Nabeel Jaffer: “I’m Doing It One Toilet at a Time”

Taken by: @shah.sam

After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, during Manavta’s second year of operations, Founder Nabeel Jaffer, didn’t know whether Manavta could continue running operations. However, four years later, Nabeel and his team have helped hundreds of Nepalis, improving health education and alleviating sanitation issues across the region.

To understand Manavta’s journey, we spoke with Nabeel over Skype. He talked about his short and long term goals, his approach, and the best pieces of advice he has received as a social entrepreneur.

Impaction: What social issue are you trying to resolve through Manavta?

Nabeel: We’re trying to fix the problem of defecation, clean water, sanitation and access to sanitation. We’re doing this mainly through education and capacity building — through a model where we believe that we provide incentives for people to use toilets so our toilets are ecologically friendly and sustainable.

Can you please tell us about yourself and why you embarked on this social entrepreneurship journey?

That’s a big question. There are always different ways I approach this. I’m on this path because I want to do something good for the world. I don’t want to die without any purpose. I feel like we’re all put on this planet for something and I was always very adventurous and inept when taking in cultures so I’ve always been drawn to different areas of the world. Nepal was always on my list to travel and when I had the opportunity to do that, I went. The reason why I traveled was because my mom passed away and that was a big moment in my life. You know, certain things happen to you and you change and I guess what I took away with that is that mom was always involved in doing good things in society and she was always involved in charity work. I kind of carried that on and since then, I’ve been traveling and seeing different parts of the developing world and Manavta is something that followed. I don’t have a passion for social entrepreneurship, I think it’s something that just happened. I have more of a passion for traveling and seeking out culture. I think that’s what I like to do. I think that drives me more than a simple ability to build toilets.

You made a career transition — can you tell us more about your thought process in making that decision?

It’s a hard decision. I studied a variety of things. I studied microbiology, economics, then I became a teacher. I always say my first job is teaching because that’s what I do. I formally taught at international schools in China, Egypt, and Tanzania.

But the transition between one career and another — I don’t think it’s very hard, to tell you the truth, because at the end of the day, your job is what you do and if you enjoy your job, you enjoy your life. I would like my job to be my life so if I can put those two together, I think I can create a pretty good career for myself. The transition is difficult to go from a 9–5 and the decision to become a social entrepreneur, you’re giving up a lot of stuff in life to get to where you want to go.

What do you see as your strengths and your team’s strengths in this space?

We’re learning. We are a sponge for knowledge. We know that fighting poverty is the hardest thing that humans can do — which just happens to be what Manavta means (“Humanity”). I think for us as a team, we are young. We are all from different industries but we also have industry-specific people that work with us. We’re also very young. A lot of people that join me in this path are just like me and want to seek out more in life. They are people who want to explore and take risks but, at the same time, want to grow something. That’s probably the biggest strength that I have, that I like to learn. I’m also a very free-thinking person. I’m always all over the place and it can be a good and a bad thing. I think it’s a strength because it allows me the opportunity to come up with new things and be creative.

What accomplishments are you particularly proud of?

This is one of the hardest things for me because I am always striving to get something better. Accomplishments-wise, I am very happy we set up our non-profit. We have had some struggles — there was a time when we had an earthquake in Nepal. That put a big damper on our project and where we wanted to go and we overcame that. So I would say we are really resilient. Things don’t grow unless you fail. So we have gone through failures and we have learnt a lot along the way and I think that’s our greatest accomplishment —that we’re still standing through some tumultuous times that happened very early on in our startup career.

In our second year of operations, there was an earthquake in Nepal. I’ve never had to deal with a natural disaster, especially at the forefront of something. Just the fact that we came through that, and the fact that we learned — I keep coming back to learning but that’s where we’re at. We’re just an organization where we don’t know it all — we will definitely express our successes and the impact we’ve created because we have created impact. If there’s something I’m proud of, it is that we’ve reached 300 people. 300 more people have a place to do their business and they’re not just pooping in a normal, septic toilet. They are using ours and, in turn, that’s also creating some income for them. [These toilets are] saving money on fertilizers and are improving their food sources. So for me, the accomplishments is starting Manavta and having this ability to take this cool idea and actually putting it to fruition. But me, as an entrepreneur and someone who wants to do better, I don’t think I’m done yet.

