entire districts of the city at once, thereby reducing their service costs while achieving a higher impact on major health issues. “95% of faecal matter gets disposed in the environment without any further treatment,” explained Andrew. “Which then leads to diarrhoea being the second biggest cause of death for children under five.”

In order to identify where the biggest impact can me made on the sanitation industry, Sanivation uses an appropriately named tool called the Shit Flow Diagram. And it gives great insights, showing how human waste travels through urbanised areas. It’s invaluable for locating points in the value chain where waste is unsafely managed. “What we see in a lot of communities is that maybe 50 -70% of households have access to a toilet,” says Andrew. The problem, he thinks, lies in the collection and treatment of the waste. And that is where Sanivation is focusing their efforts.

With their current business model, Sanivation contributes to communities in multiple ways. Besides improving sanitary health and safety, the startup helps reduce CO2 emissions, while saving trees from being cut down for burning material. It also helps cut pollution and contamination to the local environment.

Rethinking waste

Before rounding it up, I don’t want to deprive you of my experiences in the wooden shed. Having spent the day at Sanivation, the act of going to the toilet suddenly has a whole new meaning. It feels like you’re part of the process. But perhaps it’s best if I spare you specific details. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

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