Dense urban neighborhoods – result of India’s rapid urbanization. (Photo by Hemant Sagar) Imagine you are a girl living in a slum in Raipur, India. You wake up in the middle of the night and have to go to the bathroom, but you have nowhere to go. Indoor plumbing is unheard of. Walking a mile in the dark to the nearest public toilet is unsafe—ranging from potential harassment to rape. There simply are no options. It is common for women and girls to change when and how they eat to reduce the possibility of needing to go during the night.

A new social enterprise aims to provide a unique sanitation service to shantytowns. San+Co. produces mobile toilets that fit in slum dwellers’ homes. Waste is stored in a cartridge, which is collected every few days, and sent to a facility that produces and sells fertilizer. The facility also converts methane from the waste into electricity. In return for the cartridge, each family receives a rechargeable battery they can use to power a light bulb or two, and charge a mobile phone.

The system addresses many different issues. It provides a dignified, safe, and hygienic solution to a basic human need. Off-the-grid electricity translates to increased productivity for adults, extra study time for students, and additional safety. The fertilizer is an organic option for local farmers that helps increase their yield per acre. And the system reduces disease by keeping waste out of the local water supply.

Family in the pilot program in Raipur. (Photo by Vijay Mahajan) San+Co. is in the very early stages, with 50 pilot families. The group is still working on unit economics and scoping partnerships, but the idea is great and the dedication and passion of the team is palpable. I saw them present this past week at the Kellogg School of Management’s KIN Global Prize Competition. Four social enterprises pitched to senior leadership of global corporations, and each audience member was given $500 to award to the idea or ideas they thought had the most promise. San+Co. earned $40,900—the majority of the KIN Global prize money. The McCall Foundation kicked in an additional $10,000, and IndieGogo, an online platform for crowd-sourcing support, offered its services for free. San+Co. has been doing remarkably well at social business plan competitions across the US, and just this past week, it received a $75,000 investment from Village Capital.

What is the secret of San+Co.’s success? For one, its business model does not rely on infrastructure—a luxury that most slums do not have. San+Co’s toilets do not need a sewer system, and the electricity service does not rely on a grid. Its tagline is apt: “Offgrid utility platform.” The system is designed for the poorest of shantytowns, ones that receive no city services.

Central sewage infrastructure is not an option. (Photo by Hemant Sagar)
The other reason for its success points out a truth about entrepreneurship: To succeed, you need a great idea, great execution, and a great leadership team. San+Co’s leaders know how to give a great presentation. With humor and intelligence, they clearly describe the system and business model. They also humanize the results: San+Co. ultimately delivers dignity, health, and safety—basic human rights—in a way that’s accessible, affordable, and aspirational. Once one family on the block can light their home, all the other families want in on the action.Dharavi, landfill or residence? Slum where San+Co conducted enthographic research. (Photo by Somdutta Biswas).