Many Kenyans still recall that, until recently, most municipalities across the country were dotted with rundown toilets that stunk to high heaven.
The toilets were simply disgusting. Quite often, the poorly-maintained facilities did not work well and the stench, or sight, of waste was the first thing that greeted a visitor.
How time flies! Today, a number of entrepreneurs are quickly wrestling the duty of disposing human waste from the local authorities.
As a result, they have good returns in a business the municipalities scored dismally, at best.
Ecotact — the firm behind the Iko-toilet innovation, Arika Toilets and Excloosive are some of the investments making good profits from the management of waste and offering jobs to Kenyans as well.
Mr Stephen Arika, from Kisii, was reprimanded by his colleagues when he told them that he wanted to start a toilet business.
His friends would not understand why he wanted to jump into managing human waste.
“My friends thought I had lost my mind when I tried to sell them the idea. They said I would lose my dignity competing with the municipal council in handling human waste,” Mr Arika told Money.
They did not, however, know that he had a unique way in which he intended to package the service.
“I had the conviction to run this business because, as much as it is dirty, everybody needs the service,” he says.
The 39-year-old says that most people fail in business because they want to copy their friends’ ideas.
“You have to know what you want to offer and how competitive it is to run the business, otherwise, you will end up burning your fingers and getting into financial problems,” says Mr Arika.
Mr Arika is not new to business. He first came to fame in Kisii region in the early 80s when he set up a local vernacular radio station.
“That was purely for fun, and I even got overwhelmed when it actually worked like any other radio station,” he says.
Three years ago, he secured a Sh2 million loan from Credit Bank and the National Bank of Kenya with a business proposal: to set up a public toilet with enhanced internal features that one can even read a book while inside.
The name “public toilet” conjures up images of a stinking place with dirty walls and inscriptions meant to mock normal human sensibilities.
But his ideas on how to run the business gave him an edge while negotiating for the loan.
When you get into the Arika toilet, you get the opportunity to set the temperature inside the room to your convenience.
The toilets are fitted with thermostat equipment so that, once inside, say for a long call, you can adjust the temperature to your liking.
The “easing experience” is enhanced by a Dstv set fitted strategically for people to watch television programmes while in the lavatory.
Which leads one to the question, with all this at play, how much does it cost you? With Sh50 only, you can have a hot shower while you enjoy background music from the toilets.
This is the only one of its kind in Kisii. “I had gone to one of the five-star hotels in Nairobi where I got the best experience of my life inside a toilet,” said Mr Arika, adding: “that hatched a plan to set up decent toilets.”
Increase in customers
He makes Sh3,000 to Sh5,000 profits daily from the investment. “I first want the business to sell itself in terms of the services offered because I know that, with an increase in the number of customers, profit margins will increase,” says Mr Arika.
Surprisingly, he has not put any billboard or signboard to advertise the business, saying he wants those visiting the units to tell of their experience and encourage others to come.
He says he values his customers more than anybody else and that explains why he has installed a real-time electronic surveillance system where he watches how his employees treat the customers.
Kenya Commercial Bank head of trade finance George Mutiga says that knowing your customer is the cornerstone of any business.
“You have to learn to appreciate your customers and give them the best service so that you learn more about what they need,” says Mr Mutiga.
The human waste management business has also attracted another firm, Ecotact — the firm behind Iko-toilet innovation.
This is a brainchild of former Nairobi City Council planning department employee David Kuria.
The Iko-toilet concept comprises a “toilet mall” where services are provided at Sh10 a single go, as well as shops that stock snacks and barber shops. There is also background music.
His concept has won several awards, including the Dubai International Best Practice Award to Improve the Living Environment, the Guinness Book of World Record, the Clinton Global Initiative and African Ministers Council on Water, among others.
“The world could not believe that our public toilets were places people avoided like the plague for decades until we started Iko-toilets three years ago,” said David Kuria.
The entrepreneur says that his workers are trained for a week on hygiene after which they are given service uniforms.
Currently, Ecotact has 50 toilets spread in 20 municipalities countrywide — 12 of which are in Nairobi — serving 6.2 million people last year, up from 3.8 million people in 2009.
According to the UN, about 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation facilities and 1.2 billion practise open defecation.
Furthermore, 1.6 million people, mostly children under the age of five, die annually from water and sanitation-related diseases.
“We aim to serve 10 million users across the country this year when we launch branches in Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar,” Mr Kuria says.
Another toilet business that has grown since its establishment in 2004 is the “Excloosive mobile toilet business.” The toilet business gathered momentum at the turn of the millennium, with Excloosive managing director Moses Nderitu — a former TV producer — saying “the future is in toilet business,”
Excloosive provides portable mobile toilets for outdoor activities, and the company has now grown to have hand-wash facilities and a fleet of support vehicles.
You have probably seen the mobile toilets at presidential, and ministerial functions, or other functions held in the open where social amenities are unavailable — weddings, markets, construction sites, corporate forums, and meetings by residential groups, government agencies and religious bodies.
The Excloosive unit is a self-contained luxury structure designed to operate independently of water, sewer or power supply.
The company is planning to expand its core business from being a mobile toilet provider to a total sanitation solutions provider, by entering the septic evacuation business and domestic and commercial waste water treatment business.
The ambition also includes growing the firm from its current status as a small enterprise to a medium-sized firm by 2015.
Medium sized companies are classified as firms with an annual turnover of Sh70 million to Sh500 million.
To stay in business, the firm has ensured that there are portable toilets for every need and budget.
It has three types of toilets classified as standard (which has basic facilities), middle-class, and luxury bathrooms that resemble corporate hospitality suites.
In total, Excloosive has 80 portable toilets, including three units for the handicapped.