Changemakers, freeing the scavengers

I attended last night’s Ashoka Changemakers award ceremony for the Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Competition, which was well-attended by business and non-profit fans of social entrepreneurship alike. The Ashoka speakers were self-effacing and concise; first was Sushmita Ghosh, Chair of, who talked about Changemakers’ 5-step strategy for impact. Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, highlighted the hybrid value chain of impact that Ashoka creates by creating a space where social activism meet business principles, policy, and citizen groups. Third was Valeria Budinich, VP of Full Economic Citizenship, who introduced the 11 finalists (three were absent).

Most of the finalists are probably well known to Nextbillion readers–Rebeca Villalobos and Wayne Farmer on the health care beat with ASEMBIS eyecare and HealthStore; improving farming productivity with Sadangi’s International Development Enterprise ; Honeycare Africa employment and guaranteed income; SELCO solar energy for the BOP; sustainably harvested Acai berries to make Sambazon drinks (by “antisocial social entrepreneurs” Black and Baumgardner);RUGmark” labels to sell products made without child slavery; microbanks to empower rickshaw drivers and women.

Craig Esbeck’s story was touching: a high school teacher with an existential crisis, he went to Uganda with the Peace Corps, stayed post-evacuation, and used his Peace Corps “readjustment” money–$2,500–to launch Mango Tree Educational Enterprises.

But by far I was most inspired by the Sulabh project, which provides the unglamorous service of sanitation. This may well pave the way for Quadruple Bottom Line standards: green, profitable, social, and also breaks down class barriers.

In India, an estimated 700 million people live in houses without toilets and therefore relieve themselves in the streets or use squalid public restrooms, both of which are breeding grounds for disease in the summer heat. The restrooms are cleaned by India’s 700,000 “scavengers,” often children, who earn pennies a day to empty latrines using their bare hands–and carry it away balanced on their head. Living and working in such conditions only reinforces the barriers of living in the untouchable class.

Since 1974, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak has developed toilets for public use, equipped with flush-systems, drainiage pipes, and reservoirs; after 18 months, the contents of the reservoirs gets incorporated into the ground and can be used as compost. Some of these units also include washing facilities, and others are further equipped with biogas converters, which create enough energy from the decomposing waste to power community street lights and ovens.

Dr. Pathak finds local entrepreneurs in rural and urban areas willing to pay 600-700 Rs. for three months training on how to operate Sulabh facilities, which are fee-based (5-15 rupees). The construction and maintenance is done using local labor, paid for by SULABH partner investors, and includes vaccinations and skills training for the nearby community. Although not every toilet complex is financially viable, the several thousand units cross-subsidize each other; the entirety generates enough income to attract consistent private investment. Over 3,000 Sulabh toilet units have been built, helping to elevate thousands of scavengers living in previously inextricable, sordid conditions.
Dr. Pathak plunged his hands into a sector from which many might recoil, improved the human condition, and created profit. It’s time for East Asia, Africa, and Latin America to follow his lead; who will pull up their sleeves next?