No matter what happened at this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, David Auerbach said his team was determined to give Sanergy a go. After capturing the crowd with the quip, “Join us as we turn shit into gold,” the team won the competition, and five months later, they’ve found themselves with another $100,000 grant, this time from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures.
In Kenya’s slums, 8 million people lack access to adequate sanitation, and Sanergy has been working to solve that problem. Upon graduating from the MIT Sloan School of Management in May, Auerbach moved with his former classmates to Nairobi, Kenya to found Sanergy, which is currently operating a network of latrines in the city, collecting waste and turning it into fertilizer and bio gas.
To make money, the team sells prefabricated concrete toilets to local entrepreneurs for about $500. Those entrepreneurs then charge roughly five cents per use, and Sanergy’s team of waste collectors are tasked with emptying the latrines daily. The waste that’s removed, however, goes into Kenya’s farms through fertilizer and the national grid through processed energy. What starts with sanitation, then ends with energy — hence “Sanergy” — and the team’s been providing profits and job opportunities to those living in the slums through this model.
Currently, two million people — 1.5 million which are children — die each year from diarrheal disease, according to Maura O’Neill, the chief officer of innovation at USAID. Researchers estimate more than 45 percent of that results from poor sanitation.
“The world has been struggling to discover good business models to scale sanitation solutions that are sustainable,” O’Neill said. “We were excited about Sanergy’s technology, approach and innovative business model to tackle this problem. We believe they have a real promising model that, if works, could scale to solve sanitation problems for millions globally.”
Since moving to Nairobi, Auerbach said the team hasn’t had a normal day. After their daily morning meetings, Auerbach said he might go into the slums to work with the Sanergy’s sales teams as they sell the company’s toilets to people in the community. On other days, he said he builds partnerships with microfinance organizations like Kiva. What never changes, however, is the team’s ritual at the end of the day: getting together for dinner.
“We try to keep the atmosphere light in the evening, watching the NFL or Modern Family together,” Auerbach said. “But even still, the evening in Nairobi is the beginning of the day in the U.S., so we end up having calls with potential partners in New York City, Boston and San Francisco.”
Auerbach will be awarded with the USAID grant on Wednesday at 4 p.m. in the MIT Media Lab, a place where Sanergy was given the room to initially grow and come to life.
“I’m delighted with Sanergy’s progress, starting from being a concept in our Development Venture class here at the Media Lab, to building and testing prototypes in Kibera, Nairobi, to winning MIT’s $100K Business Plan Competition grand prize and their many efforts beyond the Institute,” said Joost Bonsen, a Media Lab lecturer and a founding research fellow of the MIT Program in Developmental Entrepreneurship.
Bonsen admitted this award from the USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures will undoubtedly inspire up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the community, and is a true testament to the team’s quick success.
As a student from MIT, Auerbach also claimed the team has the Institute to thank.
“The entire entrepreneurial ecosystem at MIT has played a role in helping Sanergy grow and we really can’t thank MIT enough for the support it has shown us over the past two years,” Auerbach said. “But, the best is yet to come from us.”