#WEDC41 Part 1: The challenges of the world’s number 2 business

In July, I spent two weeks in Kenya at the 41st WEDC conference in Nakuru and visiting sanitation companies, Sanergy and Sanivation, and the newly-established sanitation research group at Meru University of Science and Technology.  This is the first in a five-part series of blogs about that conference and those visits.

Sanivation and Sanergy are two companies making changes to the state of sanitation in Kenya.  The two companies provide container-based sanitation services to residents in Nairobi and in Naivasha and are using the collected poop to make a product that they can sell.

Sanergy uses a combination of black soldier fly larvae processing and composting to create animal feed and fertiliser.  Sanivation dries faecal material to produce briquettes that replace the charcoal used for cooking across Kenya.  Despite treating faecal waste to produce different products, the two companies face some similar challenges.

Both companies pointed out that it has taken longer than they expected to develop the businesses to where they are today.  Currently, both companies are reliant on donor funding to allow them to cover costs and have not yet reached profitability.  It is a challenge that is common for sanitation businesses, particularly those aimed at sanitation provision for the poorest people in society.  This was highlighted in SOIL’s latest report about their container-based sanitation work in Haiti.

Part of the challenge is that sanitation companies in LMICs are held to higher account than those in HICs, by donors and governments.  In Kenya, sanitation companies are often expected to provide sanitation services from scratch with no involvement from the government.  But compare that to the UK, where most wastewater treatment companies inherited sewage treatment works and sewer networks that had been built through government funding.  Even new infrastructure projects benefit from huge amounts of government support – look at the Thames Tideway Tunnel for example, billed as London’s new super sewer, which has been provided with a government support package which transfers liability to the taxpayer if certain risks materialise.

If companies are to provide sanitation services with no support from government and turn a profit, then they have to focus on the most profitable sections of that service.  For example, both Sanivation and Sanergy treat faecal material but the urine from their urine diversion toilets is sent to the public sewer (in the case of Sanergy) or stored, diluted and allowed to infiltrate into the ground (in the case of Sanivation).  Why?  Urine simply does not have the concentration of nutrients to make urine processing a financially viable process.  This is something that donors are not always keen on.  They want to see a full service for the world’s poorest.

Providing sanitation solutions to the poorest people in society requires alternative sources of income, and sustainable sanitation through processing faecal material into valuable and saleable resources can offer part of the solution.  However, wherever in the world sanitation businesses are based, if they are to succeed, we need to recognise the huge value that comes from the support of institutions such as governments.  We need to understand that whilst private companies play an important role in providing sanitation for all, we cannot expect them to do it alone.

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