In the high altitude areas like the Siachen Glacier, the Indian defense forces spend months in sub-zero temperatures. The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) designed a biodigester technology to convert human waste into reusable water and gas in an eco-friendly way, as regular toilet systems do not work in extreme climatic conditions.
Two years ago, 40-year-old Namita Banka, a Hyderabad-based entrepreneur, became the first person to secure a licence to commercialize this technology and launched Banka Bioloo.
It all started with a maintenance contract for the Controlled Discharge Toilet Systems used by the Indian Railways. This is when Banka learnt about this technology that leaves behind no sludge and is designed for small spaces.
In 2011, Banka, Founder and CEO, Banka Bioloo, conducted eight pilot projects. The positive feedback she received gave her the confidence to sell these toilets commercially from August 2012 onwards. Apart from selling to the infrastructure companies that are into building of schools, the startup now also sells to Indian Railways as they are replacing septic tanks with biodigesters. So far, Banka has procured customers in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.
A common question Banka faces while explaining the technology to anyone is, can the water from the tank be reused? "It can be used for gardening," she informs.
"Marginalized communities do not get access to adequate water to dispose of their waste," she points out. The Bioloo can be installed as stand-alone units in these cases and do not have to be connected to sewage pipelines.
The technology works on anaerobic digestion, explains Banka, which is a collection of processes by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. Inoculated bacteria is present in the tank which is replenished depending on the usage. The biodigester tank can be fitted separately to an existing toilet or under mobile toilets.
Biodigester tanks are designed and manufactured according to customer requirements at the company's plant in Hyderabad. Its inoculation plant is in Uttar Pradesh.
For rural areas, tanks are manufactured using brick and mortar to keep the costs low. In the case of Railways and construction sites, tanks are made of steel whereas mobile toilets use fiber reinforced plastic.
Quite naturally then, pricing varies. Smaller tanks designed for villages cost Rs. 8,000 while steel tanks can cost up to Rs. 90,000 for a 1,000 liter tank; the latter has been installed in nine locations.
So far, these toilets have been installed in seven public places, two residential houses and the Indian Railways with 55 tanks, Banka claims. Even though the numbers are encouraging, Banka foresees hurdles. In railway toilets, bacteria have to be replenished every three months because of repeated usage and uncontrollable conditions.
Garbage like bottles, cigarette butts, etc., disposed in toilets prevents the system from working effectively. To counter this, there is a special mesh that needs to be cleaned during maintenance.
Rajeev Kher, Founder and CEO of Saraplast, a Pune-based social enterprise that is helping towards improving access to toilets in India, feels this technology is going to be a challenge for Banka Bioloo if they look at community applications or public facilities as potential areas of installation.
Kher, also a Director on the Portable Sanitation Association International, says that while the technology is well suited to extreme conditions like in Siachen, it can be adapted for commercial use only if the number of users is predetermined. Bacteria, he says, is only effective for a certain amount of waste. "Water that comes out of the system is not entirely treated. While it may be good for irrigation, there is no way to check long-term effects of using this water on land," he says, contradicting Banka.
Banka defends the model and says they have not encountered any challenges so far and if they do, the company will attend to them. The technology is new with little research undertaken to understand the impact of overuse of tanksâ€”pretty much a wait-and-watch game, she reasons. The technology from DRDO has now been licensed to other companies including Wockhardt Foundation which is creating several competitors for Banka Bioloo. However, an unfazed Banka says a high market demand is unlikely to affect business. Banka Bioloo churns out 50 tanks per month, half its capacity. Since the cost of these systems are higher than those provided by organizations like Saraplast, Banka plans to set up partnerships with microfinance institutions to make it affordable for the rural folk.
The company is self-funded with Rs. 1.5 crore to launch the business. It raked in revenues of Rs. 75 lakh in FY12-13 and is expecting to clock in Rs. 1.5 crore in the current fiscal.
Photo: "Portable toilet". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portable_toilet.jpg#/media/File:P...
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