Bill Gates’ Plan to Help the Developing World Profit From Its Sewage


Bill Gates walks up to the water tap, but before he can drink, his entourage pulls him to one side. One woman takes off his glasses and rearranges his hair. Another dabs on a little makeup. And, at one point, someone hands him a Mason jar.

Once it’s filled with water from the tap, he takes a sip from the jar, and a Gates Foundation photographer captures the moment. Then there’s another water-sipping photo-op with Peter Janicki, the man who offered him this drink on the outskirts in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, about 70 miles north of Seattle. “It’s water!” Gates says, with mock surprise.

Bill feigns surprise because five minutes ago, the water was human waste pumped in from a local sewage facility. It was transformed into clean water by what’s called the OmniProcessor, a new kind of low-cost waste treatment plant funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and designed by Janicki’s company, Janicki Bioenergy. On this November day, Gates is taking his first tour of Janicki’s contraption, which he believes can transform global sanitation. Using an innovative blend of steam power and water filtration, according to Gates and his foundation, this plant can convert up to 14 tons of sewage into potable water and electricity each day.

Now that a prototype is up and running in Washington, the foundation hopes to bring the OmniProcessor to India, Africa, and other developing parts of the world, saying that each roughly $1.5-million plant can process sewage for a community of about 100,000 people. “If you can get thousands of these things out there, then you’ve ensured the people really will grow up in a healthy way,” Gates says. “They’ll live much higher quality lives. You will save a lot of lives. And you’ll have local entrepreneurs who are maintaining these things.”

The potential benefits are enormous. Forty percent of the global population—or 2.5 billion urban residents—practice open defecation or otherwise lack adequate sanitation, and an additional 2.1 billion urban residents use facilities that do not safely dispose of human waste. About 1.5 million children die every year from contaminated food and water, and in developing countries, half of all patients in hospitals are there because of problems with water and sanitation. What’s more, all this puts an economic strain on such countries. In India, bad sanitation practices costs the country nearly $54 billion a year, or 6.4 percent of its GDP.

The OmniProcessor can help solve these problems, Gates and his foundation say, because it’s so much more efficient than ordinary treatment plants. Modern sewage plants grab electricity from the grid, release water vapor into the atmosphere, and, oftentimes, buy up natural gas to create enough heat to incinerate the wet sludge. The OmniProcessor, on the other hand, recaptures squandered energy and puts it to use. The hope is that it will turn the nasty business of sewage processing from a cost center into a profits center, with operators—local governments or philanthropic entrepreneurs—charging for the electricity and water produced by the machine. Next month, the Janicki team will travel to Dakar, Senegal to rebuild the OmniProcessor and, for the first time, test it in the developing world.