Unstuck Hero: Because everyone deserves to live with dignity

August 21, 2014

On November 19, 2011, in the slums of Nairobi, an unusual grand opening was unfolding: The unveiling of the first Sanergy Fresh Life Toilet, a bright blue, hand-painted, port-a-potty–like facility that would soon become a welcome fixture on the busy urban landscape. Hundreds had turned out to celebrate. The Town Clerk of Nairobi cut the ribbon and offered an enthusiastic keynote. Kids lined up to get their faces painted. The excitement was huge — all for a toilet. 

The product was humble, but the goal was audacious. David Auerbach and his co-founders at Sanergy — a start-up that they dreamed up as MBA and engineering students at MIT — were testing the notion that they could create economic prosperity while advancing personal dignity for thousands of Kenyans by innovating a new, community-focused sanitation model.

What may seem obvious now from the outside looking in took David six years of seeking out new perspectives, opportunities, and teammates until his original spark of an idea came together — and then almost two more years to go from concept to reality. Where do great ideas come from? How do we find the tools we need to creatively solve the problems of our lives? The story of Sanergy is a fascinating study in the steps it takes to get unstuck.

Seeds are planted
David has always had an idealistic passion for social justice. He was born into a family of career do-gooders and, as a kid in London and New Jersey, he’d spent hours writing letters for Amnesty International. But it was his two-year teaching stint in China post-college that disrupted his worldview.

As he traveled through the country during weekends and holidays, he was stunned by the terrible state of public toilets: pit latrines dug in the ground, festooned with flies.

“My distinct memory is very visceral,” he says. “At the moment, it felt like a tremendous indignity. Later, as I thought about it, I came to understand that this was happening on a day-to-day basis for the ‘statistic’ of 2.5 billion people.”

That stunning observation would become one of Sanergy’s seeds of inspiration, but David didn’t yet know that it was his first step toward his future goal. He didn’t yet dream he could make an impact at that scale.

When he returned to the US, he joined the Clinton Global Initiative. There, he met a co-founder of Kiva, the online lending platform that connects individual micro-lenders to entrepreneurs in the developing world. Excited about this innovative approach to global poverty, David worked to push Kiva’s agenda. Without realizing it, he was already building Sanergy’s network; microloans from Kiva would later become part of their business model. It was a second step.

After leaving the Clintons, David joined Endeavor, a global nonprofit supporting for-profit businesses in the developing world. He was blown away by the high-impact entrepreneurs he encountered. Their work helped him imagine what his own role could be.

“They were enacting incredible change in their countries by creating their businesses and with that, thousands of good jobs that gave people economic freedom,” he says. “It was a transformative experience.” At this point, David knew that his personal mission was to combine change-making with entrepreneurship. It was a decisive third step toward an idea he hadn’t yet realized.

Collaboration sparks a brilliant idea
Choosing to pivot once again, David enrolled at MIT’s Sloan MBA program in 2009. The class was assigned to come up with a poverty solution that would better the lives of a billion people. David recalled his experiences in China with a team of classmates, — who had similar experiences in India, Kenya, and even New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina —and they ran with it.

“It got us thinking about why there are so many terrible toilets in the world,” he says. “At the same time, if it was a question of just providing good toilets, wouldn’t that have been solved already? The question was more systemic and led to us asking: how can you extract value from waste? How do you come up with a sustainable solution that gets people to participate in the sanitation value chain?”

That puzzle occupied the team — a varied bunch of engineers, nonprofit veterans, and technologists — for more than a year and a half. With the help of sanitation experts and the MIT community, they developed a franchise model for an inexpensively produced toilet that individuals in a local community could buy and operate as a business, charging a small fee for each use. Then, to complete the loop, Sanergy would collect the waste, treat it, and convert it into products such as fertilizer — literally turning community waste into community value.

They had the technology, a business plan, a working model, and substantial funding, including $100,000 from an MIT entrepreneurship contest, where they had beaten 279 other teams for the top prize. Achieving their goal was just a few steps away — but would it actually work?

“Business plans are great, but implementation is so much harder,” David says. “There were all kinds of bumps in the road that didn’t materialize until we were on the ground. How do you find people? How do you build trust? What happens when it rains and it’s impossible to get to the community?”

There was only one way to find out.

Nairobi provides unexpected inspiration
Sanergy launched in the slums of Nairobi, where a vibrant culture of social entrepreneurship already existed — as did an urgent sanitation problem. Women and children risked violence and sexual assault by walking to distant public toilets, and so often resorted to using plastic bags.

On their first trip, they met a youth group trying to run a sanitation facility as a business. David remembers feeling crestfallen when they saw how much the group, which lacked the appropriate support or technology, was struggling.

“But then, the same youth group asked us if we wanted to see their urban garden,” David says. “We walked deep into the heart of the informal settlements, where we finally reached an open clearing. There, they had removed a trash site and put in an acre-sized farm with livestock and fresh vegetables. At that moment, I saw how committed young people were to changing their communities, and became convinced that, with the right support, we could help many people in the community tackle the sanitation challenge.”

Heartened, the team threw themselves into the challenge. They worked with local experts, such as professors at the University of Nairobi, to fit their model to Kenyan needs and sensibilities. This included changing the product name (“Fresh Life” emphasizes cleanliness) and logo.

Nearly four years later, Fresh Life toilets are a hit. Currently, 457 toilets are in operation, providing 523 jobs and hygienic sanitation to 18,000 Nairobi residents daily. With two toilets in operation, a Fresh Life owner — who has access to 0% interest loans from Kiva to make the initial purchase — can earn about $2,000 in yearly profits. That’s a life-changing sum in a country where half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. 

What’s more, the positive ripple effect of hope and self-respect continues to spread, David says. Take Nairobi resident Samuel Muindi, who joined Sanergy as a waste collector in 2011. He worked his way up the Sanergy ladder and, with his savings supplemented by loans, purchased a Fresh Life toilet in 2013 for his sister to operate. Bit by the entrepreneur bug, he’s since opened a shower facility in his community and plans to purchase more Fresh Life toilets.

“It’s allowed Samuel to think about his future in a way that he was never able to before,” David says. Just like David learned to do a decade before.

David Auerbach holds a BA from Yale University and an MBA from MIT Sloan. Previously, David co-ran Partnerships, Policy, and Outreach at Endeavor. He was the Deputy Chair for Poverty Alleviation at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2005–2006, and taught in China for two years. David is a Legatum, Rainer Arnhold, Ashoka and Echoing Green Fellow. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya.

Read our first Unstuck Heroes story here: How a grilled cheese sandwich saved the day

Next week: How to make the most of a big mistake
Last week: 
What to do when you feel stuck in a job

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