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Money down the drain

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on January 23, 2018

Micro Solution: Hyderabad-based Banka BioLoo is licensed to manufacture bio-toilets, like this one in Dhamra (Odisha) developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which use bacteria to break down waste.   -  PTI

Uttam Banerjee Founder-CEO of Ekam Eco Solutions

Namita Banka, founder of Banka BioLoo

A tale of two companies that are profiting from eco-friendly disposal of human waste

Dhamra in Odisha is a quaint, small town on the banks of the river it is named after. It may have developed into a vital port back in the 15th century, but lacked sanitation facilities even until 2012. Hyderabad-based Banka BioLoo introduced its low-maintenance bio-toilets in this region and, soon, residents made a beeline for these covered loos that hygienically dispose of human waste without need for septic tanks or waste treatment plants.

In a small village in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar, the residents were so thrilled on seeing covered toilets — the portable bio-toilets manufactured by Banka BioLoo — for the first time that they stole them, along with the accompanying tanks.

The IIM-Gandhinagar campus under construction on the banks of Sabarmati river will install Ekam Eco Solutions’ waterless urinals, which will annually save thousands of litres of water.

In a country where 50 per cent of the population defecates in the open and the rest daily flush gallons of water down the toilet, two companies are working overtime to find cost-effective alternatives. Along the way, they are building a successful business in environment-friendly disposal of human waste.

Student project takes wings

“We realised that 10-15 litres of water is wasted per flush in toilets and about 3-4 litres in urinals. We thought it would be a good idea to change the water consumption pattern beginning with urinals,” says Uttam Banerjee, founder and CEO of Ekam Eco Solutions.

The company’s waterless urinal, Zerodor, features a valve that allows urine to drain out and prevents the odour-causing ammonia gas from returning to the restroom. The unit can be fitted inside an existing urinal, saving 1.5 lakh litres of water a year.

Each unit costs ₹4,500, which includes installation charges. Banerjee contrasts this with other hi-tech urinals that cost ₹20,000 for installation and about ₹8,000 for annual maintenance. “We thought of a frugally engineered mechanical system that can last long and does not adversely impact the ecosystem.”

Turning the product into a commercial venture was, however, not an easy step. Banerjee and his friends had researched on the subject while studying at IIT-Delhi. After graduation they joined the corporate world. Banerjee, who worked briefly with a start-up, had his heart set on water conservation and sanitation. The student project could not be commercialised as the patent rested with IIT-Delhi. “So we floated a for-profit social enterprise and IIT-Delhi has given us the licence to commercialise it (Zerodor),” he says.

Namita Banka faced an even bigger hardship in her quest for eco-friendly human waste management, the path littered with several failed projects and enterprises. In 2008, she started a company for recycling printer cartridges. “It failed but gave me a lot of ideas about waste management and the environment.” So in 2009, when Indian Railways was experimenting with bio-loos and a controlled discharged system, she took a dealership from two companies providing these solutions. “That was my first brush with sanitation,” she recalls.

And when the Railways explored the idea of using the bio-digestible toilets developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Banka knew where her next step lay. She found out that DRDO’s bio-digester technology did away with the need for clearing and transporting sewage. Instead, the bio-digester’s anaerobic bacteria broke down the waste into biogas.

The missing toilets

“DRDO was focused on high-altitude areas like Siachen and for the Army. I began to explore the use of this technology for civilians,” she says. Armed with a licence from DRDO, she began manufacturing bio-digester tanks for human waste. The tanks are fortified with the bacteria, cultivated in cow dung, at the company’s manufacturing plant in Cherlapally, Hyderabad. These tanks can be installed in new toilets or retrofitted to existing ones.

And that’s precisely where her next problem lay. “We could not sell our tanks as people didn’t have toilets in the first place. Where would I install the tanks?”

According to Census 2011, 49.8 per cent in India defecates in the open. Around 67 per cent of rural India has no access to toilets and only 32.7 per cent has access to piped sewerage in urban areas.

“We had to re-think. So we slowed down a little and started developing a superstructure out of plastic and another modular structure of cement panel as toilet pans,” she says.

Today, Banka’s bio-toilets feature a superstructure connected to a bio-digester tank. Her company also services the units.

Both Banka and Banerjee are well aware of the need to manage waste without polluting the environment. The bacteria in the Banka bio-digester tanks break down the waste to release water, carbon dioxide and methane. Customers can either use the water for gardening or let it into the ground, says Banka. In larger projects, her company recycles the water by filtering it and reusing it for flushing.

Banerjee says his first priority is to conserve water and the second is to have systems that can reuse the urine. “Urine is a good fertiliser. We destroy the pathogens and bacteria in urine. In a reactor, we add some chemicals through which the phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen in the urine are recovered,” he says. Nurseries near the urinals make use of this by-product through drip irrigation, thereby saving on water and fertiliser use.

Big-time users

Since he went commercial in October 2013, Banerjee has installed 5,000 Zerodor units, including 700 in IIT-Delhi and others at IITs, IIMs, schools and private colleges across India, as also companies like Google, Dell, Polaris, Maruti Suzuki, Essar Oil and Ambuja Cements. “We are looking at around 15,000 installations this fiscal,” says Banerjee, whose enterprise is already profitable.

Banka’s client list is equally impressive and includes Indian Railways, Integral Coach Factory, Larsen & Toubro, International Paper and the Andhra Pradesh government, among others. Her other buyers are schools, villages, resorts, construction sites, factories and other places that lack sewerage lines or connection to the municipal sewerage systems. Revenues for Banka BioLoo increased by 70 per cent last fiscal. “This year, we are expecting exponential growth, about 300 per cent,” she says.

Alongside, both Banka and Ekam have ventured into a new but related line of service — annual maintenance contracts for toilets. Banka is already managing 2,000 toilets for Indian Railways while Banerjee is currently offering AMC services in the national capital region. “We are contacting local plumbers to implement the product. We are also appointing distributors to take care of services,” he says. Banerjee has outsourced the manufacture of Zerodor while his enterprise looks after the assembly and packaging. Banka’s superstructures, too, are manufactured at a village on the outskirts of Hyderabad.

Both entrepreneurs want to do more. Banerjee is currently designing a women’s urinal, which will require minimal manual intervention and will be self-cleaning. “We are working on a pre-fabricated structure using a locally sustainable material like bamboo or pre-cast concrete sheet,” he says.

Ekam is also trying to create a network of local entrepreneurs for managing these toilets. This is still at the conceptualisation stage and will be ready for launch by September-end. Also on the cards is a composting toilet, where waste can be treated at the source itself to produce fertiliser. “A family of four can easily generate its requirement of fertiliser using this technology,” he adds.

Banka’s eyes are on biogas, which can be produced from agricultural or municipal waste, manure, sewage or food waste. “Since we are very focused on sanitation, biogas is our area of interest, where we can manage other solid waste also,” she says.

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Published on May 08, 2015
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