What Andrew Carnegie Has To Do With Toilets

Andrew Carnegie
Between 1883 and 1929, American industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, was constructing public libraries. Lots of them. And the construction of these libraries revolved around what was later known as “The Carnegie Formula,” wherein the community that was to receive a library had to put forward matching contributions. The residents had to demonstrate the need for a library, provide the building site, give a portion of the construction costs to support ongoing operations, and the library had to be open to everyone.

This way, the residents would have an equal stake in the library’s construction and management, and equal ownership in its benefit to the community. Carnegie went on to build 2,509 public libraries all over the world which provided a great service to millions of people.

At Sanergy, we’re far from 2,509 Fresh Life Toilets, but our own business approach takes a page from “The Carnegie Formula.” Our toilets are built and operated as franchises, where the entrepreneur must be familiar with the need for a toilet in their area, provide the land upon which to build the toilet, and provide the funds for the toilet facility, training, and daily waste collection. Furthermore, residents must pay to use the toilets, and we are working to make them affordable for every single slum resident (open to everyone).

The debate in development about “free vs. paid vs. subsidized” services continues to rage on, but an important lesson we’ve taken away is that a model for social change rooted in equality between the beneficiary and the benefactor is paramount.

Every quarter, we call together our network of entrepreneurs to share their thoughts on the business, provide feedback to our core team, and explore ideas for improving and scaling Fresh Life. At the Q3 Forum, held last week, one of our FLOs, Virginia Wanjiru, briefly described what life before Fresh Life was and why she had reason to celebrate.

“I’m a parent and I’d spend so much money on hospital bills; my kids were almost always in hospital because of diarrhea and typhoid, but since the Fresh Life Toilets came, I have hardly had to take any of my children to hospital…” For Virginia, the biggest impact she has witnessed is a massive improvement in the health and living standard of her family.

Fresh Life Operators discuss business strategy.
Fresh Life Operators discuss business strategy.

The FLOs talked about how Fresh Life had improved the health and living standards of families, improved their incomes, cleaned the environment, and provided job opportunities to the previously jobless. The stories continued…

  • Esther Murunga recalled a time when she would beg for 3 Ksh just to buy water. She can now buy her own water and still have plenty left to sustain her and her family.
  • Daniel Wahome, a contractor, remembers a time when able bodied men would look for work from him every single day, “… more than half of those men are now employed by Fresh Life and I have to source for labor elsewhere!”
  • James Ndolo on the other hand, was particularly grateful for the change in his environment, “I can now sit outside my house and eat or enjoy the sunshine; no one could do that before because the environment looked and smelt terrible. People would have to close their doors in order to eat; but this toilet has really saved us…really really saved us.”
Operations Manager, Dennis Ochieng awards Esther Mwikali “FLO of the Quarter.”
Operations Manager, Dennis Ochieng awards Esther Mwikali “FLO of the Quarter.”

But what was shared wasn’t all sunshine, and that’s exactly what we mean when we say there must be equal investment in the business from beneficiaries in order to move forward. FLOs, having as much (if not more) “skin in the game” in Fresh Life, were vocal about what they wanted to change about the business. These points ranged from improvements in the toilet design, a need to educate locals on the mission of Sanergy, and even got down to such details as sawdust prices.

Andrew Carnegie once remarked that giving should be directed towards “the industrious and ambitious; those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.” We celebrated the achievements of Fresh Life at the Forum, through individual awards for “Most Improved FLO,” “Cleanest Toilet,” and “FLO of the Quarter,” realizing that none of these triumphs would have been possible without our industrious and ambitious entrepreneurs, brimming with an eagerness to help their own community.

Group Shot

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