Meet the Entrepreneur: Andrew Foote and Emily Woods, Sanivation

Nov 26, 2018 · 8 min read

At FINCA Ventures, we look for entrepreneurs leveraging market-based solutions to create large-scale, lasting social impact. In this series, “Meet the Entrepreneur,” we’ll be taking you into the minds of the intrepid leaders at our portfolio companies who boldly venture into markets in need of positive disruption.

Impact investors and international development experts are keen to talk about approachable topics like solar energy and clean drinking water. But bring up the subject of safely processing and recycling human waste and people get uncomfortable. In this interview, we sat down with Andrew Foote and Emily Woods, co-founders of Sanivation, to understand how they’re overcoming this taboo. Sanivation is a social enterprise in Kenya that provides waste-to-energy sanitation services to local governments and refugee camps, turning fecal sludge into environmentally-friendly fuel alternatives to charcoal and firewood.

What was the genesis for Sanivation in terms of the market opportunity?

Andrew: The origins of Sanivation date to separate and overlapping experiences that Emily and I have had in international development. When I first got involved in community development, I realized that so many of the existing sanitation solutions were woefully inadequate. And then I looked at the data and discovered that 95 percent of fecal sludge in developing countries like Kenya is disposed without treatment, which leads to diarrheal disease being the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five. These inequities and injustices were just so stark and as I dug deeper I started to understand just how much sanitation impacts lives — from health, to environment, to livelihoods and the economy, to basic human dignity — there is such an opportunity to develop better sanitation solutions in areas of the world where it can have such a positive impact. We are sending electric cars up in space, but we can’t get a grip on how to do sanitation solutions well.

Of all the places in need of modern and sustainable sanitation solutions, how did Sanivation end up in Naivasha, Kenya?

Emily: I got a consulting gig in 2012 through a nonprofit in Naivasha and they had me come out for three months to design cheaper and better pit latrines. The organization I was with was putting up 900 pit latrines in the area, but as I analyzed the data it was clear that all these latrines would fill up in just three years and there was no waste treatment plant in the area to deal with this situation. When I raised this issue, I was told to put together a proposal once the project was through, and I really didn’t like that answer. That’s when I told Andrew to come out to Naivasha and we began to think about our business model: a for-profit sanitation company that would serve the lowest-income households and create something sustainable so that three years from now people wouldn’t have to start from scratch. By 2014, Sanivation had a pilot project up and running and then we completed construction on our first waste treatment facility in 2015.

Most people think of sanitation as a service provided by their government, but in many parts of the developing world the sanitation market has failed them. How is Sanivation using a private sector model to right this wrong?

Andrew: There are not enough sanitation companies that are participating in the private sector or taking a private sector approach. If we are serious about reaching the 4.5 billion people who are living in communities where fecal sludge is not safely managed, then we need market-based and scalable approaches. That’s one thing we are very adamant about — that our solution is market-based and scalable. We do that by thinking about waste as a resource and using a resource recovery approach to lower the cost of providing sanitation services to households and governments.

Sanivation is just four years into its journey. Let’s say another four years from now Sanivation is making international headlines. What would that headline be?

Emily: I think that in 4–5 years we can be the go-to model for non-sewered waste processing, meaning cities and refugee camps around the world will come to Sanivation for solutions. The solutions won’t look the same in every market, but we could be the sought-after experts who can put our feet on the ground, work with local partners, build a solution, transfer it over and let the city or regulating authority run it.

Andrew: Right now, what we’re doing is seen as a headline because it’s new, innovative and different. I would like to see it become so commonplace that it isn’t even news, because every town throughout East Africa has access to a waste processing facility that is using a sustainable resource recovery approach. But if there was a headline, it would be: “Resource Recovery for Waste Processing Mainstreamed Throughout East Africa.”

Robert Juma, a Sanivation employee, sets charcoal briquettes out to sun dry at the company’s factory site in Naivasha, Kenya. Photo Credit: Alison Wright

What are some of the barriers that Sanivation faces in mainstreaming a resource recovery approach for waste processing?

