To tackle global toilet crisis, startup converts human waste into cooking fuel

Israeli startup, HomeBiogas, says its bio-toilet can be used anywhere, solving the global problem of sanitation and creating an environmentally friendly cooking fuel

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An off-grid bio-toilet produced by Israeli startup HomeBiogas set-up (PR Photos)
An off-grid bio-toilet produced by Israeli startup HomeBiogas set-up (PR Photos)

An Israeli startup, HomeBiogas, which has developed a process of transforming organic waste into cooking fuel for homes, has now upgraded its technology to allow its system to process human waste — poop — into cooking fuel, without the need to be connected to a sewage or a water grid.

“We worked on the project for some two years,” Oshik Efrati, CEO and co-founder of HomeBiogas said in an interview with The Times of Israel, as the world on Monday marks World Toilet Day. The system allows users anywhere to have a toilet similar to the one we are used to — with a pump for water on the side — yet without the need for it to be connected to a sewage grid, he explained.

“All you need for the system to work is a bucket of 1.5 liters of recycled grey water per flush,” he said. By comparison, our toilets flush between 5-10 liters of water per flush, he said, depending on the system used. The system helps save some 40,000 liters of water per household per year, he said.

The manual pump dispatches the toilet waste directly to the HomeBiogas appliance — a tent-like structure that sits alongside the toilet, in which the waste is  treated by bacteria and turned into cooking fuel.

World Toilet Day has been designated by the United Nations to bring attention and inspire action to the global sanitation crisis. Some 4.5 billion people, or some 60 percent of the global population, either have no toilet at home or one that doesn’t safely manage their excrement, while some 892 million practice open defecation, according to the UN.

Poor sanitation from open defecation is linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera and diarrhea and is the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths per year.

“The impact of exposure to human feces on this scale has a devastating impact upon public health, living and working conditions, nutrition, education and economic productivity across the world,” the UN said on its website.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also pinpointed sanitation as a major world health issue and has set up the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to address this problem and help deliver new kinds of sewer-less toilets that cater to the needs of people who live and work off the sanitation grid.

A HomeBiogas bio-toilet package being transported in Rwanda (Courtesy)

“We took our solution, the HomeBiogas 2.0, which converts food waste into cooking fuel, and thought about how we could take advantage of that existing technology for the important goal of allowing all humans on earth the right to a decent, safe and clean toilet,” Efrati said. “We considered all the solutions available today, and visited target populations in Africa and India.”

For a deeper understanding on the issue, Efrati accompanied a woman who travels two kilometers, some three miles, by foot daily to the desolate wilderness where she defecates.

“On the long walk there, she explained to me how unhygienic open defecation is, and that she and the other women sometimes fear for their safety, as they are vulnerable to any passerby late at night,” he said.

Whereas other off-grid solutions — like compost toilets — are high maintenance, as they require messy, manual emptying, or other solutions need electricity to function, “we wanted a toilet that was easy to set up and felt like a regular toilet,” Efrati said.

The compact Bio-Toilet is packed into one box, which makes it easy to transport, even on the back of a moped to a very remote village, the company said in a statement on Monday.

It’s “simple do-it-yourself assembly” makes “it perfect for quick and easy deployment.”

“It’s just like buying a closet from Ikea,” Efrati said in the statement, “complete with assembly and maintenance instructions,” that does not require a technician for installation.

HomeBiogas Founders, left to right: Erez Lanzer, CFO, Oshik Efrati, CEO, and Yair Teller (PR Photos))

In addition to developing areas, there are two other target populations that can benefit from the HomeBiogas Bio-Toilet solution: people in disaster areas and off-the-grid communities that are remotely located and not connected to state utilities and infrastructure.

In a pilot project, the company has already shipped some 100 of its toilets to users in Israel, Africa and India, Efrati said. Now they are preparing for a larger distribution of their products.

The firm, which employs 28 workers, was set up in 2012 and is based in the Hadassah Neurim youth village in central Israel.

The company has been selling its original Homebiogas product for organic waste
to customers in over 100 countries, and operates a network of more than 60 distributors.

The system allows users to collect the natural gas produced by the waste and use it for cooking without the need of electricity, using a low-pressure system. The products are sold in developed countries to environmentally aware families and others who choose to live off the grid, Efrati explained, as well as to users in developing countries who use coal and wood to cook their food.

“Some three billion people today still cook with wood or coal,” he said.

The system processes the organic waste to produce gas and liquid fertilizer, he said.

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