It is a cloudy day in Mukuru, one of the vast informal settlements in Nairobi. The skies threaten to open up as grey clouds stretch into the horizon.
In the past, residents dreaded such weather as the rains would wash away human waste from clogged toilets and open defection areas.
This would pollute the environment, contaminate water and lead to the spread of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera, leading to loss of lives especially among young children.
Such incidents have now been greatly reduced following the establishment of low-cost improved sanitation facilities, branded as Fresh Life Toilets, by a company known as Sanergy.
It franchises these toilets to community members who operate them as businesses for profit.
To succeed in this endeavour, Sanergy is tapping a myriad of innovative mobile and web technologies to promote access to improved sanitation facilities in Kenyan slums.
Community members interested in starting the toilet business require an initial capital of Sh50,000 which is paid to Sanergy for the establishment of toilets in appropriate locations.
However, due to high poverty levels in informal settlements, most people cannot meet these costs upfront.
Sanergy is addressing this challenge by linking the entrepreneurs to KIVA, a US based online micro-lending platform established in 2005 that allows people to lend money via the Internet to entrepreneurs in low income settings focussing on initiatives that alleviate poverty.
To date KIVA has crowd sourced over a million lenders from all over the world who give interest free loans to borrowers.
“Profiles of potential borrowers are put online on the KIVA website. And sometimes even within days or hours, they are able to get required funds which are channelled to them through us,” noted Ms Edith Karimi, sanitation expert at Sanergy.
The loans are then repaid in agreed upon monthly instalments for up to two years through mobile money transfer channels like M-Pesa. Sanergy then receives the cash and remits it back to the KIVA lenders.
This speedy access to capital has contributed to the rapid growth of Fresh Life toilets in Mukuru, consequently increasing the community’s access to improved sanitation services.
Since the launch of the Fresh Life toilets in 2011, over 200 entrepreneurs have benefitted from these loans, leading to the establishment of over 700 toilets in Mukuru and the creation of numerous sanitation-related jobs in the area.
Without the e-platform, entrepreneurs in Mukuru would have had to visit various commercial banks with business proposals whilst hoping to be granted loans irrespective of their socio-economic status.
An integral component of business expansion plans is the ploughing back of profits into the established enterprise.
To facilitate easy saving of daily earnings, most toilet operators in Mukuru are encouraged to embrace paperless banking services such as Safaricom’s M-Shwari platform.
“Before, I used to store money in a tin under the bed. The cash wasn’t safe there. Besides, I would always be tempted to spend it. But now I can’t afford to be careless with my spending as I will incur charges each time I make withdrawals,” said Ms Esther Munyiva, an entrepreneur operating the Fresh Life toilets at Mukuru.
As a result of the financial discipline, she now has two toilets units in Mukuru with plans of moving to other informal settlements of Nairobi.
As most slums such as Mukuru lack functioning sewerage systems, the innovative toilets use cartridges - placed beneath the toilet’s squat plate.
Instead of a flush system, sawdust is sprinkled into the cartridge after each use to keep away flies and mask bad odour. This approach works well in informal settlement contexts where water challenges are rife and piped water systems unavailable.
Once filled up, Sanergy collects the cartridges, replaces them with empty ones and transports the waste to a processing plant where it is used to manufacture organic fertiliser.
The entrepreneurs pay annually for this service. In addition, the company offers them training in effective business models and assists them to drive demand for the toilets whilst ensuring that customers enjoy quality hygienic sanitation services.
Aside from the toilets, other amenities such as sanitary towel bins, hand washing facilities and soap are provided to enable residents enjoy quality services similar to those present in wealthier neighbourhoods or the formal housing sector.
Through a cloud based software known as Salesforce, Sanergy is able to collect useful data critical to the management of the Fresh Life toilets.
From the platform, the company can determine the quantity of waste collected in various locations, slow and fast moving toilets, concerns from operators and customer satisfaction levels. This information is collected daily by Sanergy staff as they visit toilets in various locations.
It is then keyed into mobile phones and thereafter transmitted to the Salesforce automatically via an internet connection.
“So by just logging into the system from whichever location, we can monitor what’s happening on the ground,” explained Ms Sheila Kibuthu, Sanergy staff who has interacted with the platform.