Heading out the door for a run one evening in 2014, Michael Switzer ’10 called to wife Leah (Jensen) Switzer ’11, “I think we should move to Africa.”
“I thought, What? Get back in here, you can’t leave now,” Leah recalls.
She had already been to Africa twice. When she was in high school she traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, with her mother, Kari (Hermeier) Jensen ’83, and aunt Paula (Hermeier) Meyer ’76, former chair of Luther’s Board of Regents (shown above, center). Meyer and Keith Kale ’76 were founding an organization called Friends of Ngong Road, to provide education and support for children affected by HIV/AIDS in Nairobi, Kenya. Leah returned to the continent her junior year at Luther to student teach in Uganda. Since that first trip, she had dreamed of living in Africa, and she and Michael had discussed it but, he says, “I never thought it would happen.”
Now he was ready. He was working in financial investing in Minneapolis but wanted a job that would challenge him in different ways. Leah was happy in her elementary school teaching position but immediately started looking for teaching jobs in Africa. Michael thought he would find a job or volunteer position after Leah found a spot.
But Paula Meyer had a better idea. Michael remembers: “She said, ‘Michael, you’re going to move to Nairobi and you’re going to start up a portable toilet company, and this thing is going to make money to support the mission of Friends of Ngong Road.’” And that’s just what happened. But it wasn’t so simple.
Backing up about nine years, Friends of Ngong Road was founded as a Minnesota-based 501(c)(3) organization, partnering with Ngong Road Children Association (NRCA), a registered Kenyan nongovernmental organization, or NGO. They share a mission to provide education and support for impoverished children in Nairobi whose families have been affected by HIV/AIDS. The organization has succeeded, with many children being sponsored by Luther alumni and friends, in fact. But its board of directors wanted to ensure its sustainability and said the organizations needed to generate revenue in Kenya so that they were not entirely dependent on U.S. philanthropy.
That’s where the portable restrooms—or, as they say in former British colonies, loos—come in. A friend of Meyer’s, Todd Hilde, who owns restroom supplier Satellite Industries in Minnesota, urged her to consider starting a portable loo business. She was intrigued, she says, and looked into it. “I visited the largest providers in Nairobi, and the data point that stuck in my mind is that Nairobi and the Twin Cities area are approximately the same size—about four million people. In Minneapolis, every day, between 12,000 and 15,000 portable restrooms are deployed at construction sites, parks, and events. And in Nairobi there are fewer than 1,000 portable restrooms available to rent. Also, only about 40 percent of Nairobi’s population has access on a daily basis to improved sanitation.”
Hilde said he’d contribute 10 loos, and the Ngong Road groups decided to a pilot project in 2015 for a business to be called Karibu Loo.
Michael accepted Meyer’s offer to run the pilot, and the Braeburn International School in Nairobi hired Leah to teach kindergarten. Her students were a global mix, with 15 countries represented in her class of 20 students. The school turned out to be close to the NRCA offices and even provided their apartment.
Now all Michael had to do was completely set up the portable loo business. The economics major had never run a business, but he learned fast.
Sixteen more loos, for a total of 26, and an exhauster to clean them had been ordered from Germany. A truck to move the loos around was on its way from Japan. Michael figured out how to take delivery of the equipment at the port of Mombasa, transport it to Nairobi, and find storage. He worked with an attorney to set up the business’s legal framework; hired office staff, drivers, and more; sourced supplies such as tissue paper, soap, and hand sanitizer; researched the market; learned accounting practices; and started lining up customers.
As it happens, the market for portable loos in Nairobi is different than in Minneapolis. Middle- and upper-class events such as long-distance running races, weddings, and private parties are where most of the demand is. To be competitive for those events, Karibu Loo needed very nice loos, so each had to be retrofitted with flushing mechanisms, which also had to be shipped in.
Karibu Loo also attracts business because of its philanthropic mission—each loo reads: “Helping educate children.” Attendants hired by Karibu Loo—children who have been through the NRCA program—are on hand at each event to explain the motto. For many, this is their first job. They receive wages, get experience at holding down a job—in a city with 40 percent unemployment—and build references for future jobs.
Michael and Leah got to know many of the children in the NRCA program on Saturday afternoons. The NRCA rented a field where children could gather for games, reading instruction, art projects, and a healthful lunch, something many of them were unlikely to get on weekends. It was a time for the couple to meet with the young girl they were sponsoring and for Leah to work with students on their reading skills.
The pilot ended in early 2016 and was determined a success. A Kenyan man was hired to take over Michael’s job, as he and Leah were returning home in July at the end of her teaching contract. Now Karibu Loo is run entirely by Kenyans. Back in Minnesota, Leah is teaching at Earl Brown Elementary, an international baccalaureate school in Brooklyn Center, Minn., and Michael is working on his M.B.A. at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business, Skyping regularly with Karibu Loo’s new manager during his transition. Karibu Loo is scaling up and now has 87 restrooms, including a VIP trailer with electricity and running water.
By 2020, Meyer says, about a third of Ngong Road’s operating budget should come from Karibu Loo. “The board of Friends of Ngong Road believes that with the addition of earned income in Kenya through Karibu Loo, our mission of educating some of the world’s poorest children will become much more sustainable,” she adds.
For more information about Friends of Ngong Road or Karibu Loo, contact Paula Meyer at [email protected]