In 2015, Bill Gates drank a glass of water on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" — an act that would have been utterly unremarkable, except for the fact that the water came from human waste.
Gates was showing off the Omni Processor, an invention that converts human waste into energy and clean drinking water.
By drinking a glass on national television, Gates showed that the machine could be deployed around the world to tackle some of the most pressing causes of poverty, such as the lack of clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).
While it may seem like open defecation, access to clean water, and proper sanitation are obscure issues, 1 in 8 people worldwide still practice open defecation.
The engineers at Janicki Bioenergy in Seattle, Washington, set out to tackle these critical issues. With a mission to develop sustainable sanitation and waste management solutions, they have the potential to help many people.
In 2015, with the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Janicki launched the Omni Processor’s first pilot program in Senegal. In a country where more than 2 million people openly defecate and more than 3,000 deaths each year are related to WASH, the project was highly anticipated.
Since Bill’s publicity stunt on "The Tonight Show," the machine has converted approximately 700 tons of fecal sludge into energy and usable water in Senegal.
The impact going forward could have a massive return on investment. Improving worldwide sanitation stimulates economic development by delivering $5.50 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested. That's because of increased work productivity and fewer days of school or work missed as a result of sickness from contaminated drinking water.
This is a great investment…— Bill Gates (@BillGates) May 3, 2017
For every $1 spent on sanitation, there is a $5.50 return.https://t.co/NdW2t6r5i4
The benefits of WASH efforts don’t stop there. Better sanitation means better health outcomes, greater global security, improved opportunities for girls and women, and a more resilient climate.
Senegal now has more access to clean drinking water, energy, and overall improved WASH conditions, but what’s next for the Omni Processor?
The goal for Janicki Bioenergy and the Gates Foundation is to transition the operation of the system to the Senegalese government. In the future, Janicki hopes to expand to other areas of Senegal and African countries.
Global Citizen campaigns to improve access to water and sanitation around the world and you can take action on this issue here.
Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.