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Sewasan: Improving Sanitation for Slum Dwellers

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sewasan.jpgIt's not your run-of-the mill student project, that's for sure. A group of university students from India and Minnesota who took a social entrepreneurship class together last fall are developing a people- and environment-friendly sanitation system for slum dwellers in India.

The team is part of Acara, an IonE program that prepares young leaders to develop entrepreneurial solutions to specific sustainable development challenges, then helps the best teams launch their ventures. Sewasan was one of four teams chosen to attend the three-week Acara Summer Institute in Bangalore last month, where they received intensive training to turn their visions into practical plans for moving ahead.

Here's a summary of Sewasan's plan, courtesy of team member Radhika Kapoor:

Who are we?
We are Sewasan, a social venture formed by a group of young entrepreneurs from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds and different parts parts of the world for solving the critical problem of access to water and sanitation facilities in urban slums.

What do we do?
We provide urban slum dwellers safe, dignified and affordable sanitation by constructing and maintaining toilet facilities where demand for such services is high. We also believe that the solution will provide quantifiable water savings to communities that do not have water and sanitation problems. Sewasan manages the development of the facilities and their use in the community to ensure cleanliness, functionality, steady revenues, improved public health and environmentally responsible handling of waste. 

Why do we do this?
Over the last  decade, many community toilet complexes have been rendered dysfunctional in India due to severe water shortages and drastic drops in the groundwater table. Consequently, slum residents are forced to defecate in open spaces, threatening health and safety.  The women of these communities are prone to various gynecological illnesses and are put at risk of harassment and even rape.  Currently, over 1.8 million people live in slums in Delhi alone. Most face these problems every day.

How are we unique?
We provide an innovative waterless toilet. The toilet is a three-hole squatting pan, modified to suit the Indian way of defecation, set over a composting pit. The toilet diverts urine and wash water through the sewer pipes to the main drain. Feces are decomposed in a cemented composting pit below the toilet structure, preventing groundwater contamination.This method of sanitation consumes less than a liter of water per day for a family and  converts human wastewaterless.jpg to fertilizer and revenue. The  toilet  can be constructed even where high water tables, hard rock or  other conditions prevent construction of regular toilets.

Where do we start?
We are presently working on setting up a pilot project in a slum in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. The pilot project has a potential customer base of 3,500 slum dwellers.

How are we financially sustainable?
Sewasan sees a solid business opportunity with the potential for reasonable financial returns and immense social value.We will use various affordable and flexible subscription models such as pay per use and monthly, individual and family memberships as our main revenue stream. We will also generate revenue by selling the decomposed human feces. This revenue will allow our venture to continue improving the water, sanitation and safety conditions of the slum dwellers. Sewasan will need a capital investment of Rs. 18 Lakh to construct the facility and operate it for 20 months, at which point the venture will break even and will be able to sustain itself. This will cover the costs of construction of 50 toilets, registration, training, operations and maintenance, electricity, water, and the purchase materials. The return on investment after 24 months of operation is expected to be 8 percent, assuming  70 percent of the community of 3,500 people subscribe. Part of the profits will be given back to the community to improve education. The venture will be run through an administrative body that monitors functioning, operations and maintenance of the facility and is responsible for revenue collection and subscription. The administrative body will have community, local NGO and Sewasan board representation.

Is the community a part of the solution?
The community has been part of the solution since the beginning. Numerous interactions helped us come up our design. To promote a feeling of ownership, we ask for a nominal contribution from the community for the construction of the facility. The skill sets of the community are also used in the project's design, construction, operations, administration, maintenance, etc. We believe community involvement is central and aim to strengthen our relationship with the community over time.

How did Acara help?
Acara helped us identify perceived risks of our proposal so we could counter them. The Acara Summer Institute helped us gain a thorough understanding of our business plan.

Who's on the team?
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Emily Gross (civil engineering), Kurtis D. McIntire, E.I.T. (civil/water resources engineering), Laurie McGinley (architecture and sustainable design), Mark A. Edstrom (MBA), Matt Carney (civil engineering, sustainability studies, construction); THE ENERGY & RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Bhumika Khanna (infrastructure management), Radhika Kapoor electronics and communication engineering (MBA, business sustainability), Rahul Raju Dusa (renewable energy and engineering management), Shruti Sehgal (MBA, infrastructure), Shilpy Dewan(MBA infrastructure), Shashaank Shekhar (renewable energy and engineering management)management, Upkari Nath Tripathi (renewable energy and engineering management).

For more information: sewasan@gmail.com

Illustrations courtesy of Sewasan

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.