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The rise of the sanitation economy: how business can help solve a global crisis

Tuesday, 19 September 2017 14:53 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sanitation economy models promise potential in water efficiency, food security and climate resilience

There is no escaping a simple fact: talking about sanitation is never going to be an appealing subject. Discussing the global shortage of toilets and the task of managing human waste doesn’t get much attention for obvious reasons. 

But ​the time for distaste is over. The sanitation crisis is global, and unnecessarily holding back progress and costing lives.

The scale of the crisis

An average of 22 million people a year stopped practising open defecation between 2000 and 2015. And yet, 2.3 billion people still lack basic sanitation services. Of these, 892 million people worldwide practise open defecation. The consequences of this are dire. Children under five are more likely to die from diarrhoeal diseases. Women are at higher risk from rape when seeking somewhere private to go. All 2.3 billion people are deprived of the basic dignity the rest of us take for granted.

So the scale of the problem is daunting. And even though studies tell us that for every US dollar invested in water and sanitation, USD $4.30 is generated through increased productivity, progress on improving sanitation is slow.

Why is this?

I believe a root cause of the slow progress is the absence of a compelling business case built on finding and implementing solutions. This is where the circular economy model comes in.

The rise of the sanitation economy

Unilever recently participated in a global forum of experts, advocates and government officials at World Water Week in Sweden. In a workshop run by the Toilet Board Coalition (a global, business-led coalition of leading companies, government agencies, sanitation experts and non-profit organisations, co-founded by Unilever), the Coalition partners explored the business case for turning human waste into valuable resources. Resources such as fertilisers, animal feed or high value proteins.

Our conclusion? That there is a clear business case for building toilets and keeping them secure and well-maintained. That there is an economic incentive for creating a“sanitation economy.”

Using faecal waste may sound like science fiction, but it’s actually already happening.

Innovating the waste space

In Africa, sanitation economies are developing in Ghana, South Africa and Kenya, driven by companies with a clear vision, like Safi Sana (Ghana), Biocycle (South Africa) and Sanergy and Sanivation (Kenya).

Safi Sana has built a commercial-scale factory in Ashaiman, near Accra. Last year the company started treating faecal and organic waste to produce fertiliser, seedlings for food crops and even green electricity.

This year, local businesses and subsidiaries of international companies began sending organic waste to the Safi Sana facility as part of their own efforts to meet targets for zero-waste operations.

Unilever provides funding and bespoke business support to Sanergy and Sanivation in Kenya through TRANSFORM, an initiative we run with the UK Department for International Development [DfID]. These are two of over a dozen businesses that TRANSFORM supports with the potential to significantly address the sanitation crisis.

Leveraging and scaling circular models

These sanitation economy models offer both scope – and hope. They promise potential in water efficiency, food security and climate resilience, which in turn deliver health and economic benefits to the communities they serve. 

But this is just the beginning.                                                                                                                                              

Together with partners in the Toilet Board Coalition, we are exploring how new technologies and data offer the potential for a range of valuable services, products and resources. All derived from the building, use and maintenance of safe sanitation. Hard to believe, but this includes data from waste analysis, which could be of high relevance for improving public health.

Sanitation for all

Creating a successful sanitation economy is the most effective and sustainable way to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 for ‘Access to Sanitation for all’. Because a sanitation economy can create business opportunities while affording business a role in serving society for the better.

I am equally convinced that working in collaborations and partnerships is the only way business will succeed to find the right business models. The potential of the sanitation economy is huge and - with 2.3 billion people still in need of even the most basic sanitation –  building and scaling this new economy is vital.

Nitin Paranjpe is president of Unilever's Home Care business