Emily: Such little innovation is happening in the world of sanitation right now, so we’ve had to do a lot of the technology development work in-house. Our expertise, though, is knowing all the different options, how they fit together and how each may suit different places. The more options we have in our toolbox, the more we’ll be able to design specific solutions for specific scenarios and that will be key to delivering sustainable solutions. But right now, it’s mind blowing how little knowledge base there is on sanitation. Water is sexier. People don’t want to work in poop.

Andrew: We need governments to dedicate committed budgets towards sanitation. The more that governments understand the consequences that result from a lack of sanitation services and how proper sanitation can solve so many problems in their communities, the more likely funding will follow. Decisions and money often come from the top-down but at the same time I think that successful case studies from the bottom-up can go a long way. What we are trying to do is show how, in an emerging market context, a private sector company can partner with the government and cost-effectively solve sanitation challenges. There are many competing priorities for governments of rapidly developing countries, particularly in areas where people are only earning only $3 per day. Fortunately, sanitation has a very sizeable return on investment — upwards of $5 are returned for every $1 invested in sanitation. Like Emily said, the problem is that sanitation is not seen as sexy. People love talking about clean drinking water but how do we get more people to take the same excited interest in waste processing?

It’s easy to take the flush toilet for granted if you live in one of the world’s developed economies. But interestingly, Sanivation isn’t focused on water-based sanitation for emerging markets. What do you see as the future of sanitation?

Emily: Because of what people see on TV and in movies, in everyone’s mind the answer to the sanitation problem is the flush toilet. But in the markets where we work that’s just not going to happen. It might never happen. And the feeling I get is that when people realize they can’t have sewers and flush toilets, they throw up their hands and say, ‘whatever.’ But now, we are starting to see a tipping point in stakeholder meetings with governments and local water and sanitation providers who, for the first time, are saying that sewers aren’t the answer. Even 100 years from now in the United States the answer probably won’t be sewers. Water-based sanitation is not sustainable anywhere. The infrastructure, the maintenance, the energy and the water required is unbelievable. The work we are doing now with dry, container-based toilets is a small stepping stone to what will come. We’ll continue to iterate and improve the model over time. But the solution for urban sanitation may not be a single solution. What’s important is that we are making progress in the right direction. Kenya is one of the first places in the world to say that container-based sanitation is considered improved sanitation and that’s a major win.

Part of Sanivation’s mission is to improve the overall dignity of people in the communities where you work. FINCA Ventures is similarly concerned with raising standards of living for low-income families. How do you see your work as contributing to a better quality of life for emerging market customers?

Andrew: Diarrheal disease is preventable and treatable, yet it is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old, which is just crazy to me. Improved sanitation has a huge role to play in addressing this health issue. Billions of people don’t have access to safely managed sanitation, meaning their fecal waste is not properly contained or treated. This negatively impacts health, wellbeing and basic human dignity. We also know that lack of sanitation services has a disproportionate impact on women, children, the elderly and the disabled. Women are at risk of gender-based violence when using an outdoor pit latrine, especially at night. Children are in danger of falling into pit latrines. We actually have one customer whose child fell into a pit latrine. They next day the family came and signed-up for one of our toilets. And the elderly and the disabled struggle to squat over a pit latrine that is laced with urine and fecal matter and they may have no choice but to sit in it. Our container-based toilet and resource recovery model can change this.

What do you hope FINCA Ventures can bring to Sanivation to help you grow and scale?

Andrew: FINCA is a great global brand with lots of experience working with customers in emerging markets. When we think about scaling, having people who have participated in scaling ventures affords us a type of market knowledge that is incredibly valuable. We see FINCA Ventures as not only providing the knowledge and expertise of working in challenging markets, but also linking us with potential partners and financing products that would allow more microentrepreneurs to participate in the sanitation value chain.

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