Founder/CEO change:WATER Labs
PhD, MBA, MA
The Waterless Toilet
Clean tech is easier, because getting access to resources at a lower cost and more efficiently in a less environmentally impactful way has a better chance of aligning profitability and growth with social and environmental impact.
By Heidi Legg
GenX entrepreneur and social impact leader Diana Yousef, Founder and CEO of change:Water Labs, is bringing waterless toilets to refugee camps. One of the drivers for this Harvard graduate is that young women are often assaulted in the dark when they need to use the facilities at refugee camps around the globe.
Today, there are 65 million displaced people, most of them in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Add to that 2.4 billion people living in poverty without proper sanitation services, who would welcome a dignified way to use the toilet. The refugee and migration crisis across the globe has sparked innovation from social impact leaders; IKEA won Design of the Year for a flat pack refugee shelter that now sits in the MOMA. Given its political and economic impact, more architects, technology companies, and entrepreneurs are entering this multibillion industry often run by NGOs. And as the NGOs have grown, they have sometimes been seen as both inefficient and a source of corruption. As innovators try to help and make an impact, it appears the entrepreneurs are moving in to solve things, both in improved conditions and by creating a market economy. Even former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said "the financial foundations of NGOs have become increasingly unreliable as global crisis only continues to accelerate."
I sat down with Yousef to hear more about the waterless toilet she is prototyping this summer, and what she sees as opportunity and barrier in the social entrepreneurship space at this moment in time.
What are some of the largest refugee camps? I've heard that the Zaatari camp in Jordan is immense. Which other ones stand out in size?
Zaatari is the second largest refugee camp in the world with the population ranging from 80,000 to 120,000 people – and it's been growing. It's located in the desert of Jordan. It may end up being the largest refugee camp soon, because the largest refugee camp in Kenya, Dabaab – a network of six satellites, I believe – has long been the collecting ground for refugees from the various Central and sub-Saharan African conflicts over the decades, but is apparently closing. [In February 2017, the Kenyan government said it would appeal a court ruling thwarting its plan to close the Dadaab refugee camp, and claimed the complex in eastern Kenya, which is the size of a large town, has become "a launchpad" for various terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab. Source: CNN] This is mind boggling to me because where are those people going to go? They say that on average, people end up living in refugee camps for seventeen years. These are intended to be non-permanent communities that are de facto permanent, and are swallowing up a whole generation of people.
We have such mass migrations of people, both fleeing their country of origin and internally displaced. I connected with somebody recently who said that he wants to engage my group on getting better sanitation to internally displaced people in Yemen who are suffering from the conflict there. He said Yemeni displacement is actually larger than the Syrian displacement, with three million people internally displaced. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) officially registers 65 million refugees, but that has a very strict definition: it has to be somebody who's registered with the UNHCR as a refugee fleeing conflict and who has crossed a border to be counted.
It's unfortunately a growth industry, but what's crazy is that there are whole populations of people who aren't counted. If you become displaced because you lost your home in a climate change-related disaster, you're an economic migrant, or you are a victim in civil war, you're not counted in the official refugee numbers. If you look at some estimates, people will count up to a billion people as refugees, and that has a whole bunch of different definitions.
How many refugees on average share a toilet facility in a camp?
When you read the specs on how to set up a camp, for a non-rapid response situation, they advise communal facilities with one toilet for twenty people. I was reading that the specifications for construction of a camp are actually for one to fifty, but when I went looking for that number recently, all I found was one toilet for twenty as a norm.
Rapid response is in a post-disaster arena, and what they're trying to do is have sanitation set up before you have a public health crisis. That number is different.
In a camp, how long is the wait for a toilet? It sounds like long waits and long walks.
I’ve seen the figure of two-kilometer walks, but I don’t think it's an official specification. I think they target something closer to half a kilometer. They're trying to balance and optimize for distance of travel versus distance from what’s essentially bio-hazardous material or lack of safety. You want to keep those facilities far enough away from people so that it's not unpleasant and undignified, but you also don't want them traveling long distances.
