Firm Cleans Up by Transforming Waste into Energy
By Lauren Monsen
Washington - In 2006, David Auerbach was teaching English in rural China when he saw a pit latrine that made him realize there was an acute need for sanitation facilities in the developing world. According to the World Health Organization, 2.6 billion people worldwide lack access to clean toilets, a huge risk factor for spreading disease.
Auerbach, a graduate of Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), devised a plan to help. He moved to Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011 with a group of former MIT classmates and created a company called Sanergy. Operating on a franchise system, Sanergy builds a network of low-cost sanitation centers in underprivileged communities and sells prefabricated concrete toilets ($500 each) to local operators who pay cash or borrow funds from a microlender.
Operators, who profit by charging about 5 cents for a toilet's use, must keep each stall supplied with toilet paper, soap and water. Every day, Sanergy collects the waste produced and processes it into electricity and fertilizer. "At each step, this model creates jobs and opportunity while simultaneously addressing serious social needs," Sanergy's website says.
Auerbach offered the following advice to aspiring business owners: "When starting your own company, there are enormous thrills and massive disappointments. You have to be prepared for rejection, take it on the chin and move on. Entrepreneurs, by definition, are rejecting the status quo and rewriting the rules; that means you'll face lots of resistance along the way."
He also recalled his father's counsel: "My dad once told me that everyone wants to be a mentor. Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know the answer and ask for all the advice you need."
Sanergy's example suggests that pressing social problems often demand an innovative approach. Before Auerbach established his company, no one had tried to finance cost-effective waste removal by selling fertilizer to Kenya's flower growers - or by selling biogas-generated electricity to local power grids. The firm has won numerous grants and awards, including $100,000 from MIT, to support its operations.
To learn more about Auerbach's company, visit Sanergy's website ( http://saner.gy/ ).
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)