(Summer ’11) Benji Moncivaiz ’11

Public Service Fellow Benji Moncivaiz ’11 is working in Nairobi with the Sanergy team, contributing to redesigning the sanitation center and co-directing the Nairobi fabrication and construction teams.

Learning: September 1, 2011

Despite what popular belief prescribes, Nairobi has made it to the “Cities I Will Visit Again” list. I wasn’t pick-pocketed or mugged on the street; I haggled in markets, got lost on busy roads, listened to advice from strangers, and ate street food…and am happy I did each and every one of them! I grew closer to my team mates as we crammed in taxis and I became more confident when chatting with community members alongside our local liaisons. The variety of experiences in this city encouraged me in my work in the world; however, the summer was hugely special and valuable mostly because of the team I was able to work with at Sanergy.

Working within the startup setting of Sanergy helped me solidify my working ideals and realize my motivations behind training for a career in international development. Thanks to the business-minded focus of our venture, I was thrust into marketing and money talk – subjects not focused on in engineering studies. Because of the variety of challenges faced by Sanergy, I have learned things the classroom cannot. I learned how to identify what market opportunities and complications surround a business idea. I learned that the design of a technology or system isn’t just about engineering; a good engineer will fully consider the viability of the technology in the current marketplace as a design constraint along with material usage and manufacturability. I learned that though something is a detail, its importance demands deep thought and planning. I learned that I need to ask questions of those who have taken steps similar to those I plan to – they will provide invaluable insights and useful connections. Finally, I learned that I love this work!

I am blessed to have become a deeper and wider mind and hand with Sanergy. As fall comes, the October 8th grand opening of Sanergy’s Fresh Life toilet construction effort follows. The Sanergy team was able to successfully plan the fabrication and construction of the toilets, make lasting partnerships with local men and women to run them, and finalize agreements with local businesses to support the financing, construction, and operation of the toilets. I anxiously await the culminating launch of my designing, organizing, and planning as Sanergy moves to build the targeted 60 toilets by the end of 2011. I am proud to have been a part of providing accessible, affordable, and hygienic sanitation facilities for these communities and thank Sanergy for welcoming me onto the team!

Olivia: August 15, 2011

Olivia has been a part of the Sanergy team since the beginning of a summer. As a rising senior in high school, her insights and motivation have been both encouraging and inspiring. I hope you enjoy her thoughts about the summer:

As a citizen of Kenya, I can readily attest that we face many challenges, such as famine, poor sanitation and HIV-AIDS. With the newspapers, radio and Internet talking about these from morning to night, I felt that I couldn’t escape the bad news. They instilled a sense of urgency within me. Something had to be done about it. It was with this entrepreneurial mindset that I found myself on the Sanergy team.

At Sanergy, I work on the demand generation team. Our role is to build community awareness around issues of sanitation; to create an effective brand that is recognized by all; and to plan marketing campaigns for the Sanergy toilets that will attract users after each one opens.

At first I thought of this as a straightforward responsibility – everybody appreciates the value of good sanitation. While we have found this to be true in slums, I quickly learned that people’s use of good sanitation was determined by their economic incentives, not just the health benefits. Lasting behavior change within the communities would take some serious convincing. But how?

Our team initially focused on the most effective means of communicating with the community. We wanted to reach as many people as possible and with a long-lasting impact. We met with the marketing departments of the most respected brands in Kenya such as Coca-Cola, Faulu Bank, and Safaricom to gain their perspective. But we really needed to know what the community wanted. We undertook much qualitative local research: meeting with grocers, pastors, landlords, and children.

The combination of listening to the customer and understanding why companies before us succeeded produced our marketing strategy for the base of the pyramid. I think that we’ve come up with a lot of high potential ideas. In addition to traditional marketing such as bright, powerful advertisements, we aim to engage the community to demand improved sanitation through community forums, such as the Jirani and Chama meetings.