My assumption is that in Zaatar you have a good number of people who are coming from homes where they had their own toilet. So, now they're being asked to accept the conditions of sharing a toilet – waiting in line, having to expose themselves in a somewhat immodest fashion, sharing with the world or to their community what is essentially one of the most private functions, especially if you're coming from a very conservative culture.
I wouldn’t think any culture would like the situation.
No, not really. It's not fun. I'm sure there are certain high peak times when the lines are longer and then you have to be in this somewhat immodest situation. The other thing, across the developing world, is a risk situation where you have women and children having to travel to sanitation options. That essentially exposes them: they're alone, they're unprotected.
Is rape commonplace?
Does rape happen day and night at these bathroom facilities?
It depends on the situation and it's definitely an underreported statistic. We don't know what the numbers are. I read something about how in Uttar Pradesh, India, 60% of gender-based violence that's actually reported to the police is sanitation-related and it's really ugly.
Do families, as a result, build their own solution?
If you can call it that… It's essentially a pit latrine. They dig a hole in the ground and if they can scrap some materials together, they'll try to build a shelter around it to make it private. Then they'll dig a trench, essentially to at least drain the waste away from their dwelling.
Do they have access to water to drain the solution they create?
Water sources called a WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) block are delivered into the camps – it houses the sinks, the laundry, the showers, and the toilets. So there would be water delivered to that location, but I think more and more in the Syrian refugee camps they're also starting to fill water tanks or water reservoirs that are around camps closer to the caravans and tents where people are living. People do end up having some water, but again, depending on the practices in the region, they might use a lot of that water to wash. If you can imagine it would be like a small version of a water tower that maybe is in proximity to let's say ten to twenty caravans, and then they probably have some kind of a jerry can or canister that they have at home for cooking and washing.
How did you get to this point?
I tend to be somebody who comes at a problem from a bunch of different angles. There's the heart angle and the pragmatic angle, and then there's the challenge where I think this is a hard problem, and know I’d have fun trying to solve it.
Oddly enough, I'm a biochemist by training. I'm actually not even an engineer. I'm not a material scientist. By rights, I should be doing stuff in healthcare, but I really kept being pulled back into this world of wanting to do things in developing countries.
I'm not sure if that has something to do with my parents, who left Egypt in the '60s. I was born here but when I go back to Egypt, it's such a sad story because what you see is educated people, people who have a lot of energy, and yet they keep being thwarted by whatever governmental regime and corruption in the system. You see people struggling to carry out the basic functions of life, the basic daily living, and it's hard for them to dream big.
When thwarted, where are the greatest challenges?
You're dealing with so much corruption. There aren't enough jobs. People go to medical or engineering school and end up driving taxicabs. Many of my relatives end up going to the Gulf to get jobs. I have cousins who are engineers but end up having to run corner stores, and that is not to say that that's a bad thing, but it's not for which they were educated.
Why are there are no jobs?
Egypt's gone through a lot. I remember when I used to go back, fifteen years ago, the currency was always pegged three-Egyptian pounds to the dollar and while people weren't rich, at least there was always that conversion rate. Then at some point, the currency floated and it shot up to eight or nine pounds to the dollar. What happened was that you had a lot of foreign entities coming in and buying assets in the country, and it became unaffordable for the everyday person. You have all these statistics around Egyptians that hold off on starting their lives and having kids and getting married because they can't afford apartments in Cairo. It's really this pent up society that was thwarted. Now with all the political instability, I think they're at something like sixteen pounds to the dollar. Basically people have had their wealth and savings crushed, and they just can't afford anything anymore. They're struggling and these are not lazy people. They're not dumb.
Is it that they are caught in a bad economy?
Yes, and there's no prospect or obvious path to see it getting better.
How did you move to focus on the refugee crisis?
I came into the refugee focus in a different way. I was in the private sector for a bit, and I ended up at the UN looking at different ways to engage the private sector in human, social, and economic development without it having to necessarily be charity-based. I was trying to find new business models that would benefit and grow business, but also push forward human development. I became more and more steeped in the world of clean tech, resource access and off-grid-energy/water. Once I went back into the private sector, I knew that I really wanted to be working less on biotech. It's really hard to invest in that type of expensive innovation in healthcare and biotech, and it’s a long play. How do you convince people to put dollars into neglected diseases for poor people?
