Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

The untapped business opportunity of a good toilet experience could change the lives of billions

by Cheryl Hicks and Myriam Sidibe | Toilet Board Coalition
Monday, 19 November 2018 01:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: An open common toilet is seen at a brothel by the river Padma in Faridpur February 23, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

Image Caption and Rights Information

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

Businesses are still to unleash their expert knowledge to address one of society’s biggest failures: access to proper sanitation

By Cheryl Hicksthe CEO and executive director of the Toilet Board Coalition and Myriam Sidibea Senior Fellow of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School.

The business of toilet experiences presents many untapped commercial opportunities, yet these are widely overlooked, with negative consequences for billions of people. Businesses have spent centuries refining consumer experiences, yet are still to unleash this knowledge to address one of society’s biggest failures: ensuring access to safe and hygienic sanitation.

Marketing for public health

More than half the world remains without safe sanitation. The negative outcomes of this are difficult to overstate. Safe toilets are crucial in preventing the spread of deadly pathogens. They provide dignity during an activity that often lacks it. By some estimates, almost a quarter of a trillion dollars in economic losses occur every year as a result. This deficit is exacerbated by the view that providing toilets is a public burden rather than a commercial opportunity.

The way we think of toilets must undergo a fundamental shift if we are to see meaningful progress. We must put the user experience front and centre. A young girl experiencing good smelling and safe toilets will grow into a woman who will appreciate and ensure that she provides a similar experience to her family, and will expect it as a right.

We all love luxury – no matter where we come from

The provision of sanitation is often viewed through a benefactor-beneficiary lens. Facilities are installed with the expectation that they will be used simply because they are there. A visit to any primary public school in India or Africa, with over 800 pupils sharing one cubicle, would open one’s eyes (and nose!) to the realities of overused, poorly maintained toilets. This is too often the reality of toilet facilities in underserved communities.

By shifting sanitation provision away from altruistic gifting towards providing an appealing product, demand and usage will increase, while an understanding of the benefits will grow at a user level. Governments can regulate and allocate access to sites for construction and mandates to build toilets, but the private sector is best placed to drive innovation, ensuring these facilities provide pleasurable experiences.

Successful businesses understand that experience and the emotions evoked in the user create demand. Nasty odours, dirty facilities, and a lack of safety or privacy do not welcome repeat uses. Focusing on the consumer experience in sanitation provision will lead to critical community-wide public health benefits.

The role of business

Brands like Domestos and LIXIL have incorporated addressing poor sanitation into their business models by creating affordable and accessible sanitation products – and Domestos has become one Unilever’s fastest growing brands since. Low-cost cleaning powder and toilets that rural populations can afford are just two examples, reducing odours – a key driver for not using toilets – while creating a branded experience.

And it’s not only multinational corporations that are making a difference. Small businesses are collectively making a huge impact too: in Pune, India, Ti Bus: Toilets for Her are transforming public toilets into an innovative connected hygiene model designed for women, with larger organisations such as Unilever, Kimberly-Clark, LIXIL and Firmenich providing mentorship support. 

The Sanitation Economy revolution

But, more often than not, the circumstance that creates a need for sanitation facilities also means a user cannot afford to pay for access to a toilet. But what if new, better-maintained toilets also offered free WiFi, incentivising use? What if this free service was funded by processing human waste through biodigesters, producing commercial fertiliser or irrigation water? Smart entrepreneurs are already thinking creatively about this circular sanitation economy, with start-ups from Zambia to Cambodia to India making it a reality.

The toilet as we know it has changed little in the last 150 years, but it’s likely that the toilets of tomorrow will be profoundly different to the ones most people use today. The private sector is already leading this revolution, and its expertise in crafting pleasant – and potentially life-changing – experiences will go a long way towards creating necessary behaviour change to fund this revolution.