MANILA — Local context and availability of resources are key while setting up a sanitation enterprise, says Virginia Gardiner, founder and CEO at Loowatt.
Loowatt specializes in container-based models of sanitation, its main product is a waterless toilet, which has a system in place to turn waste into value, such as energy and fertilizers. Loowatt has adapted to local needs and limitations, from designing for water-scarce regions to figuring out a business plan to sell fertilizers created from the toilet waste.
“The key to sustainability is working with local governments and municipal service providers who are already providing services to cities.”— Virginia Gardiner, founder and CEO, Loowatt
“Getting the product into people's hands is really important,” Gardiner told Devex. She explained the need to educate government stakeholders about the various possibilities, so they too can play a role in encouraging the production of sanitation byproducts through tariffs. Gardiner said that focusing on the end-customer and encouraging partnerships can lead to success in the sanitation sector.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How does your waste-to-value system work?
Loowatt uses a polymer film to create a waterless flush. So that film, usually kind of white in color, pulls the waste down through to the container below. And then what that enables again is that clean, odorless experience for the customer, and also for the servicer, because when the polymer film refill comes to a finish, you simply tie a knot and feed the last bit of material through into the container, put the lid on the container and change it. So there's never any exposure to human waste.
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Then we have a system where a machine captures all of the organics, so it separates out all of the polymer film and also any other objects that sometimes might be flushed down the toilet. And so that only the human waste is sent to anaerobic digestion or whatever other treatment option is locally available.
In Madagascar, the waste to value sort of sanitation economy side is a bit different. In the United Kingdom, the waste to value is basically the utilities can get cash for the energy they produce in anaerobic digestion, which is paid to them through government tariffs because there's an incentive created by the government to produce power from waste.
In Madagascar, we also produce energy in the process of anaerobic digestion, but we use that energy to pasteurize the liquid wastes after it's been anaerobically digested. We've run it through a pasteurizer to make sure that every human pathogen is eliminated. And then we have a liquid byproduct, which can be sold as fertilizer.
How about in the Philippines? You mentioned you did a pilot here with Laguna Water.
There's a lot of problems with pollution in the waterways, especially in Manila … septic tanks don't really work. And coastal areas that are prone to flooding, they produce a lot of contamination because they overflow, and the human waste just gets into the ocean.
So our system already brings a huge amount of value just in terms of getting waste from toilets to treatment instead of just disposing of it into local waterways.
What are your plans for scale-up and are you facing any challenges in that area?
Our plans are to scale-up as a provider of hardware to urban service providers, urban sanitation service providers and portable toilet service providers who are seeking high quality, non-sewered sanitation. We actually have seen a lot of demand from both customer groups for our technology.
Internationally there's approximately 30% of people in the world today that have access to sewers, which, you know, conversely 70% do not.
There's growing water shortages in most cities in the world. We sometimes have come across, and also I think is really faced by the sanitation sector on the whole … that concept of the water flush sewer, you know, that's actually what everybody should be aspiring towards, or the idea … that septic tanks are actually safe or appropriate for cities.
There's a need for a change in perception about what the right solutions for sanitation are. But also I would say that it's understandable because the water flush toilet is an invention which is hygienic and nice to use. And that's where we come in, because our approach to the technology development has been to put the to the end-user and the servicer first.
You mentioned the change of perception. Do you find that this is important to do with governments or with direct customers?
Getting the product into people's hands is really important. So even in the context of the portable toilets in the United Kingdom where we now have repeat business, before somebody [has] actually seen the toilet, or used the toilet, they don't know how it works because it's different.
End users are usually the first ones to understand why the product is great. So for us, the way that we've grown, the way that we've developed our business opportunity, has been by starting with the end-user, proving the technology with the end-user. And then what happens is then the service providers hear from the end-user that they love using our toilets and then they think, “Oh my customer wants this.”
I also think that government stakeholders are probably the ones who need to be educated the most in terms of being able to think differently about how sanitation works and how rolling out a non-sewered sanitation works … [and] they're really ultimately the decision-makers about these things. But we've also found that there's so many really enlightened and interested people in the government, especially in the Philippines. So it's an exciting space to be working in. And I think it's one where innovation is starting to take on.
Based on your experience, how huge really is the business opportunity? And are there any caveats or limitations that you can share based on your experience?
There's definitely a business opportunity there. There's definitely an opportunity for sanitation byproducts to generate revenues. It's very interesting to look at the United Kingdom and when you're looking at that question, because the United Kingdom is one of the first countries to adopt citywide sewers like in London. And over the years the water utilities have realized that it's very expensive to run sewers and very problematic in many ways. And at the same time, they have developed ways of generating power in the course of their processes.
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But what you see there, and this is coming back to your question about government, is that the government has had to play a very important role in encouraging the production of sanitation byproducts through tariffs. And I think that that will be true in other markets where people want to see the sanitation economy actually generate value.
Waste-to-value for human waste is quite similar to the waste-to-value for other types of solid waste … but for that to actually happen is going to require a lot of policymaking, and a lot of investment, and a lot of innovative financial policies.
How do you ensure the sustainability of your business?
From our point of view, the key to sustainability is working with local governments and municipal service providers who are already providing services to cities.
Are you currently on track on the targets and growth that you have for your business?
Yeah. I just thought I'd make sure it's extra clear that because we have a solution that works for portable toilets service providers as well as urban sanitation service providers, that also it comes back to the quality of the toilet experience. That's what's enabled us to grow.
What's your top advice for entities looking to venture into the sanitation sector?
I would say focus on the end-user, meaning the customer, the user experience of the toilet, the end-user, and the servicer as well.
I would also say don't try to do it alone; work in partnerships. The sanitation value chain starts with toilets and it ends with treatment or reuse, and there's a bunch of steps along the way. So it's basically what gets … the waste from toilets to treatment. There's containment, then transport, then processing and ... conversion.
For one entity to think that they can do it all, that's very difficult. It's better to focus on what you do best and work in partnerships with other entities so that ultimately the most value can be taken out of all of that to make it [a] more sustainable solution.