Clean tech is easier, because getting access to resources at a lower cost and more efficiently in a less environmentally impactful way has a better chance of aligning profitability and growth with social and environmental impact. Everybody around the world needs better ways to get water that are less wasteful and more sustainable: we all need clean water and we all need to recycle water more.
Water kept being a theme in my thinking. Maybe it's because I'm from the Middle East where everything hinges on water, but it also seemed like one of these problems that simply wasn't getting enough attention. Water touches pretty much everything. It touches our health, our livelihoods, our food, our industry, our energy, our prosperity, and our children – everything about life. So I thought, if you really want to have a broad impact, figure water out. And I was working for the man; I was really done asking for permission and fighting the fight that women fight.
You sound like the classic entrepreneur ready to launch. What did you do next?
We moved back to Boston from New York because of my husband's job, and I was pregnant. I said, ‘if we're going to move back to Boston and I'm going to try to do this entrepreneurship thing, I better put myself within walking distance of Harvard and MIT.’ I'm going to walk in with my nursing blanket and my stroller, and the baby is going to become a fixture in all of my networking meetings. I didn't feel like I needed to stay in a fortress while I had a baby.
Plus she's a girl, and part of this entrepreneurship is that we need to show girls that they don't need to have the rules written for them. They can write their own.
You're preaching to the choir. We also need to show young boys that women being both entrepreneurial and their mother is normal.
That's true. I think if we all thought like that and we all felt empowered like that, there would be a lot more confident women.
So how did you get to waterless toilets?
After a couple of years of dating other people's startups and trying to make something work on somebody else's idea and realizing that it's not easy to join somebody else's idea. It gave me the permission to go back and think about how I wanted to figure out off-grid water and water-access for vulnerable communities, especially in the developing world. And I gravitated toward materials that have the ability to passively sweat water, similar to the stuff you wear for your workout.
Here is what we are doing: change:Water Labs is developing the next gen portable evaporative toilet to vaporize off grid sewage and to put a toilet in every home that has no power or plumbing, and the way we do it is we're developing what we call "shrink wrap for crap." I love it. What that really means is we've stumbled upon a combination of materials that we put together that have this ability to drink up water really quickly and then sweat it really quickly.
Do you have a patent on this new material?
We are in the process of patenting it, and it's a combination of materials that work together in a very synergistic way. All of them have a component of either drinking water or evaporating water, and they all do it to a certain degree of efficiency. When you put it together, you get very high rates of water evaporation without having to heat anything up. You don't need energy. It's basically this sweating property.
Does it only function in a warm climate?
It helps if it's warm, but we've done experiments in the cold, and it's slower but the big driver is the difference in how humid it is on one side of the membrane versus the other side of the membrane. It’s the difference in that humidity.
Is there a stench? Looking for perfection here, I realize: no power, no water, no stench.
For the toilet, yes. The membrane doesn't have to solve that. There are other things in the system that would solve that. The membrane itself eliminates 95% of the daily volume at the pace that it's being produced. We're aggressively abating offline sewage volumes on site. As people who live off line are accumulating their sewage, we're getting rid of most of it and that's the key. If you think of any problem that we have around waste, waste is all about removal and collection. People don't want to live with their waste.
With your technology, do you have to collect the “shrink wrap crap?”
You do have to collect it – every two weeks or a month. That's a paradigm change. If you think about the amount of garbage in your house and instead of having to put it out every week, you could put it in a compactor or something that shrink-wraps it and gets rid of most of the volume, the truck would only have to come once a month. That's kind of what we're trying to do with sewage.
Most of these people live in communities where they're not getting any kind of services. Or if they are getting services, they're not scalable or sustainable because there's no funding or municipal tax base to allow them to have infrastructure.
Will there be an opportunity to create an economy of services? At the turn of the century, the mobile phone companies empowered women in Africa by giving them cell phones and essentially created trade. Will you involve the camp members in the process? And if so, how?
