Social Start-ups: Banka Bioloo

Toilets had been on Namita Banka’s mind since her days in Bangalore, where she worked as a jewellery designer and manufacturer for about 10 years. She had grappled with the problem of lack of toilets in public places, especially for women. “In the jewellery business we have to operate out of rented spaces in crowded market areas; public toilets were not easily accessible," recollects Banka, 41. “Women are forced to hold on to their pee for a long time or drink less water. This affected my health. I developed kidney stones."

Banka left the business in 2008 and moved to Hyderabad to join her husband, an executive with a marketing research and analytic firm in the city. By this time, she knew she wanted to do something that could make a “difference in public life".

In 2009, Banka enrolled a course on non-governmental organization management at the Centre for Social Initiative and Management in Hyderabad. Around this time she also started Banka Enterprises, a maintenance service provider for controlled discharge toilet systems (CDTS) in the Indian Railways. CDTS is a system where waste from the train toilets is not discharged at the station, but on tracks after a train has attained a speed of 30 kilometres per hour. This helps keep at least the station premises clean.

In 2011, Banka heard about the Defence Research and Development Establishment’s (DRDE’s) bio-digester technology for human waste management, a cost-effective solution that recycles waste into water, carbon dioxide and methane. Sensing an opportunity, Banka applied for a licence to commercialize the technology in 2012, for a fee of 15 lakh. She renamed her company Banka Bioloo Pvt. Ltd and set out to make bio-toilets affordable.

The bio-toilet, which Banka calls “Bioloo", is a regular structure with a toilet bowl; the only difference is that the bowl is attached to a bio-digester tank that contains bacteria-embedded sheets. Bio-digestor tanks need to cleaned and replenished with bacteria at periodic intervals. The toilet construction needs a trench on which the bio-digester tank sits. When human waste comes in contact with bacteria, it takes two-three days to decompose and gets converted into carbon dioxide, methane and water. Methane can be used as fuel while recycled water can be used for gardening.

These toilets can be set up anywhere—at construction sites, public places, in rural housing, urban slums, train stations, wherever sewer lines are not available.

In fact, Banka’s initial business came from infrastructure companies like Larsen & Toubro Ltd, Shapoorji Pallonji & Co. Ltd and the Tata group, which required portable toilets at construction sites. Of 1,000 Bioloos built so far, 700 have been for the railways.

To bring down the cost of the toilet, Banka’s team experimented with different materials to build the bio-digester tank. “We tried with different materials like plastics, fibres, and and eventually now work with polystyrene bricks. It took a year to standardize our production," says Banka.

A Bioloo costs 30,000-35,000, and it takes a day to build one in a rural area.

Another challenge that Banka had to overcome was the reluctance of people to work in a company associated with toilets. “It’s a dirty job, no one liked it in the beginning, but now we have 100 people employed with us because they understand they are working towards a greener future," says Banka.

Banka says she is also working on a Gift-a-Loo concept, where people can gift a Bioloo to those who don’t have toilets.

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