I’m glad to have contributed even the smallest amount towards building a better Kenya. I applaud the efforts of the government in Vision 2030, which is a strategy to improve our nation holistically, the immeasurable aid that NGOs generate for Kenya, and even the rapid-response initiatives such as Kenyans for Kenya (which is raising money to feed the hungry). Ultimately though, these big issues, such as sanitation, can only be eradicated by every Kenyan playing their part.

Details: July 22, 2011

Here I am, a structural engineer building probably one of the simplest structures out there: a single toilet unit. Though the task seems laughably simple, it is incredible to realize how many details must be worked out to make this particular toilet successful. Toilets exist in the slums of Nairobi, but some of the most forward-looking (those that are not simply a pit) have failed for a variety of reasons. Some have sewage-line backups, others experience severe water supply shortages, and all are affected by rising costs of operation (such as the tripling of cost for toilet paper, for example). Our team must consider these plus land rights issues, operator-training modules, physical and behavioral penetration of our proposed system, how we might interact with schools differently than businesses or individuals, not to mention decide exactly which process to use to make our somewhat “controversial” fertilizer most appealing to commercial farms. Even the small details of getting from one place to another takes a full hour more because traffic was bad on the main road where all public transport travels. There are innumerable details in flux that one must keep in mind.

The amount of patience and incessantly thorough preparation required to push things forward when Plan C falls through has been challenging. I pride myself on being a dependable worker, so when someone I am counting on to help me squeeze all that I can in one short summer fails…it makes me stop in my tracks and take a deep breath. Take this week as an example when my partner and I were waiting and hoping for carpenters to make a few of our prototype parts. From these, we are wanting to create molds from which we can learn specifically what fabrication processes are best. The carpenters’ proposed timeline has been more than doubled to two weeks from the originally-promised five days. Though we haven’t been able to learn from these parts yet, my partner and I have been able to rearrange and take some valuable time to evaluate our work. Having our summer schedule mostly planned on paper was invaluable for allowing us to reshuffle, for had we not we would have been distraught for work and wasted valuable time. Though it has been disappointing to have to wait so much longer, I have learned that places where practical innovation is needed require not only the passion to drive forward, but also the package of flexibility-patience-quickmind that rivals an elementary school teacher’s.

I am happy to say that though this realization is more like a reality check, it is just right for me: an optimist mistaken for an idealist who still dares to think that the world will be changed through individual, personal, and deep investments. These lessons will keep my head in the game and be the note on the back of my hand to remind me to confirm and reconfirm schedules, to be prepared for curve balls, and to appreciate and attack the piles of details from the very beginning.

Sanergy 101: July 5, 2011

Sanergy has now been firmly grasped by Nairobi and I am here to experience some of what it takes to create a start-up, sustainable, productive, impacting, poverty-alleviating, job-creating sanitation infrastructure in the slums! Ultimately, my role here is to build capacity. To create the jobs in manufacturing, assembling, and operating these centers, however, one needs a good product. I will be helping to create an improved sanitation center for Sanergy to build in the next cycle of construction. Then I will connect this inanimate sanitation center to motivated individuals so that the centers might serve their purpose in improving community health and income. The centers are not built 100% correctly the first time and they most certainly do not build themselves, so the first part of the summer I am helping coordinate (and do!) the prototyping of the new design while the second part of the summer I will be connecting the manufacturing processes to people here by creating and running the fabrication and assembly training sessions. I will be training local men and women through financial and managerial workshops.

Now that you know all the background, I’ll introduce some toilets we are aiming to improve upon:

These and others are built in a block. Smelly and unavailable for those without the key, these compounds don’t provide a pleasant or easy place for people to go. The size and price of these toilets make them even harder to penetrate the slums. I stuck my head just before one of the rooms open doors to be (unsurprisingly) hit with a heavy, yet pungent smell that easily beats my nephew’s diaper 5 to 1. We went and visited the Sanergy toilet and went in. This time, no smell!

Benji is aiming to build up the sanitation infrastructure in the slums surrounding Nairobi. He is working with Sanergy in its efforts to build an affordable, accessible, and clean toilet. You can find out more at saner.gy and follow Sanergy on Twitter at @sanergy and Benji at @benmonci.

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