Our theory is that we would have people from the community facilitate the collection. Right now in these camps there is usually a contractor that's hired by the administrator, be it UNHCR, UNICEF, or whomever, to handle the communal services. Let’s say with Zaatar, UNICEF hands down the management of all of the wash facilities to an NGO, who will hire a local Jordanian trucking company to come in and evacuate the tank underneath the communal toilet.
The way that we're imagining it is that there's this contractor that comes in with a big truck and takes waste out of the camp, but they're not going to each house. There needs to be a home to hub connection, and that's where we're thinking of developing. Maybe we put a toilet in every caravan or every tent, and then maybe there's still the communal collection point where we employ people in the camp as a micro-franchise collection network to earn incomes by collecting that waste from people's homes and bring it to the collection hub, which then gets removed by the existing contractors. That's how we've envisioning it. It's a theory we have to substantiate.
How will you argue the need and cost of these waterless toilets in each home?
We know from people who work in the camps that a significant portion of the camp doesn't use communal toilets. Only a small portion of waste in the camp actually happens at the communal facility; I think a lot of people have rejected them.
Once a family decides to build its own pit latrine and put a little shelter around it, you're not going to go in that line anymore. There are a significant number of people who prefer to have that even though it's an undignified and unsafe option with biohazards. It's preferable to waiting in line and using a communal toilet where a lot of other things that happen.
Apparently in Zaatar, the initial people who were there became the top of the hierarchy and then as the camp expanded, some of the refugees would put up a padlock on the communal toilet so that only their group could use it. Other toilets were getting dismantled and used for scrap material and it was pretty clear early on that this was a fail.
When we interviewed Mariana Ibanez, an architect who now teaches at MIT, her students at Harvard GSD were exploring architecture solutions in refugee camps. Here is a photo of the IKEA shelter that won many awards. Is this a growth industry?
Refugee camps and post-disaster sanitation are immediate needs but beyond that – with these mass migrations of people from rural areas into cities – we don't have the capacity to absorb them. We have 700 million people that are living in informal housing. How are governments going to create drop-in sanitation solutions? They're not going to go and excavate and build pipes, and they're not going to put the plumbing in. So, what are you going to do to allow sanitation to happen in those neighborhoods?
Have these big camps become new towns? At what point are they that and no longer a refugee station?
It’s possible. One interesting feature of the Syrian refugee camps is that Syrians tend to be a very entrepreneurial and many of them don't stay in camps. They'll move on into the cities. That's very different to some of the older refugee camps, where maybe the populations that they were collecting were more rural.
An example is the Jordanian government. They were very nervous about the placement of Zaatar and what was happening with sewage in the camp, because they were worried about it infiltrating ground water resources that feed their host population. Most host countries don't want to install permanent infrastructures to these camps because they don't want these camps to be permanent. I'm an outside observer but I assume the Jordanian government saw what was the lesser of two evils and started putting more permanent infrastructure in because if people were going to insist on having toilets next to their home, they needed to bring the sanitation infrastructure closer to them. They've started mini-infrastructure setups where they're putting pipes that feed into a small subset of neighboring caravans that all feed into a communal collection tank. It sounds like a very expensive and bulky solution to setup, and it's not likely to be replicated in refugee camps; most governments don't want refugee camps to become permanent fixtures.
When will you roll out your product?
We hope to have a prototype by the fall. We're starting to get a lot of calls from people who want to pilot this. I talked to somebody today who wants to pilot this in Yemen. The crazy thing is we already have letters of interest for the purchase of units. We have to actually get a product first!
Where are you building prototypes?
We're building at MIT; half the team is affiliated with MIT.
My CTO is Hoda Elisod, the other Egyptian woman in Cambridge, and then we also have a couple of other MIT PhD students. Elisod was working on distributive water solutions, so it was an inevitable mind meld. We're going to take over. It was so fortuitous that we came together. The day that I met her, I thought I'd have to shut down the startup because I suddenly found out the team that I was depending on wasn't available anymore.
How did you meet?
