Corporate

New toilets franchise throws slum dwellers an economic lifeline

Alex Wekesa outside one of the Fresh Life toilets located in Nairobi’s Mukuru slums. Courtesy
Alex Wekesa outside one of the Fresh Life toilets located in Nairobi’s Mukuru slums. Courtesy 

Alex Wekesa picks five one-shilling coins from his customer, scoops sawdust in a cup and hands it over to a middle aged woman with two sheets of toilet paper serviettes who proceeds into a tiny blue-coloured cube ‘Fresh Life.’

Mr Wekesa is a franchise holder and the operator of two toilets located deep in the heart of Nairobi’s Mukuru slums, under the brand Fresh Life.

His innovative latrines serve about 200 households in the densely populated slum and the waste is collected to make organic fertiliser.

“I pay all my bills from these toilets and even made savings to expand my other businesses,” said the 27-year-old entrepreneur in an interview with the Business Daily.

“Thanks to these facilities, the problem of flying toilets which used to be prevalent here is no longer there.”

The franchisee’s daily earnings from the sanitation facilities is Sh370 and he makes as much as Sh450 during weekends and public holidays when demand is higher. Adult users pay Sh5 while children Sh2 to use the eco-friendly toilets which have grown beyond the hygiene function into viable business ventures.

Users deposit the waste in different plastic containers and splash sawdust on it to reduce smell, eliminate flies and help breakdown the human waste.

Mr Wekesa says idealy the sawdust should be stored in a bucket inside the toilet but he prefers handing it out in a cup to each client to avoid wastage.

The waste is emptied every day and ferried to a central centre where it is processed into organic fertiliser.

The latrines are the brainchild of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates—David Auerbach, Ani Vallabhaneni, Lindsay Stradley and Nathan Cooke – who came up with the idea of franchising toilets to meet the sanitation needs in urban informal settlements.

They teamed up to form Sanergy in 2011, a social venture that seeks to develop a network of small-scale sanitation centres across slums, create a waste collection network and convert human waste into fertiliser and other by-products.

“We saw a broken sanitation value chain. Even if hygienic sanitation facilities were provided to a community, there was no guarantee that the waste would be safely collected,” said Mr Auerbach.

“We conceived of a franchise model whereby local residents provided low-cost, high-quality sanitation services and we provided the necessary support to address the entire sanitation value chain,” said the co-founder who has an MBA from the prestigious MIT Sloan School of Management.

A unit of Fresh Life toilet costs Sh50,000 which includes installation, branding, training, demolition insurance, daily waste collection services, hand washing point and a starter pack.

Buyers of two units at a go are given a discount on the second toilet which retails at Sh30,000; translating to Sh80,000 for two sanitation blocks.

There is also an annual maintenance fee to meet the cost of collecting the waste and renew the franchise. Entrepreneurs can pay in instalments and can also access interest-free microloans from Kiva, a California-based organisation that lends to initiatives meant to alleviate poverty.

“Most people pay in instalments and the businesses break even within a year. A unit generates more than $1,000 in income annually,” said Joseph Githinji, a sanitation marketer at Sanergy.

The starter pack comes in a tin box complete with an overall jacket, gumboots, hand gloves, waste bins and cup for sawdust, pedal sanitary bins, five-litre disinfectant, soap, scrubbing brush, three toilet rolls and a solar-powered lantern.

Mr Wekesa, who holds a certificate in analytical chemistry from Eldoret Polytechnic, turned to the toilet business after he ‘tarmacked’ for years without securing a job.

Having lived in Mukuru for the last two decades, he had learnt the rigours of survival and had tried his hand at a barbershop and laundry shop to make ends meet.

His burning entrepreneurial spirit saw him buy his first franchised Fresh Life toilet in July 2012 through paying a deposit of Sh20,000 from his savings and offered to clear the balance in six months.

“I got good business using the first unit. The nearest facility was a pit latrine which was dirty and criminals used it as a drug den.” The units have found favour with locals because they are clean, affordable, conveniently located within estates, and safe for use at night as they have solar lighting.

This increased demand saw the trader buy another toilet in October the same year, which he set up adjacent to the pioneer unit.

“This is a high traffic area as it is located next to the main avenue,” he says. He set up both units about 10 metres from his tin roofed mud-walled one room house; close enough to monitor operations at the premises.

The toilets have transformed his life— he has employed his cousin to assist him run the business and has used savings from the toilet to stock his clothes shop—Anointed Boutique.

Sanergy choose Mukuru slums to test the innovation as most informal settlements lack adequate sanitation facilities.

Statistics show that 13 per cent of households or 5.6 million Kenyans have no access to toilets and dispose human waste in bushes.

The UN Habitat estimates that only eight out of every 10 people living in Nairobi’s slums—which constitute 60 per cent of the city’s total population —have access to adequate water and sanitation facilities.

Sanergy hopes that its prefabricated low-cost toilets which are distributed through a franchising model to local entrepreneurs will benefit the millions with no latrines.

There are currently about 308 Fresh Life toilets operated by more than 161 micro-entrepreneurs in the densely populated Mukuru slums, home to more than 500,000 people.

Franchise operators undergo a two-day entrepreneurship training where they are taught skills such as basic book keeping and management.

This has seen a number of Fresh Life owners set up small kiosks next to their toilets to sell fast-moving consumer goods such as diapers, toilet paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, airtime, washing powder, bar soap and petroleum jelly.