For two years, David Auerbach worked as a teacher in China's Hunan Province.
Though he believes his time was well spent, his stomach turned picturing some of the outhouses and unfortunate sanitation options people along the countryside had to utilize every day.
"I realized how much I took healthy sanitation for granted," said David, recalling the time he spent in the region. "We forget how in-your-face and prevalent this issue is in the rest of the world. People shouldn't have to live like that."
Indeed, according to the World Water Council, 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation and waste management services, and 1.8 million children die from resulting diseases.
"The clean water campaign -- that's a little easier for people to latch onto," he said. "But I think sanitation gets a little more complicated."
David, who will receive his M.B.A from MIT this weekend, hoped to address some of these issues. Then, in 2009, he took a class called "Development Ventures," which challenges students to come up with a practical business solution to a pressing global issue.
As he set the foundation for his project, he asked himself a few key questions. "How do you get people to use toilets? Can people operate them in an affordable manner? And what do you do with the waste?"
The class ended, but the team kept the project going, assembling a crew of MIT architects, designers, business students and engineers. They called the project "Sanergy" and set plans for the future.
"We were all on the same page," David said. "It was something we all believed in."
The team focused specifically on the situation in Kenya, where the slum population stands around eight million. Many Kenyans resort to open defecation, or have to pay to use privately owned "pit latrines."
"There's no good way for them to use their waste," David said. "They dump it into the river or chuck it into open spaces."
Sanergy developed a unique process. First, they'd build sanitation centers, providing clean toilets and sanitary hand-washing under a strong concrete structure. The waste would then be collected in "air-tight containers," which local Sanergy employees then take to a central processing facility, converting the waste into biogas or fertilizer.
"Each toilet is a franchise," David said. "It's owned and operated by a local entrepreneur. They can then devise a viable income from that."
Thanks to generous grants, David and his team were able to travel to Kenya, where they set about creating two pilot facilities. Working with locals, as well as students and faculty at the University of Nairobi, the Sanergy team realized that their plan could work, though they certainly went through their share of trials (which you can read about extensively on their former blog).
The team also began gearing up for the MIT 100K Business Plan contest, which has supported and nurtured over 150 projects created by MIT students over the past twenty years. Past projects have gone on to raise over a billion dollars and employ over 4,500 workers worldwide.
They knew the contest competition would be tough. "We assumed people would be attracted to the social side of our project, but the business side had to be just as viable. We needed to make this an attractive opportunity."
Luckily, the Sanergy presentation was forceful and funny, the culmination of almost two years of work, and it concluded with the simple message: "Join us as we turn shit into gold."
From a pool of 280 original teams, Sanergy nabbed the $100K grand prize, in addition to a $5,000 audience prize. They also attracted the attention of keynote speaker Vinod Khosla, the founder of Sun Microsystems, who reportedly slipped David and his partners a business card immediately following their presentation.
Over the next couple of weeks, the team will settle in Kenya to prepare for the long-term expansion of Sanergy toilets.
"Our goal is in five years to have created 6,000 toilets, which will serve over 500,000 people," David said. "Conservatively, we think it could create as many as 3,000 jobs."
Watch a video on the Sanergy process below:
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