Another mutual friend who's also Egyptian – there's a theme here of the “Egyptian Mafia” in the Boston/Cambridge area. She’s running a social entrepreneurship accelerator. In fact, she has created this in response to the Arab Spring, asking 'how do we get young people empowered to innovate to the next phase of Egypt's development?' Her name is Mona Mowafi and her accelerator is called RISE Egypt. It's brilliant. She's created a platform to help promote social entrepreneurs in Egypt and help empower them through ecosystem development and access to funding, so she knows the whole ecosystem of Egyptian social entrepreneurs. Mowafi then introduced me to another Egyptian who was doing a PhD at MIT in material science. He loved the idea and said, ‘you need to meet this other Egyptian woman who's here in Cambridge who's working on a startup that's developing a distributed solar powered drinking water treatment system.’ I assumed it was a kindred spirit. I didn't expect her to become a partner.
It actually took us six months to have that initial meeting. The only reason I took the meeting was because I had just found out that my team had imploded and I had received my first grant. How do I implement without a team? And I found out I was pregnant for the second time. So I was like, ‘I'm not going to waste time meeting with somebody who's already committed to another startup. I need to build a team or I need to find somebody who can connect me to funding. I can't waste my time.’ It was such a perfect storm. In comes Hoda and all of a sudden everything was possible. That was two years ago. I can't figure out what the formula is of meeting that other team member that empowers you and allows you to do it, but it's been great.
How many are on the Change: Water Labs team?
We are six people. I'm the only one who can work full time because I have a husband who feeds me. My two main jobs are raising two little girls and getting this startup to market.
There's a PhD student, Yongji Wang, in civil environmental engineering at MIT who joined our team two years ago. Alongside of doing his PhD, he answers questions that we don't know how to answer and he's an expert in fluid dynamics. We have some newer team members: We have another student who is Yunteng Cao. He's a new member to the team, also civil environmental engineering PhD at MIT and he's an expert in smart materials and we have another member of the team, Nadir Ait-Laoussine, who is half-Algerian and he comes out of the McKinsey Global Institute as well as the Harvard Graduate School for Design with a focus on smart cities and urban planning. We like to call the team three North Africans and a couple of other people. And now we have three interns, and a number of great advisors who fill in the gaps on our lean team.
How much funding?
We have about $150,000 in non-diluted funding: grants and awards. It'll get us part of the way to a prototype and then a pilot.
We probably want to do a proper seed round or find convertible debt. It would be great if we could close on $1 to $3 million to really power us through the pilot, help us to secure the scale manufacturing, and then also be able to fulfill the first orders we have. We actually have interest from two buyers to buy 3,000 to 6,000 units next year.
Are you raising fund rights now from investors?
People are asking us to pitch. So, we've been writing grant proposals like crazy. I did my first angel pitches and it's starting to happen while we're navigating that space of being a mission-driven venture that wants to be profitable and scalable and successful.
How easy is it to disrupt the multi-billion dollar aid industry?
Not easy. When we initially thought about what would be a good market channel, we thought about pitching to UNICEF and UNHCR. But they are responsible for millions of people and they're very risk averse, and getting the pre-qualifications to be a supplier or a contractor to those agencies is a lengthy process, and the procurement processes are very long. We discovered what we might end up doing is selling to the contractors that already work for those organizations.
How did IKEA get their wonderful shelter into the camps?
Well, IKEA is a huge company.
Yes, but what about the growing number of innovators coming up with these solutions?
Many of these organizations have an innovation group, as UNICEF has WASH and USAID has a global development lab. They all have their own.
What about the quote from António Guterres, that with the accelerating global crisis today, the financial foundations of NGOs and, one may think, the bureaucratic process, are not sustainable?
As much as people complain about these organizations, when I was at the UN I realized that the problem with being in an organization like that is that you're being asked to be all things to all entities. Those organizations get pulled in so many different directions. The funders will tell them what to do regardless of whether it's practical or not, whether it's within their expert skill set.
Who are you referring to?
It’s usually USAID, Department for International Development, (DIFID), and those foreign aid arms of the government that are also funders to those multilateral organizations like the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and The United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It's a huge industry. It's not as huge as our president says it is but, yes, I think that there are certain things that those organizations do very well. Innovation is tough in those organizations because they're pulled in so many different directions.
Is it corrupt in who gets all this aid funding or are the contractors and government agencies truly looking for the best teams with the best solutions?
