Bricking it: turning human waste into clean fuel

Oliver Balch

A social enterprise is transforming human waste into a clean, affordable fuel in Kenya. It smells like the future, discovers Oliver Balch

Andrew Foote likes to talk crap. He’d talk crap all day if you let him. Especially other people’s crap. Because for this 29-year-old US environment engineer, crap (or “poop” as he prefers), is the future. He knows that discussing human waste and how it’s managed is “not super glamorous”.

Yet, equally, he knows if he doesn’t talk about it, then few others will. Even in international development circles,
 it remains taboo.

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Yet the poop problem is at crisis levels in many poor countries. In Kenya, for instance, where Foote co-founded his firm Sanivation in 2014, an average of 17,000 under-fives die of diarrhoea every year. Foote is convinced these deaths could be avoided if the children had access to a clean, safe toilet.

So that’s what Sanivation does: it provides toilets to some of the poorest householders in Naivasha, a large market town north-west of Nairobi. The cost? Just $2 (£1.50) per month.

Cooking using the briquettes, clean-burning alternatives to charcoal

But it’s what then happens to all this “faecal fudge” (another of Foote’s euphemisms) that’s most remarkable.

Sanivation collects the human waste of its participating householders and processes it using a solar thermal technology of its own design. It is then converted into charcoal-like briquettes, which are sold in the local community for cooking and domestic heating.

The briquettes provide a lower-carbon and longer-lasting alternative to charcoal, producing just a third of the carbon emissions of conventional briquettes.

Foote is keen to grow his venture. Together with the Norwegian Refugee Council, Sanivation has set up a similar scheme in Kakuma refugee camp near the border with South Sudan. It provides sanitation services to 2,500 people in total and has sold 70,000 tonnes of briquettes (saving more than 6,000 trees).

The more sanitation entrepreneurs we can support and inspire, the better it will be for everyone

Sanivation plans to establish 30 more factories making poop-based briquettes across Kenya within the next three years, expanding to 100 across Africa by 2022. Each factory costs around $1m (£765,000), which Foote reckons can be recouped within six to seven years.

“In Kenya, the charcoal market is worth $1.4bn (£1.1bn), so quite a big market for us to tap into,” he says.

As well as briquettes for domestic use, Sanivation also makes carbonised pellets for industry-scale boilers. To help fund the firm’s growth, Foote hopes to strike supply deals with large companies, most of which currently use woodchips as feedstock for their biomass boilers.

Sanivation aims to improve sanitation services in poor areas, as well as producing a clean energy source for cooking and heating

Sanivation’s solar thermal technology is awaiting patent. However, Foote hopes that other innovators will jump into the field too. Indeed, he’d actively welcome it if others moved in to the poop market and started developing alternative technological solutions.

“We need more people talking about today’s sanitation crisis,” he says. “The more sanitation entrepreneurs we can support and inspire, the better it will be for everyone.”

Images: Chivas Venture and Tattuah Films Ltd.



This article is featured in issue 92 of Positive News magazine. Subscribe now to get the magazine delivered to your door each quarter.

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