The Toilet Malls of Nairobi

At Iko-Toilet centers, customers can do their business, have a drink, and maybe even get a haircut, all in one place.

My husband and I have five bathrooms in our house, 2.5 per occupant.  Inhabitants of the world’s sprawling shantytowns and slums typically share latrines with several hundred people—and often have to pay for the privilege. In many places, the absence of affordable, safe sanitation results in residents of informal settlements constantly suffering from waterborne illnesses; these diseases frequently kill young children.

David Kuria, a former Kenyan career NGO professional, saw opportunity in this sanitation crisis. He spent a few years developing and launching Iko-Toilet centers which offer clean, safe, attractive, reasonably-priced eco-san (short for ecological sanitation) toilets and anchor a host of neighborhood services.

Industrialized world plumbing flushes waste away, though arguably there is no “away.” A great deal of clean water, chemicals, and fossil-fuel energy are consumed to accomplish this method, developed in the 19th century. Eco-san approaches waste as an asset, seeking to kill its inherent pathogens while reclaiming its nutrients and energy.

The underground technology featured in each Iko-Toilet complex is a biodigester, a sealed chamber where waste decomposes anaerobically, without oxygen. The process produces methane gas—which can be sold as fuel or used for heating water for co-located hot showers—and organic fertilizer. 

Customers can become members of Iko-Toilet centers or pay per use. Iko Hosts manage the facility, ensuring cleanliness. Vendors and service providers rent space adjacent to the "toilet mall," attracting foot traffic and contributing to their becoming community hubs. Use the loo, wash your hands—a hugely valuable resource—and maybe take a shower, then charge your phone, buy cell minutes, have a drink, visit the barber, hang out with your friends. 

Iko brand toilet malls are attractive buildings, sporting branded orange and brown colors reflecting Kuria’s training as an architect. It is a profit-making chain, paying off loans from the Acumen fund, and expanding beyond its Nairobi home. Highly replicable, indeed: People everywhere will spend a little bit more for the value, safety, privacy, and service that Iko Toilet offers. Iko Toilet finds that its customers are quite loyal. Their alternatives, after all, are not very appealing.

If Iko-Toilet is a sanitation mall, Sanergy is a chain of toilet boutiques. Their cheerful Fresh Life branded, spanking clean, private latrines are embedded in slum neighborhoods. The units are run by Fresh Life Operators, micro-franchisees who maintain supplies and cleanliness and support themselves and their families on the proceeds. Upgrades include a mirror, coat hook, and solar-powered overhead light—but most of all offering privacy and the dignity of going to the bathroom alone. The tank's contents are picked up daily and hauled to a central composting location, eventually becoming fertilizer and biogas.

Various membership plans are available, including a monthly Family Plan which lowers the price per deposit. Prices are just slightly higher than for the overcrowded, stinky latrines, and amenities are included, so naturally Sanergy is expanding quickly. Their goal is to achieve profitability and continue expanding beyond their present 350 units.

The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is in full-swing. An estimated 2.5 billion people are in the market for affordable, safe, clean toilet options. Clearly there is a business in helping people do their business.

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Betsy Teutsch is a writer based in Philadelphia. She is currently working on a book, 100 Under $100: The Women's Global Toolkit.

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