“Our real mission as a company is to shake up the economics of sanitation and make waste treatment much cheaper and therefore more affordable to developing cities” said Ashely Muspratt, CEO of Pivot Works.
Pivot Works is a dual sanitation and renewable fuel company. Its business model is to take in human waste and convert it into a lucrative product - a renewable solid fuel that replaces coal and other biomass used in industrial kilns and boilers. The company generates a revenue stream that covers the operating cost of wastewater processing.
Treating wastewater with traditional sewer networks and aerobic treatment costs about $75 billion per year for investment, operation, and maintenance –not including the price tag of natural resources.
“I often like to describe it as replacing treatment plants, which are major cost centers, with factories where waste is our raw material and we produce a valuable product and are able to provide treatment as a bi-product of our manufacturing process” says said Muspratt.
Pivot Works currently has a demonstration factory running in Kigali, Rwanda, where they receive a scale of about 90 tons of fecal sludge every day and convert it into about 1 ton of burnable fuel which gets distributed to local industries.
The company arrived in Kigali in January 2015 and established a partnership with the city shortly thereafter. They work very closely with the Department of Infrastructure and Sanitation and with the Department of Waste Management. Plant construction started in March of that year and commissioned in August. It has been running steadily since September.
We sat down with Muspratt to learn more about her experience working with a local government and the uses of Pivot Fuel.
Tell us about your business model.
Our model is to build and operate our plant -I definitely feel strongly that Pivot should maintain control of operation and maintenance of the plant. And have an expert operator rather than handing it over to a government authority. I think that’s key to sustaining this facility. Pivot Works’ business model has a built in revenue stream and profit incentive which keeps the plants running.
What has working with the local government of Kigali been like?
Working in Rwanda has been a real pleasure; it is easy to get a business registered. There are very transparent and clear processes in place for getting a business up and running. We have a great relationship with the city’s key stake holders in the sanitation sector like the administrative infrastructure and the national water and sanitation utility. We have not faced any major challenges with the government of Kigali. Our experience to date has been very positive as far a government and business relations go.
Did you expect it to go this well?
By far this has been the easiest city to work in; it has been a pleasant surprise to find that systems are as well functioning here as they are and there is not really an issue of corruption at the high level that we work. That aspect of our business has been very straight forward here.
How do you deal with the city’s infrastructure problems?
Our system is designed to be able to handle all the different types of waste that are produced in a developing city. Pivot Works’ design is not only for wastewater through a sewer network and not just fecal sludge or pit sludge. Our system is modular enough that we can accommodate all the different types of fecal sludge or waste water with different characteristics. This is another feature of our value proposition for the cities.
How can this technology help local governments prepare for climate change?
The most obvious fact is that our plant is putting out a renewable fuel product so we can help contribute to the local supply of renewable fuel and offset demand for coal or other fossil fuels - timber is another big issue due to deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the less obvious but maybe an even bigger factor in climate change mitigation is the fact that our plant itself is very low energy. What makes conventional wastewater treatment technologies so expensive to maintain and operate is that they have very high electricity demands, as they rely a huge amount on aerobic aeration of the wastewater – we don’t use that kind of technology so instead of our plant being a net consumer of energy of the grid we are a producer of energy.
What are your results to date?
We have distributed the fuel to at least four different industrial customers at this point. We’ve gotten positive feedback from the customers on the burning characteristics of the fuel, the energy content, and the ease with which it burns. That’s been really encouraging - we have a very good relationship with the city and have them excited about long term collaboration. I think Pivot Works is going to be in Kigali for a long time.
We are a startup company so we are still working to optimize our operation and have a ways to go to really drive down our processes and costs. We are going to be integrating a liquid treatment into our process – a major priority for this year. A lot going on, but the last year (2015) was a very successful and exciting one for the company.
Any other uses for Pivot fuel, besides industrial?
You certainly could burn this fuel in a turbine to generate electricity. But at this point there is a large and growing demand by industries for thermal energy. This type of fuel is very easy to store, and to transport and so today its highest value is in the local economy. We certainly explore the possibility of electricity generation and feed in tariffs but based on our analysis we can generate more revenue by selling this as a thermal energy. If the prices for feed in tariffs for electricity go up or the technologies for generating electricity become more efficient and less expensive, then the economies may change, and as a company we do need to stay on the cutting edge. So today we sell solid fuel but in the end our mission it is to drive down the cost of sanitation and make waste management viable in cities and if there is another opportunity at some point that allows us to do that better then we will certainly look at switching to that.
Have you encountered any push back due to the sourcing of the fuel?
Not by industries – which is one of the reasons why we target that market. We are deliberately not trying to
make a household cooking fuel. One, we would have to overcome that stigma and two, I would need tens of thousands of customers to buy up all the human waste from one large city. Whereas with an industry, stuff just gets shoveled into their kilns - there is not a lot of personal contact, they are not cooking their dinner over it and they do have a really large demand for fuel.
What are your plans for the future?
With our operations in Kigali, we are very focused on trying to systematize everything that we do so that as we scale, we develop more of a cookie cutter type of plant that we can rely on. Our vision is to scale up as widely and rapidly as possible, building these plants, first, across the East African Region and then across the continent and outside of Africa. Over a couple of years the key to our success would be to smooth-out our operations and almost devise a franchise like scaling strategy where all of our operations, policies, protocols, and procedures are very systematized.
I think there is a huge market for what we are doing, and way more than any one company could tackle on its own. So a major sign of success for us would be if copy-cat companies start emerging in the next couple of years, if other companies would start doing exactly what we are doing. I think we’ll grow through public-private partnerships with cities and hopefully we will be able to continue to do that faster quicker better than other competing companies. But at the same time, it would be fantastic to see competition emerge because that would mean that we are really starting to make some headway on solving this sanitation crisis.
Any final remarks?
A few things that set us apart are the scale at which we are operating, the fact that we are going after transforming the economics or the financials that govern treatment and waste systems, and our end product is also unique.
You can learn more about Pivot from its website.
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