An Innovative way to break down waste into a useful resource

In this GoFrugal Research Insights edition, we spotlight a fourth case study of bottom-up frugal innovation in a small enterprise in Kenya to understand how frugality drives the product development process and the market creation process. In our previous GoFrugal Research Insights, we shared our insights on Farming WonderKing Biofuels and Zakam Orthopedic Limited . This edition recounts the case of Ecosave Africa Limited, which revolves around an innovative way to break down waste into a useful resource.

by Rosebella Nyumba

The birth of the Ecotreat waste digester
Daniel Wanjuki, founder and CEO of Ecosave Africa Limited once lived in Nairobi City in Kenya. After losing his job, he settled in his hometown Kitengela in Kajiado County. His house was located near a slaughterhouse that was emitting a very bad smell, and therefore, its owners were always at loggerheads with the community. The pungent smell was worse on weekends, and for this reason, Daniel would look for ways to take his family out on those days. As a trained microbiologist, Daniel decided to approach the slaughterhouse and ask for permission to collect micro-organisms from their waste. He intended to test whether the micro-organisms could be used to break down waste. After running some tests he discovered that indeed the microorganisms could do so. He approached the slaughterhouse with his discovery, but they were hesitant to buy his product. This did not discourage him from continuing with his research and development process which led to the birth of his product named Ecotreat waste digester around 12 years ago.

The Ecotreat waste digester is a microorganism based product that breaks down different kinds of waste: human solid waste, animal waste, vegetable gums, fats, complex proteins, oils, and greases as well as cellulose (tissue paper) and starches at an accelerated rate. It breaks all these wastes into carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water. The water can be channeled to the Ecotreat digester for recycling. Additionally, Ecotreat instantly eliminates bad odours from toilets, waste pits, and septic tanks. Compared to other products on the market, Ecotreat does not produce any flammable gases, has no chemicals, and does not have a choking smell.

Ecotreat - waste digester

Optimizing the innovation for commercial use
Initially, the innovation was meant to solve a community problem (pungent smell from the slaughterhouse which made the area uninhabitable). After testing the waste from the slaughterhouse and identifying the remedy for the bad odour, Daniel now thought of going commercial. It dawned on him that it was indeed something he could do to earn a living. Daniel has since been on a mission to incrementally improve his innovation. Initially, the Ecotreat product was only in liquid form. He later developed the powder form, as the liquid would leak during transportation. He also began packaging Ecotreat in small balls which can be used in lavatories to prevent bad odour.

The innovator targets real estate developers, households, slaughterhouses, county governments, hospitals, schools, industries, and any organizations/companies that handle waste in Kenya and other African countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Rwanda, and Uganda. The market is dynamic and recently he has been approached by new customers like breweries, clothing companies, cotton mills, and tanneries. Initially, it was difficult for him to convince his customers that they need Ecotreat to manage their waste. The reasons for this are that, for one, waste management services are by law a government function. Second, exhaustion is the traditionally used technique for managing waste compared to the use of microorganisms and therefore, it was not easy for people to buy into his idea. However, over time, word has spread, and Daniel was able to get more customers through referrals. He even managed to scoop the Iko Safi award for the most outstanding innovation.

The unique selling point and the ripple effect of the innovation
The real value of the innovation is that Ecotreat breaks down organic waste on-site without exhaustion and eliminates bad odours instantly. Ecotreat does not contain any chemicals and does not emit methane gas which is a culprit in global warming.

Enterprises that use the innovation have had some positive impacts on the community. For instance, in the case of the neighbouring slaughterhouse, there were wrangles between the slaughterhouse managers and the community at large since there was no way to manage the waste from the slaughterhouse that made the environment inhabitable. Those who lived nearby wanted the slaughterhouse shut down, and many times the slaughterhouse was actually shut down, but later reopened. The slaughterhouses served many people who are customers to businesses nearby. Ever since the innovation solved the waste management problem, the slaughterhouse now coexists peacefully with the community, and businesses around it are also thriving. It has been a similar story with other waste emitting companies; they have now been able to relate well with the community since they are managing their waste well.

The innovation process
Initially, the innovation and business were not a planned endeavor. They grew out of the need to solve a problem and, and only took a commercial angle after the product was tested and proved viable. In the beginning, Daniel used his savings as the source of capital. At the scaling-up stage, he approached a bank for loans and was able to convince the bank to finance him because of the business cash flow. Currently, his source of capital is sales, and he also has investments. For instance, he is investing in the production process by buying new equipment like weighing scales. Due to this successful growth, Daniel’s product is now readily available in the market and it is available to low-income consumers. It only costs 4 dollars per person per year (3.5 euros) and does not require any operational costs. Both the customers and the innovator attest that the product is easy to use, user-friendly, and reliable. The bottom-up nature of this innovation, as well as its affordability, make it a great example of frugal innovation.

Innovation Histories
Ecosave Africa limited and their Ecotreat waste digesters are just one example of frugal innovation. The Innovation Histories research project of the CFIA Kenya Hub documents in-depth information on the product conception/invention, commercialisation, adoption and impacts. The focus lies on collecting micro-level data of all relevant aspects of the innovation: its characteristics, the inventor/innovator, the context in which it is developed and used, innovation processes, different actors involved in the development, financing, commercialisation and use of the product, and the impacts at household and societal level. The main objective of collecting this data is to understand how frugal innovations are developed bottom-up, and how frugality drives the product development process and the market creation process. It also evaluates the role of frugality in legitimizing the innovation at household, community and societal levels. 

Read more about the Frugal Innovation Histories project in the Knowledge File