Saniter | Solving the problem of open defecation

This week we are proud to feature Saniter, a company that the McGill Dobson Centre has helped build and grow.

Saniter 2015 MDC
Saniter, 1st Pace Winner of the Social Enterprise Track in the 2015 McGill Dobson Cup

Some startups grow around a team of entrepreneurs who use their talents and skills to pivot many times in the type of problem that they are trying to solve. Saniter took the exact opposite route. The company’s founder, Swathi Sadagopan decided she was going to solve a very specific problem: she was going to provide a sustainable solution to open defecation to the billion-plus of individuals around the world who currently do not have access to any sort of sewage facilities.

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In India alone, it is estimated that over five hundred million people have no access to proper sanitation. It would be difficult to overestimate the risks associated with open defecation. The negative side effects range from environmental pollution to health risks to risks of assault.

After identifying the problem, Swathi, an electrical engineer herself, found two collaborators from the McGill engineering department and began to work out the details of the solution. Swathi chose the village Light House Kuppam in Tamil Nadu, India, as the ground zero where the pilot will be launching in early 2016.

While Saniter is not the first to address the issue of open defecation, they have combined three key incremental innovations to create what could be a potentially powerful solution:

1. A ow-cost toilet-in-a-box that is assembled using materials already manufactured at scale,

2. Leverage an existing network of vacuum truck operators to clean the collected waste

3. Bundle sanitation and energy as a single service to create a compelling reason for buying their product. Currently, Swathi’s team has secured funding from the Dobson Center and the Infosys Foundation and are in the process of working out the kinks of the physical prototype.

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When discussing the challenges the project faces on the ground, Swathi is quick to mention the necessity to gain grassroots support in the local communities. Support must come from community members fully integrated in the local society. For the project to be successful, it is crucial that the initiative be perceived as coming from within the community rather than being forced upon by outsiders. According to Swathi, pregnant women and families with sons of a marrying age are most receptive of the idea as they are impacted most by the existing unsanitary conditions.

The Saniter team has also chosen the right time to enter the market as the problem of open defecation is high on the agenda for Indian authorities. From the beginning of his campaign, Nerendra Modi proclaimed a”toilets first, temples later” approach to the problem of open defecation. The fact that the problem is now high on the national agenda is an important factor as it increases funding for existing organizations working in the same field and promotes the benevolence of local government officials who often have the power to make-or-break an entrepreneurial project. India’s government had been tackling the problem by attempting to raise social awareness (for example the “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign) as well as very concrete cash incentives that subsidize the construction of toilets in rural homes. 

We wish the best of luck to the Saniter team and will be sure to provide you with updates as their journey continues.

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Above: Open defecation field in Light House Kuppam, Tamil Nadu

Dobson Chronicles

The Dobson Chronicles is the official blog of the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship.