Forget the number-crunching on toilets, look for business solutions

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 20 November 2013 14:23 GMT

A girl takes a bath in a polluted river in Jakarta, Indonesia. June 5, 2013. Local residents say that they are highly dependent on the river due to their lack of shower, washing and toilet facilities. REUTERS/Enny Nuraheni

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Looking at sanitation as a business rather than just a development issue promises more sustainable results, experts at a Thomson Reuters Foundation panel debate said

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It’s tempting to define a problem in numbers, such as the much-quoted fact that 2.5 billion people lack access to basic sanitation or that 88 percent of child deaths are caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water.

But six sanitation experts, who joined Thomson Reuters Foundation for an online debate on World Toilet Day, were quick to point out that decades of development work focused on getting as many toilets as possible to poor people has had its limitations - and as a result one billion people still defecate out in the open, to mention yet another number.

"We like to compare the fact that more people in India have cell phones than toilets," said Anisha Shankar, a social entrepreneur who runs Tansaclean in India, a company  that aims to turn human waste into a saleable source of energy and nutrients. 

"Why? Because cell phones are an economic plus in people's lives," Shankar said. "Toilets are an expense without quick payback. So, how do we make toilets valuable? I.e. how do we make the function of a toilet valuable?"

Shankar is one of a growing group of entrepreneurs who think about sanitation as a business that can drive profit and provide solutions to those who need better toilets.

Sanergy, for example, has built a network of franchised toilets in one of Nairobi's slums. And efforts are under way to generate biogas at local municipal sewer works and use that energy to power water pumps.

"We need to change the way we view the problem and look for solutions which can grow without donor support and provide toilets and services which people actually want," said Steven Sugden, senior programme manager at Water for People, a non-profit working with small businesses in developing countries to ensure that sanitation infrastructure is properly maintained and repaired.

"There is a difference between sanitation marketing which looks mainly at creating demand and sanitation as a business which is more holistic and covers supply chains and product development as well as demand creation," Sugden said. 


The design of many pit toilets in developing countries is also part of the problem, panellists said. Many do not have a stable base, creating unsafe conditions in which children, elderly and other vulnerable people may actually fall into the pit.  And others are too far away, to hard to keep clean or simply too unappealing to use.

"The paradigm shift from “beneficiary” to “consumer” can produce significant changes that have yet to be fully explored," said Rosemary Rop,  a sanitation specialist at the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Programme. "People, although they are poor, are aspirational in their preferences and they care about design features."

"We want toilets to be sexy enough that people want to buy them," said Elynn Walter, director of sustainability at WASH Advocates, an advocacy organisation based in Washington, DC. "It is important to make market assessments to ensure the products match not only the needs but what the customers desire as well."


For females, lack of a toilet can bring a serious risk of attack and rape, as well as loss of dignity.

Mahesh Gunasekara, health coordinator at the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), said cultural sensitivities were very important in addressing women's and girls' sanitation needs, and just putting public toilets up anywhere without much thought about whether they're appropriate for women was not much use.

"Sanitation is a real problem for women, particularly when the population density increases and the places for private open defecation disappear, " said Water for People's Sugden. 

"I’ve heard women explain how they have been attacked and pelted with stones when they defecate. It’s truly awful. If these women had their own way they would build their own private latrine tomorrow – it just that the men control the family finances and do not see it as a priority."

Helping women to thrive in the sanitation business is one way to make sure facilities are adequate. In Malawi, Water for People works with Towera Jalakari, a businesswoman who focuses on providing an ongoing, sustainable sanitation service, including safe facilities for women.

"We have understand what both the men and the women see as the main advantages latrine ownership," said Sugden. "These vary, but usually privacy, dignity and children’s health for woman, status for men. Loans seem to be a nice incentive to convince men."


Market-led approaches to improve sanitation are needed where governments are not pulling their weight to make lack of proper sanitation a problem of the past, panellists said. 

Despite well-documented costs of not having proper sanitation to economic development and wellbeing, it is not a foregone conclusion that politicians will make it a priority.

"Good evidence on the cost effectiveness of sanitation is key," Walter said. "In addition the extensive data that demonstrates the health, education, and environmental benefits of sanitation need to be digestible for decision makers. It is not enough to have the data but we need to use it in a meaningful way."

Governments are not on course to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target of halving the proportion of people without sanitation by 2015 - one of eight targets agreed in 2000 by United Nations member states.

Sanitation should be at the top of the post-MDG agenda, said the IFRC's Gunasakera. "When you (look at) what we're losing in economic values, it is a very significant amount…It will bring lots of people out of poverty."

Walter stressed that great strides had been made in breaking the taboo around sanitation but "advocacy at both the grassroots level, through media and campaigns, as well as through direct outreach to ministry officials" were still needed to encourage budget increases for sanitation as well as making it a political priority.

Rop cited Malawi as an example of successfully improving access to safe water and sanitation by making sure that government departments worked together, especially in rural areas, rather than in isolation to tackle the issue. As a result, sanitation coverage rose to 61 percent in Malawi in 2004 from 47 percent in 1990, she pointed out.

"An investment in toilets is an investment in a sustainable future," said Rop.

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