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Lindsay Stradley, David Auerbach, and Ani Vallabhaneni understand what it means to innovate at the edges while keeping an eye to wholesale systems change. They understand that some systems are so complex, colossal, and dysfunctional that moral innovation is required. This is the kind of experimentation aimed at solving problems in ways that put our shared humanity at the center, starting where you can, usually at the margins, while relentlessly insisting on sustainability and scale.

These co-founders chose an especially wicked problem: inadequate sanitation. One in three people on Earth lack access to a proper toilet. The lack of toilets is a public health crisis, yet governments the world over have failed to provide proper sanitation to their most vulnerable citizens. The large majority of all public sanitation funding goes to the top 20% of income earners. Meanwhile less than 6% is set aside for the bottom quintile of the planet’s population who live without sewage, often relying on dirty, dangerous, and overflowing pit latrines or open defecation.

Sanergy’s co-founders pursued a business model based on the principles of the circular economy: reduce and reuse waste and improve resource productivity. They would build a network of toilets operated profitably by local residents who had a strong stake in the community. They would collect the waste daily, convert it into fertilizer, and they would sell it to farmers — a system that would “turn waste to gold.” Of course, changing the status quo is easier said than done.


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A Lesson in Systems Change

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