Sanergy franchisee
Using a Fresh Life toilet costs an average of 5 cents.

Most people hardly think about their toilet at all. The toilet should only enjoy a moment of attention - before it quickly becomes quiet again around the quiet place when snakes are found in the headlines, there are fear of empty toilet paper shelves or if you are stuck in traffic for too long. 

But not everyone leaves the toilet cold. Entrepreneurs, researchers and industrial designers around the world are considering how the toilet, which has existed in the familiar form for 250 years, could be improved. These considerations then result in amenities such as shower and dryer, seat heating and non-stick coating, or tools for urine diagnosis. Japan and South Korea in particular are considered progressive when it comes to toilet technology. But around the world there are also other directions: designs and concepts so that more people in poorer countries can use functioning and environmentally friendly toilets.

Sanergy's bright blue houses

New thinkers in the toilet sector include David Auerbach, Lindsay Stradley and Ani Vallabhaneni. The three were still studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they founded the company Sanergy in 2009 with the aim of fighting the sanitation crisis in developing countries (see also corporAID article "The great mission of the Mister Toilet").

Sanergy's toilet solution collects solid and liquid separately.

Ten years ago they opened the first toilet facility in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, a slum in Kenya's capital Nairobi. The “Fresh Life” toilet is a bright blue concrete house that houses a dry toilet with urine drainage. Solid and liquid are separated and collected in removable 25 kg tanks.

"Conventional toilets with a connection to water and a central sewage system are usually too expensive for fast-growing cities and are difficult to install in densely built-up slums anyway," explains Sanergy's press officer Sheila Kibuthu. 

Interview with Sheila Kibuthu, Sanergy

Sheila Kibuthu, Sanergy

More than just a loo in the slum

Sheila Kibuthu, external relations manager for Sanergy, on the vision and impact of the sanitary and waste treatment company that is successful in Kenya.

Fresh Life is intended as an offer for people who live in districts without sewers and therefore use open defecation or the "flying toilet" method: What is meant is when people relieve themselves in a plastic bag that is then on streets, embankments or even lands on roofs. This practice is neither good for the environment or human health. 

Sanergy loo in Kenya
Fresh Life toilets are a solution for parts of the city without a sewer system.

In the meantime, Sanergy has installed almost 5.000 Fresh Life toilets in the cities of Nairobi and Kisumu, which can be found between tightly built huts, in shopping streets and next to around 200 schools. The houses are rented in the franchise system. In the commercial version, toilet operators pay an installation fee of $ 350 per toilet and an annual fee of $ 70 so that Sanergy can dispose of the containers on a daily basis. Schools pay a one-time fee of $ 290 and a service fee of $ 60 per year. In residential areas where the majority of the toilets are located, landlords only have to pay a disposal fee of $ 8,50 per month.

Sanergy obliges the franchisees to keep the toilets clean, safe and open and offers training and advice for this. The fee for the use of the toilet is determined by the franchisees themselves. It is usually five cents per gear.

Sanergy: The business with the business

The toilets are only part of the business model. Sanergy has succeeded in combining the sanitation business with agriculture. The employees bring the full containers of the Fresh Life toilets to a processing plant. There, the feces are fed to grateful animals along with organic waste from restaurants, packaging plants and markets: to larvae of the black soldier flies, which consume almost all organic waste that is put in front of them. When the big eating is over after a few weeks, the protein- and fat-rich larvae are sifted, cleaned and pasteurized. 

Ultimately, they end up in three kinds of products: Dried larvae become animal feed that is suitable for fish, poultry and pigs and can replace soy and fish meal. The excretions of the larvae are sold to small Kenyan farmers as fertilizer. According to Sanergy, this can enrich depleted soils and increase fruit and vegetable yields by up to 30 percent. Further larval remains are pressed into briquettes as an environmentally friendly substitute for conventional fuels. 

Sanergy has installed around 5.000 Fresh Life toilets in Kenya.
The toilets are operated and maintained by franchisees - for example Jennipher Odhiambo (pictured). She works in the Mukuru slums in Nairobi.
Every day an employee comes by to swap full tanks for empty ones and ...
.... bring the full containers to a processing plant.
The big mast
The faeces are fed to the larvae of the black soldier flies together with biological waste from restaurants, hotels and farms. These are anything but picky.
When the big eating is over after a few weeks, the protein- and fat-rich larvae are sifted, cleaned and pasteurized.
Sanergy workers in the final stages of the filtration process.
Three products
Dried larvae become animal feed that is suitable for fish, poultry, and pigs. The excretions of the larvae are processed as fertilizer, further larval remains are pressed into briquettes.
Sanergy employs 500 people. Around 2.000 jobs are said to have been created along the entire value chain.

Sanergy's toilets are used by around 140.000 people every day. By 2025, the company aims to reach 1,3 million people with full sanitation services and eliminate one million tons of organic waste annually in the fast-growing cities of Kenya and beyond. The company already operates one of the largest organic waste processing plants in sub-Saharan Africa with an annual capacity of 72.000 tons.

Sanitary management in the cycle

Sanergy's solution is not only in demand in Kenya. Many cities in developing regions have a massive problem with sanitary and organic waste that ends up in the open fields. Other social entrepreneurs have also recognized this as a problem and are experimenting with the combination of toilet service and raw material processing. The company Loowatt founded in 2009, is one of them. It operates more than a thousand dry toilets in Madagascar, the Philippines and its UK home market. A lining in the toilet bowl catches the feces, seals them in a thin film and guides them into a small container with each flush. Then it says: “Poo into power”: Because, like Sanergy, Loowatt has developed a systemic solution that uses excrement to generate biogas for power generation and for gas stoves as well as organic fertilizer. 