What are your short term goals for your enterprise?

My short term goals in 2019 and 2020 is to raise some money. We’ve done two projects and we’ve done everything at the household level. So I want to show the world what we accomplished in terms of what we’ve done. I haven’t marketed what we’ve done. We’re working on a video and a documentary, as well. We’ve got a few ideas and that’s a short term goal for us. We want to fund-raise. We’ve done these projects on a budget of $2,000. So imagine what we can do with $50,000. So right now, we’re at the strategic point about what we can really do and what impact we can make and how we can scale what we can do. I’m going back to Nepal in October to visit our old project to monitor and record our progress. Data is really important to us, so I want to make sure we’re hitting our KPIs (key performance indicators). Going back to that community is something that’s really important to me. I’ve built a connection with those people. After that, it’s going back to work and finding another place where we can grow and replicate our model.

Short term goal — we want to make sure we’re doing another project. I don’t want to stop, I want to keep expanding. We found some areas in the Western part of Nepal and made connections there. It’s just a matter of collecting data and doing some preliminary research. I’m really committed to show that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We want to do this project-by-project, space-by-space, community-by-community and not waste our resources and scatter them all over the place.

What are your long term goals for your enterprise?

Five years out, I see ourselves in India. I’ve made personal connections with people in business and those in social corporations. India is an interesting market when it comes to sanitation. Lots of money is being thrown around in India but it’s not utilized as well. I think the sanitation project will be huge there. The sooner I can get to India the better — it’s a long term goal for us. Like I said, I don’t want this to be a one-size-fits-all approach. So are we fully ready to take it on? I don’t know. I have to take it as it comes. That’s the beauty of entrepreneurship you set these goals but you never know what can happen.

I don’t think nonprofits should exist. When you’re a social business, you should be running yourself out of business. The big goal is to take this urine that we’re using on a local level and hopefully be able to compete with the commercial fertilizer. We’ve already noticed that communities can save money using this method. Farmers save upwards of $50 per month because they don’t have to purchase commercial urea for their crops. Since the urine is initially produced in a liquid form, there is a way to convert this urine into something called a struvite by adding magnesium oxide. A long term goal would be to figure out how we can create a toilet from this product so that we can actually manufacture ourselves a toilet that creates struvite right on site. It will close the social loop.

Educating people and communities about we do and why toilets are important will provide a solution that’s sustainable in the long-run. It creates economy, it saves people money, and it is better for our soil and environment. If I can create a product that changes the world, then I’m doing it one toilet at a time.

What is the best advice you have received as an innovator?

  1. Take risks. No idea is ever far-fetched. That’s the beauty of what humans are — we can think outside of the box. The best innovators are those who think outside the box. With risks and failures come big opportunities.
  2. Ask. As an innovator, you can’t do it on your own. You may have these crazy ideas and plans but you can’t execute them on your own. 9 out of 10 people will probably say no to you, but you have to keep asking. The more you ask, the more people will join you and the right people will follow you. You’re not going to do it on your own so you have to ask.

What is the message you would like to share with others who want to create an impact?

I think we need more people like [you] in the world. Anyone who has had the thought in their mind, that they want to change the world, should be gladly welcomed into the club. The more of us there are, the world would be a better place. What I’ve learned is that helping people is the hardest thing you have to do — so if you are going to be an entrepreneur or an innovator, you have to know what you’re getting yourself into. Because there’s a lot that goes into it that you don’t think about. and there’s a lot you have to give and take. It is a different world, but we do need more people who are willing to do just that.

Nabeel is an educator, nomad and social entrepreneur born and raised in Calgary, Canada. He started Manavta in 2013 with the help of like minded volunteers and has since served as the executive director. In the past year Nabeel has won multiple pitch competitions and also joined the StartingBloc Fellowship, working with many other change makers around the globe. Always seeking out an adventure, he can often be found climbing mountains, riding bikes or searching for wildlife. His goal is to continue to seek out opportunities to reach as many communities around the world and truly believes that the toilet is more than just a place to take a poop. It changes lives.

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