A Long Winding Road

By Evan Young

When you start something that tries to find a comprehensive, sustainable solution in a field as complicated as sanitation, you’re bound to run into some obstacles. These can be anything from unexpected realities to stifling bureaucracy to an absurd amount of externalities you never took into account. The key, at least from what we’ve found, is to embrace these obstacles; take them in; embrace them; and forge on.

The direction in which you forge on is always a mystery. Nearly a year after Maz and I started our Project Dharavi solution from inside the GWU classroom of Matthew Wilkins, we’ve been taken for a wild ride. After receiving the D-Prize Grant and seeing success in the GW Business Plan Competition (where we came in Third Place Overall and won the Best International Venture Award), we saw an entire world open up in front of us that we felt compelled to explore. We needed answers to some of our most pressing questions and assumptions. So we went to find them.

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This search took us to Nicaragua and India over this past summer. In Nicaragua, we went with em[POWER] Energy Group not only to explore the potential of a pilot project at their sites, but to learn as much as we could about the lived experiences and realities of sanitation on the ground. We met families, community leaders, and organizations working on the front lines of the sanitation crisis. In India, we saw the issue of sanitation manifest itself on a complex, massive scale that only India could provide. It was in India, however, where we found something else.

Here, we came upon the realization that our Project Dharavi solution needed time and development, as we did. We saw that pressing social stigmas and governmental bureaucracy would hamper the ability to make the immediate impact we wanted. So we pivoted. It was hard, but necessary.

Instead of solely focusing on our own model, we saw the potential of working with organizations that already have great connections to the communities in which they work and best practices that have been proven over time. This was the case for ASHA (Association for Sanitation and Health Activities), a grassroots organization working to build toilets hand-in-hand with economically and socially marginalized villages in Odisha. Their deep connections to these communities foster open dialogues that lead to awareness and training on the importance of sanitation, changing and improving lives. young

Photo taken by Maz in Delhi

We hit it off with them and saw that we could provide immense value for them in a different way than we originally realized. We could help rally support for them and, in the process of doing so, change the way the world views the sanitation crisis. We realized that we had not come to see the depth and reality of the sanitation crisis until we were forced to confront it and see it for what it was. As an organization based in DC with access to a diverse network of actors, we could make this happen on a much larger scale. We could put a face on the sanitation crisis, making it real and compel people into action.

So here we are. Not quite where we thought we would be, but where we think we need to be. Over the next two months we will be launching a crowdfunding campaign to work with ASHA in the construction of 231 toilets for 231 families. This will also run in tandem with our Coming Clean Campaign, which will try to bring photographers from around the country to translate the story of the sanitation crisis for the world. (For more information on this visit http://www.asepsis.org/comingclean)

It’s been a wild ride and we could not be more excited for where it takes us now.Young2.jpg

Evan discusses sanitation conditions with slum-dwellers in Delhi

Asepsis gets feedback at CGI U

March 19, 2015

By Maz Obuz

Going into the CGI U conference the team of Project Dharavi: Redefining Waste (now known as Asepsis) had no idea what to expect. Now, two weeks later we cannot express how amazing an opportunity it was. While at the conference our team participated in both the Resolution Project and was an Exhibitor on the final day. Through both experiences we were able to receive key feedback which has allowed us to strengthen our CGI U Commitment. Being able to talk candidly with established individuals in the development field has allowed us to further understand the numerous anthropological aspects behind what we do. We now have a better understanding of how to best aid those whom we aim to provide our sanitation services.

In addition, CGI U proved to be an incredible networking opportunity. Each and every commitment was extremely impressive and being able to trade ideas with one another was very valuable. Even now we are in contact with a number of Commitment Makers focused on improving everyday lives in the Mumbai region. In addition we have been emailing back and forth with a number of projects focused on health and sanitation issues.

As we continue, we look forward to keeping in contact with everyone we’ve met! The larger the network we create the better chance that Project Dharavi will be able to successfully carry out its mission of providing clean sanitation to those in need around the world.

