By John DiConsiglio
Columbian College junior Maz Obuz and his friend Elliot School student Evan Young were just looking for a good grade in an engineering class. Given their disparate disciplinary studies—Obuz, now a senior, studied biological anthropology and Young, BA ’15, majored in international development—neither had much experience in the subject. But the course, Makeshift Innovation and Engineering in the Third World, sounded like an interesting change of pace. And their class assignment—identifying a developing world problem and finding a solution—was right up their alley. During their research, they stumbled upon a statistic that propelled their project: 2.5 billion people—roughly one third of the world’s population—lack access to adequate sanitation.
“At first we just thought this was a neglected issue that would make a great class presentation,” Young said. “We had no idea that it would take on a life of its own.”
One year later, Obuz and Young have done more than merely ace their final exam. They created an engineering and business model that won prizes from the GWupstart D-Prize Competition, the GW New Venture Competition (formerly known as the GW Business Plan Competition) and the Clinton Global Initiative University. They garnered grants that allowed them to take a fact-finding journey to India, and see with their own eyes the plight of slums plagued by waste management calamities. And they founded a nonprofit to raise awareness and develop solutions to the world-wide sanitation crisis.
“We had a crash course in navigating the world of business,” Obuz said. “Neither of us had done anything like this before. We were learning on the fly, and trying to affect as much change as possible.”
Addressing sanitation in the developing world may not seem like the most obvious path for two novice social entrepreneurs, but the deeper they delved into the issue, the more stunned and committed they became. Only 64 percent of the world's population has access to adequate sanitation; more people around the world have cellphones than toilets. As many as 1 billion still practice open defecation. Without access to sanitation, one child dies every minute from waterborne diseases like diarrhea and cholera.
“Studying international development, we spent a lot of time talking about big ticket issues like hunger and education,” Young said. “We never really touched on sanitation. People don’t understand the scope of the problem.”
The Crisis Epicenter
The pair focused their research on what they called the “epicenter of the sanitation crisis”: A massive Indian slum called Dharavi. In the shadow of skyscrapers rising over the city of Mumbai, Dharavi’s one million residents live in unimaginable squalor. With one toilet for every 1,440 people, 4,000 cases of waterborne diseases every day and 70 percent of the population defecating in the open, Dharavi is considered one of the largest humanitarian disasters in the sanitation field. “Women and children live in fear of going to unsafe public toilets. Families have no option but to bath and clean their clothes in water that they and their neighbors have defecated in,” Obuz said. “You have to ask: How can people be living like this in 2015?”
Their plan, dubbed Project Dharavi, was deceptively simple: They designed low-cost, durable toilets made of inexpensive high-density polyethylene. Each toilet contains a permanent outer structure and removable inner receptacle. When the inner portion is filled, households receive replacements. The waste is processed at a community hub and sold to biogas companies, which recycle it into items like fertilizer or methane to generate energy or power clean cook stoves. The cycle turns waste into a valuable economic product with the funds from the booming biogas industry paying for free toilets in Dharavi homes.
Obuz and Young “are trying to take something that's usually seen as a burden and turn it into an opportunity,” said Melanie Fedri, coordinator of the GWupstart Social Innovation Lab. “They want to link biogas companies with waste sources and create incentives for families to make sanitation a priority.” Fedri mentored Obuz and Young as they expanded their classroom research and entered Project Dharavi in the GWupstart D-Prize Poverty Solution Award, a collaboration between the Social Innovation Lab and the D-Prize, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated toward poverty-alleviation in the developing world.
After several rounds of questions from D-Prize mentors and judges, the pair went back to the drawing board to improve their presentation. They consulted with public health and social entrepreneurship experts, and teamed with GW engineering students to develop a prototype of their in-home toilet.
“The multidisciplinary of their team was one of their strengths,” Fedri said. “The judges knew that the team had already done much to refine their concept and revisit their assumptions.”
After winning the D-Prize, Obuz and Young entered the 2014-15 GW New Venture Competition, competing in a pool of over a 100 teams and advancing to the 10-team finals. Finishing third overall, Project Dharavi received a $10,000 award as well as an additional $7,500 for winning the competition’s Best International Venture prize.
And there was no question in their mind about how to use those funds: travel to India and witness firsthand the slums of Dharavi. “We spent so much time trying to wrap our heads around this issue that we got to point where we realized we wouldn’t be able to understand the real nature of the problem until we saw it ourselves,” Young said.
In August, shortly after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed the sanitation crisis as the greatest threat to the nation, Obuz and Young flew to Delhi. They met with members of parliament and local nonprofits to present their plans for a sustainable solution. Accompanied by government representatives, the pair toured a handful of rural and urban slum clusters, including Dharavi.
And what they saw was worse than they had imagined. Monsoons had flooded the poorly constructed septic tanks, and rivers of waste water ran through the streets. Obuz spotted children openly defecating on the side of the road. One elderly man waved Obuz to the back of his corrugated metal shack, where pigs grazed on a field of feces. “The destitute poverty, the horrible living conditions, it was everywhere you looked,” Obuz said. “India doesn’t hold anything back.”
Since their return, Project Dharavi has been renamed Asepsis, and its scope has expanded. Seeking a “more multifaceted approach,” Young said Asepsis’ mission is to raise awareness while partnering with international organizations to offer creative solutions for the world’s sanitation crisis-points. Young serves fulltime as Asepsis’ executive director while Obuz balances his studies with his role in the fledgling nonprofit. The team continues to work with the Indian government and NGOs toward the goal of bringing 2,000 toilets to Dharavi by 2017.
“From the beginning, our aim has been to restore to the people of Dharavi—and to people around the world—the privacy, safety and dignity we take for granted,” Young said. “That hasn’t changed. We’re looking for a global solution. And we’re just getting started.”