Course 1 senior Joel Veenstra and teammates win the MIT $100K Competition
By Debbie Levey
Civil & Environmental Engineering
Course 1 senior Joel Veenstra and his teammates on Sanergy won the grand prize in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition May 11 for their proposal to build toilets in Kenyan slums and convert the waste to income-generating fertilizer and fuel. Their pitch about the critical need for clean, affordable sanitation in areas badly needing it also earned them the audience-choice award, and top place in the Emerging Markets category in the competition against 279 other teams.
In addition, last month the team won $20,000 in the Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge for development of sustainable products or business solutions.
This sudden infusion of cash means that the team “can now do far more than we thought,” said Veenstra, who, along with several of his team members will travel to Nairobi, Kenya this summer. Millions of people in Kenya’s urban slums have almost no sanitary facilities, he explained. “The most common way of relieving yourself now is through ‘flying toilets’ – using a plastic bag and throwing it away.”
The Business Plan
Right now Sanergy’s Kenyan staff run two latrines, which cost about $200 each to produce, including materials and labor. Sanergy hopes to reduce that cost; the business model calls for selling toilets as Sanergy franchises and charging users five to seven cents per visit, which is similar to the rates charged at the few facilities now available in the area.
In addition to collecting user fees, franchise owners will sell the waste to recyclers who can use it to produce methane for use as fuel (one group now uses it to run an oven at a restaurant) or process into biochar (charcoal made from agricultural or other waste) or organic fertilizer.
To help Kenyan entrepreneurs purchase a $200 facility in a country where income averages a dollar a day, Sanergy intends to consult with local microfinance companies that grant loans. Veenstra estimated that the fees of 100 users a day, plus the income from selling waste, would generate about $1,200 per year, allowing latrine owners to pay off a loan in months.
Standard pit latrines in the area often fill up and become a sanitation hazard. In contrast, waste in Sanergy facilities falls into two 30-gallon buckets that are collected daily and replaced with clean buckets. As proof that users appreciate the improvements, Veenstra said, “We put a free Sanergy latrine in an elementary school. The kids form long lines to use it instead of the other three latrines right next to it, because it’s much cleaner.”
By the end of 2011, Sanergy — which began in 2009 as a business plan in the MIT subject, MAS.665/15.375 Development Ventures — hopes to produce 60 toilets serving 5,000 people. If they scale up to 2,000 toilets in four or five years, the group estimates that 12,000 people will be employed in some capacity associated with the latrines.
Veenstra said the group traveling to Kenya this summer plans to refine the current latrine design and also test a different design used in Rwanda. “We intend to set up a workshop and train people to build the centers and produce the concrete panels,” said Veenstra, making it possible to rapidly fulfill orders for new toilets.
As the only CEE major on the team, Veenstra has served as the specialist in design and construction. While building the prototypes on site last summer, his proficient Swahili (acquired while attending high school in Kenya) also proved very useful.
Overall, Veenstra described the experience as “fantastic. I’ve learned a lot about actual work in developing countries, including a lot of extra patience. You have to be realistic about how fast you can get things done.” Reflecting this attitude, he bought a one-way ticket to Kenya.