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Image credit: Emily Woods, Sanivation

Emily Woods: "Be ready to make changes"

Emily Woods: "Be ready to make changes"

Transforming waste into power

Image above: Briquettes made of human waste burning to be used as cooking fuel

What can your poop do? In Naivasha – a community in northwest Nairobi, Kenya – human poop is the magic ingredient providing solid fuel for cooking. Oluwabusayomi Sotunde finds out more.

At the age of 24, Emily Woods teamed up with fellow Georgia Tech graduate, Andrew Foote, to create Sanivation – a social enterprise that address waste management and sanitation challenges.

Sanivation provides private, dry container-based toilets to households in slums and refugee camps. The waste is collected twice a week and taken to a solar processing plant where it is treated and transformed into low-cost energy briquettes that are safer to burn than traditional charcoal.

These charcoal briquettes emit less carbon monoxide and particulate emissions and provide household fuel and heat.

“The toilet is free but they pay a monthly service fee of about US$6 a month,” says 28-year-old Emily, who also serves as Sanivation's Chief Engineer.

Paying attention

Globally, sanitation is an ongoing social-economic struggle.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) more than 2.5 billion people in the developing world do not have access to toilets. Diarrhoea – and sanitation-related diseases – remain the second leading cause of death of children under the age of five.

Emily, who comes from America orginally, says that waste management challenges come every day. “No one has figured it out. Even in the developed western world where I come from, it’s difficult to cut expenses.”

Goal 6 of the United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs) seeks to make universal access to safe sanitation and water a reality by 2030.

Emily Woods and Andrew Foote carrying a blue box toilet

Emily Woods and Andrew Foote carrying a blue box toilet. Image credit: Emily Woods and Sanivation

For Sanivation, in the four years of launching commercially, Emily says the constant challenge is trying things that don’t work and having the endurance to consider different options.

To address these challenges, Emily says one must “constantly pay attention to the metrics.”

“Be ready to make changes. You might think you have the perfect solution and you might have the people you have hired whose service is perfect, but you must constantly pay attention to what people are telling you. You really have to look over and all over again and see if there are ways to make things better. You can’t put all your money into one idea that you think will be great.”

Learning by doing

A graduate of mechanical engineering, Emily believes simple engineering solutions can change the world. She began her work in faecal sludge as a research engineer for Georgia Tech Research Institute.

Emily also garnered experience from various summer internships while she was still a student. A selection of her work includes prototyping solar latrines in Chile and working as a sanitation engineer for Water and Sanitation for Urban Poor (WSUP) in Naivasha, Kenya where she would later establish Sanivation.

The internships helped her build skills, character and passion for social impact.

“When I was working at WSUP, we had a big project where they had funding to put in 900 trees in the area where I work now. While I was doing that for three months, I realised that planting trees isn’t going to solve everything, especially if there is no sustainable management. So I stayed back.”

Sanitation operative services a bluebox toilet

Sanitation operative services a bluebox toilet. Image credit: Emily Woods and Sanivation

In 2012, she and Andrew Foote began commercially converting human faeces into sustainable solid fuel. The locally made toilets are called “blue boxes”. To date, they have provided about 500 households with improved in-home toilet and on the charcoal side, sold over 40 metric tonnes of charcoal.

Emily says, “For every tonne of charcoal used, saves 88 trees. If you look at the 40 tonnes used, that is a lot of trees that have been saved.”

“It wasn’t until when I was living here in Kenya that I understood it was not just the treatment that is the issue in the full cycle, it was the better way to provide households with toilets. It was actually here in Kenya that I started understanding how expensive solid fuel is. How much people spend on charcoal, on wood,” she explains.

This video explains the process of turning poop into briquettes

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), it takes five tonnes of trees to produce just one ton of charcoal. This makes the project not only a simple effort to improve sanitation, but a means to curb deforestation and a sustainable way to reduce the felling of trees for charcoal.

Sanivation hopes to serve over 1 million people living in refugee camps and informal settlements by 2020. To meet sanitation goals, it has begun collaborating in public-private partnerships with Kenyan municipalities to achieve the sanitation policy goal of improving sanitation access from 30% to 100% by 2030.

Finding your purpose

When addressing a specific social problem, Emily posits that it is important to look beyond the “surface level why”.

“The more you work in an area, the ‘why’ changes. When I first came here to Kenya, I thought I knew what the problem was and decided to fix it but actually, the more I live and work here in Kenya, I realise that was only the ‘surface level why’. ”

She continues, “I think a lot of time, you have the ‘surface level why’ and some people solve a problem for that, but that does not give the answer to the deeper, richer why. The deeper you go, you get to understand that the problem is actually deeper. ”

Sanivation operating site

The Sanivation operating site. Image credit: Emily Woods and Sanivation

Over the years, Sanivation has received accolades for its work.  In 2016, Emily was named one of the brightest minds in America under the age of 30 by Forbes magazine.

Emily says such recognition has given her and Sanivation credibility. “The best thing these awards and media attention has given is to give us a foothold to start conversations. Some of these have helped us raise funds, get partners and more mentors.”

Her advice to young people leading change?

“People are going to tell you that it is not possible and it is going to take a lot of discernment to figure out whom to listen to. Try not to listen to the naysayers. Give it all you’ve got until you know within yourself without a doubt, that it is indeed impossible.”

"It's good to have the toilet inside, because then you can use it at night and you know that you're safe."

Sanivation customers

"This toilet is very smart. I show all my friends."

Sanivation customers

"I want to get another blue box for my son but he lives in Nairobi, so we are waiting."

Sanivation customers

"Our neighbours like to use our blue box too. We just wipe the seat with a tissue so everyone can use it."

Sanivation customers