At the end of the pilot phase is the Swiss start-up Mosan(an abbreviation for mobile sanitation), founded in 2016. It also brings the concept of circularity into the sanitary sector. The industrial designer Mona Mijthab has developed a small mobile toilet for private households that collects urine and solids separately.  

Mosan toilet
The Mosan toilet - small, mobile, intended for private households

Its use in Guatemala has been tested for three years. In the village of Santa Catarina Palopó on Lake Atitlán - where, according to Mijthab, "the sanitary emergency is most serious" - her company rents toilets to around 50 households. Regular collection of the toilet container is included in the monthly rent of five euros.

Mosan collection
Each household pays 5 euros a month for regular collection of full containers.

At Mosan, the feces are processed into biochar and urine into struvite, the latter is a phosphorus-containing mineral that is suitable as a fertilizer. "The past three years have been devoted to developing technologies - for example a pyrolysis reactor optimized for faeces - as well as strategies for work in communities, building networks and partnerships," says Mijthab. 

Mosan direct marketing
Mosan founder Mona Mijthab explains the service model to potential customers.

Now it's about scaling the system. Another village will be added to the program in January 2022, and soon 200 families will have their own blue and white toilet. For even greater coverage, however, “awareness-raising among the authorities is necessary,” said Mijthab. “Municipalities still view sanitation as a one-time, costly investment in sewage systems and treatment plants. The fact that we offer this task as a service for a small fee is a completely new approach and the political system in many places is not yet ready for it. " 

A bag for ...

While at Sanergy, Loowatt and Mosan the further transport of the excrement is always necessary, there are also self-sufficient solutions. One comes from Bara Wahbeh, co-founder of the start-up Akyas from Jordan. Akyas has developed a bag that can be placed under a urine-draining toilet bowl. If the feces end up in the fully biodegradable sack, they have to be covered with a special mineral powder. This should render pathogens, mold and fungi harmless within 48 hours and let the feces disintegrate into water and biomass. What finally comes out of the bags looks like earth, is odorless and suitable for the enrichment of soils. Wahbeh sees the use of the sack in poorer settlements that lack sewage systems. 

The tiger toilet - a development by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine - also works on “on site”. The name is not derived from the mighty big cat, but from the small tiger worms. In nature, these are dependent on the excretions of animals, so they like to stay in the toilet. In a tiger toilet, urine is filtered through a drainage layer, while the solids in the upper part are collected and processed by the worms. They should reduce the volume by 80 percent, the rest is fertilizer in the look of a coffee powder  

A worm colony hardly needs any attention, according to TBF Environmental Solutions, which sells tiger toilets in India for $ 350. 4.500 toilets were installed in 70 villages, and TBF plans to increase this number to one million in the next few years. In Myanmar and Uganda, worms are also doing their useful work as part of pilot programs.

Revolution in progress

Like many other sanitary projects, the Tiger Toilet was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With the "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge" launched in 2011, the foundation is promoting the development of toilets that do not require water or sewer connections. Hundreds of ideas for new generations of toilets have been collected over the years. Bill Gates hopes that the “global sanitary revolution” could soon follow, as there is currently a team of more than 70 – under the direction of Shannon Yee from the Georgia Institute of Technology – working on the super toilet. 

The prototype of the Generation 2 Reinvented Toilet. At the beginning of 2022, the practical test will be sent to South Africa, China and India.

The globally networked engineers, researchers and industrial designers want to create the "Generation 2 Reinvented Toilet", G2RT for short, from the best existing technologies. In the high-tech toilet, urine and flushing water go through a multi-stage filtration process that produces clean water. The solids are processed and dried in such a way that they can be disposed of on the compost. A second system converts faeces into water and ash. 

Shannon Yee has with EOOS NEXTalso brought a Viennese design office on board. Harald Gründl and his team have been developing toilet-related solutions for many years. With “Urine Trap”, for example, the Viennese have designed a separation technology that collects and drains urine separately with a physical effect. The industrial designers also worked with South African craftsmen to develop blueprints for inexpensive toilets. At G2RT, Gründl heads the “front-end” group: “We take care of everything that the user can later see and operate. One task is to create the best possible user experience with as little water as possible. The other task is to separate the solid from the liquid. "

Interview with Harald Gründl, EOOS NEXT

"Like a space toilet in a slum"

Harald Gründl is the founder of the Viennese design office EOOS NEXT. He and his team have been designing innovative and sustainable toilets for ten years.

If one looks at a picture of the prototype as a layperson, then the use of a G2RT in a developing country is rather difficult to imagine. But that's exactly what the developers are now working on. Because her future toilet should be “a household appliance like a washing machine that can simply be plugged into the socket or operated with solar power,” explains Gründl. Simple maintenance is just as aimed for as a low price. “The G2RT has to be affordable to be accessible to the whole world,” says Yee. "In my opinion, the greatest challenge will be to find manufacturers who are able to transfer the most modern technological advances into mass production," says the project manager. If the G450RT is ever produced in large numbers in factories, it should be available for $ XNUMX. Yee hopes to work with governments and companies to take the new solution out into the world. 

So there is still a long way to go before the great sanitary revolution takes place. But things are slowly starting: The first South Africans, Indians and Chinese will test the G2022RT for its practicality from the beginning of 2.

Images: Sanergy (2), Acumen (11), Mosan (3), Shannon Yee / Georgia Tech, EOOS NEXT / Elfie Semotan