Check out more about Maz and Even’s work at Asepsis.org

Finding solutions

March 18, 2015

By Evan Young

My partner, Maz Obuz, and I started with venture in the classroom of CGI U-alum and GW Business Plan Competition winner, Matt Wilkins. Titled Makeshift Innovation and Engineering in the Third World, this class gave us the task of identifying a problem and then finding a solution. With such a vague and open-ended task, it took some searching to find the problem that stood out to us as among the most pressing. Ultimately, we arrived at the problem of open defecation as a result of inadequate access to sanitation. We then undertook a systematic study and analysis of the issue, summarized as below:

The Problem: In the heart of the Indian city of Mumbai rests one of Asia’s largest slums – Dharavi. In the shadow of rising skyscrapers and state-of-the-art facilities that bring countless families to the Mumbai in the hopes of a better future, Dharavi struggles with a host of conditions that make life difficult and prosperity seemingly unimaginable. The most pressing of these conditions is the lack of access to sanitation and waste management services.

With one toilet for every one-thousand-four-hundred-and-forty-four people, a vast majority of Dharavi residents are left with no option but to defecate in the open; a reality that is largely responsible for the four thousand cases of disease reported every day, a majority of which are caused by contaminated water sources. Luckily, with the World Bank reporting that India loses nearly six percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) per year as a result of inadequate sanitation and PM Modi announcing that his administration aims to have a toilet in every Indian household by the end of his term there is the possibility of change. Perhaps, India has come to understand the gravity of inadequate sanitation’s negative impact and can take the proper steps to solve the problem nationwide. In this climate, the extremely high density of people and the high percentage of informal housing in Dharavi make addressing sanitation issues, both a complex and vital undertaking.

The Solution: Our solution – in the proverbial nutshell – is the implementation of a highly integrated and sustainable system that stresses waste collection, learning from both the successes and failures of similar initiatives. Our main tool to achieve this will be a low-cost, portable, and durable toilet that will function as the vehicle with which Dharavi residents can take sanitation and waste management services into their own hands. While a complex system of community hubs, portable toilets, connections with biogas companies, and – hopefully – the support of the Indian government, at the heart of our solution lies a desire to provide toilets that restore dignity to Indian families lacking alternative sanitation options, and to make a value chain that brings together important actors in sanitation.

Where We Have Been: The class tasked us with formulating our solution through the Lean Start-Up Method, which stressed cycles of ideation, prototyping, and succinctly putting our plan into a workable method. This helped us as we progressed out of the class and into more formal competitions.

We are currently in the finals of the GW Business Plan Competition, which will allow us to compete for funding with nine other teams through pitching to investors and presenting on our solutions. The prizes and packages offered are great by themselves, but the experience of speaking in front of investors and judges will be even more wonderful. Throughout the process we had to compile tons of interviews for customer development, refine our financial projections, and formulate important value propositions; all crucial facets of running a successful project capable of helping many people.

We are also in the final round of consideration for the GWupstart D-Prize, a competition that seeks to sponsor initiatives that improve the ability of organizations to distribute essential health goods to people. We have been through tons of rounds of interviews and proposals, now waiting to hear back.

CGI U: We were able to meet tons of potential partners and investors as well as learn from other projects working in similar fields. We also made it to the final round of the Resolution Project, which would have given us the opportunity to become fellows and have access to the global reach of their community. Unfortunately, while we made it to the final round, we did not get the fellowship or funding. In the end, we are not too worried about it because we think it may have pigeon-holed us with requirements and commitments that would have not allowed us to be as dynamic as we wanted. We were also given the chance to participate in an exhibition and present to a panel of well-qualified judges, which allowed our idea to get out there!

Great talks. Great people. Great experience all-around.

Going Forward: The most essential steps we need to take now are the construction of our prototype here, finding partners within India to help us implement the system, and have preliminary conversations with biogas firms (who will be key in receiving the waste we collect). A lot of parts are in motion and, while we have pivoted a great deal, we are confident that our system can make a positive change.

All it is going to take now is more hard work!

More at Asepsis.org