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Start-up snapshot: A sanitation company with a unique business model

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Start-up: Sanivation

Andrew Foote is co-founder of Sanivation, a Kenya-based start-up that solves sanitation challenges in crowded urban areas and provides affordable clean energy. The company makes indoor mobile toilets, which it installs free to users and then charges monthly fees for waste collection. The collected waste is transformed into charcoal briquettes. Foote tells How we made it in Africa about his unique business model and why people are willing to pay for a “nice” toilet in their home.

1. Give us your elevator pitch.

Sanivation provides household toilets to people in urban areas through a unique business model by providing a toilet for free and charging a monthly subscription fee of Ksh.600 (US$6). Our toilets are made of wood and recycled plastic that is durable, hygienic and require no access to drainage or water systems.

People can subscribe for as many months as they want. We service the toilet twice a week and transform the collected material into charcoal briquettes that we sell. We are doing this in Naivasha (90 minutes outside Nairobi) in a community near a number of flower farms. We chose Naivasha because it is urbanising rapidly and there is relatively low unemployment. Thus people can afford to pay a subscription for sanitation. Many renters do not have space to dig up a latrine, and they also don’t want to invest in capital improvements because they are probably only going to be in Naivasha for a short period.

This is a pretty new model for sanitation, so we have been focusing on our renewal rate. We have had toilets in people’s homes for the last eight months and so far have had 100% renewal rate. People really want to have a nice toilet in their home.

2. How did you finance your start-up?

We financed it partly through some personal capital and also support from grant organisations.

3. If you were given US$1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?

We would scale the business to reach about 200,000 people. Over the next five years we intend to reach about 1 million people in crowded urban areas. So we would put the money into hiring more marketing and development staff, getting our charcoal-making machines running at capacity, and financing the mass production of our toilets.

4. What risks does your business face?

There is a potential risk the government of Kenya could decide to install sewage sanitation, but I think that will take a little while, and we would be part of those conversations when it happens. Our business is all about creating brand and creating services people want at their doorstep. So it is important to maintain a good brand image as we move forward.

5. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

Sometime back one of our clients, called Margret, was chatting to a neighbour. She asked the neighbour to excuse her because she had to go to the next room to use the restroom. The neighbour was surprised because she had expected Margret to use the normal community latrine. So the neighbour found out about our services, came down to our offices and demanded we install one for her. On that same day she signed the contract and we strapped the toilet on the back of a motorcycle and took it to her house. That was exciting.

6. What has been the biggest mistake made in your start-up?

One of the challenges is having access to our own office space. Right now we are sharing with a different group. It’s been a little bit difficult to not have our own space. So, if I were to start again I would invest more money to have our own space. Yes, we have faced small issues here and there, but see them as opportunities to learn. In business it is important to be humble and to recognise everything is a learning opportunity.

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