I don't think that it's across the board corrupt. I think there is corruption in some situations. If you think about the US government contracting services, they have their favorite providers that they've already worked with, that already have the systems in place.
So as the first waterless toilet that could solve a major issue, but also as a tiny startup, how will you get through the bureaucracy of these huge entities?
I think as long as it's proven, there might be a channel. This might sound naïve but our channel right now looks to be contractors, with whom we’ve had demand, that have already secured government and donor tenders.
Will you report back to us?
Yes, absolutely. That would be great.
Heidi Legg and Diana Yousef on GenX motherhood and finding your way back:
H: What do you think of GenX?
D: We're kind of in that middle, right? I think our parents were the ones who felt like they had to work up the ladder and earn the corner office, and then we have the generation behind us that's like, ‘I'm twenty two and going to do a startup. Aren't I awesome?’
The most daunting thing about deciding to let go of everything and become this entrepreneur was that I was in the middle of my career . I felt like a complete novice, and I’d go to college reunions where people are now heads of government agencies, managing directors at huge banks, and published authors – and I'm starting over!
I couldn't find models of entrepreneurial women pregnant for the first time. You look around and the model of the entrepreneur is the kid that graduates from college and starts something with their college roommate in a garage eating ramen noodles. That's not my model. I like ramen noodles, but I don't have the same kind of hunger and I don't have the same energy. I'm the mid-career entrepreneur who's also the mom-entrepreneur who wants to do a clean tech company. There were no models.
What I'm starting to realize is I'm creating a different model. I talk to so many women who are now at that phase where they've got these kids and that career that they thought would have as a tenured professor or a partner is not happening. They feel broken and stuck. They feel like they failed. I'm hoping that we start having more examples of people who reinvent themselves.
H: Or maybe it’s not even to reinvent. Could it be to move into entrepreneurship or leadership now?
D: Yes. And I think that's the thing. It's so crazy that after all these years of having brand names on my résumé, when I stopped and started this thing, I was like, ‘I have no idea what I'm good at. I don't even know how that's possible.’ I'm starting to be able to articulate what I'm good at. The thing is that with children you totally lose yourself and then the idea of trying to pick a new direction in the middle of your career – it's not something we’ve talked about it as a society.
H: What should we be talking about as a society for women?
D: I don't know if this happens to other women but after I had my first baby, I just wasn't interested in anything anymore. I used to be very engaged, listening to the news, and being politically active, and engaged with international affairs and I was suddenly dull. I couldn't really have a conversation for years.
Then I figured that maybe eventually, whatever that spark of something I used to have, which was always around international development and innovation and solving hard problems, maybe that'll come back. I thought, ‘why don't I start going in that direction and then see if it comes back?’ In those first two years when I was working on this, I didn't even tell people I was doing it because I felt so embarrassed. And there wasn't anything or anyone to tell me that I was doing something right.
H: How did you push forward?
D: There are a couple other things I've discovered when I'm feeling weighed down and I can't see the way forward. I give myself the permission to go find one aspect of the work that I think would be fun. Maybe if it's not necessarily mission critical, or the next thing that has to happen, but something that gets my mind off of all the other crap. I like to build financial models. I like spreadsheets or to sit down and ideate on a product, and then somehow that always ends up being a good thing to do. The other thing is to try to do something artistic to step away.
H: So for you, a restart as a mother who had a vibrant earlier career was to follow something you had always enjoyed? To chase those constant threads?
D: Or something that I remembered liking and I figured maybe it would come back. It's the best guess I have right now. You hear these stories like, ‘I woke up with this passion and I knew I had to have it’ – that was not my experience! It was a journey and for anyone out there who has that question about whether they're doing the thing they should do – I would say, looking back, it makes all the sense in the world to be brave. Just do it.
H: And it may be quiet and gradual and not always with passion.
D: Yeah. Just try to do something where you think at some point it's going to be meaningful to you. We actually figured out a lot of stuff later. A lot of these pieces that you would have thought needed to be in place at the beginning, we only found them a couple years down the line. If you're feeling stuck, ask yourself, ‘what do I have to lose?’