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Member Spotlight: Sloan Entrepreneurs In International Development: Adventures In Nairobi

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A student team from Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development at MIT Sloan School of Management travels to Nairobi to address sanitation issues in Nairobi slums. Team member, Carolyn Mansfield Dupont writes about their experiences in the field.  

One Wednesday in January, I found myself in the Nairobi slums, shimmying along a shoddy brick wall, clinging to the corrugated tin roof of a nearby shack while trying desperately not to accidentally step into a large pool of waste and human excrement right behind us. I looked over at my classmate, Sandhya, who took a break from focused grimacing to smile at me. We were clearly both thinking to ourselves: wait, is this what we signed up for when we signed up for Sloan?

In fact, the river of human waste was exactly what we were there to work on. We were working with Sanergy, a social enterprise started by fellow Sloanies a few years ago to improve sanitation in Nairobi's slums. Sanergy franchises toilets (basically port-a-potties) to local residents who then charge users a per-use fee. Sanergy collects and processes the waste and is exploring ways to generate revenue from it, such as fertilizer sales. The existing alternatives are pit toilets that also charge a fee but are significantly less clean or "flying toilets" where waste is discarded in public areas. Sanergy provides a clean environment, toilet paper, and hand washing stations to improve sanitation practices. Time and again, residents we talked with discussed how the existence of Sanergy toilets had significantly reduced human waste in common areas and made their area much more livable.



Through Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development (or SEID as it's known on campus), I had come to Nairobi for a week in January with two teammates, Sandhya Murali and Aliza Landes. Our task was to develop a data-driven solution to setting usage targets for the toilet -- based on extensive Salesforce data that Sanergy has carefully collected over the past several years, we were looking at how factors like the toilet's location, the price the owner charged, and the cleanliness of the toilet affect usage rates. We had spent hours poring through the data before we arrived, but we knew that we needed to see the operation on the ground to better understand the dynamics between users, franchise owners, and the Sanergy staff in order to be able to deliver a useful tool to Sanergy.

On the trip, we spent two days "in the field," visiting toilet operators and getting a better feel for what might make one toilet more successful than another in terms of user numbers. We also got the chance to speak with a broad range of Sanergy staff in their two Nairobi offices, who shared their insights and hypotheses on what we should consider in our analysis. Ultimately, after using some of the regression tools we learned in DMD (the Data, Models, and Decisions core class), we realized two things. First, just handing off the results of a complicated regression model to the toilet operators wouldn't be a helpful tool in explaining how many toilet users they have per day. Second, real world problems won't necessarily spit out perfect textbook regression results. Despite how carefully Sanergy has set up their data collection system, there will always be challenges to data collection and validation in that environment and relevant factors -- such as how friendly an operator is -- that will be hard to quantify. 

Ultimately, we landed on a scatterplot model that would allow the Sanergy staff to clearly share the average user numbers with toilet operators to help them benchmark their toilet's performance compared to their peers. We are looking forward to working with Sanergy staff going forward to see how the tool is used and how it can be refined to be even more helpful.

The trip was an amazing experience for me on a number of levels. First, I saw my academic work in action and honed my Excel skills while working on a mission-driven project, supporting Sloanies who had built up this incredible operation in just a few short years. Second, on a more personal level, it was my first trip to Africa and provided real -- if brief -- exposure to what it would be like to work in development. And finally, the trip -- both the Nairobi part and then summiting Kilimanjaro afterward -- solidified what I'm sure will be long-term friendships with a number of amazing classmates.



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Tags:  Africa  Entrepreneurs  MIT Sloan  Sanergy 

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