Guest Articles

September 1

Kyle Poplin

Making WASH Sexy: An Often Neglected Sector Comes Into Its Own

In a social business landscape littered with apps and accelerators, WASH doesn’t come across as the sexiest of sectors. So when NextBillion launched its August focus on WASH, we editors weren’t expecting words like “hope” and “innovation” and “opportunity” to be thrown around a lot. But they were.

And as the month ends, we’re feeling – dare we say it – excited about the long-term future of water, sanitation and hygiene, and about the businesses focused on improving them.

There’s bad news on the WASH front, for sure, and it’s reflected in the raft of daunting statistics that always seem to accompany global health matters. By 2025, 66 percent of the world’s population will be living under water scarcity. Over 80 percent of wastewater is being dumped untreated. Developing countries lose about 1.5 percent of their GDP to productivity losses because of waterborne diseases. We could go on, but you get the picture.

Less easily tracked, however, are attitudes. And those seem be evolving in ways that give hope. One example came this month from a post by Loowatt toilet inventor Virginia Gardiner in which she condemns the “flush and forget” treatment of excrement and describes the bathroom as “an expensive refuge of fixtures and fittings, ablutions and flushes.” She makes it clear that’s a wasteful outlook the planet can no longer afford and is, indeed, turning away from. Gardiner points to a recent conference in Chennai centered on the idea that flush toilets won’t apply in the 21st century – especially in developing countries. This begs the question: How do we create viable sanitation services in places with more waste than resources? She talks about her company, and several others, that are moving sanitation infrastructure off the grid, just as mobile communications did in the past century. And speaking of new attitudes, how about three companies that grew tired of the waste surrounding human waste and decided to turn it into useful products like fertilizers and renewable energy.

The dignity that comes with improved sanitation and hygiene cannot be overstated – and we’re not just talking about the self-respect that’s part of using a toilet when you want. Sydney Rubin of WomenStrong International talks about periods ending hopes and dreams for impoverished girls around the world. Due to “fear and shame in an atmosphere that stigmatizes menstruation, the most natural and essential biological process for half the planet,” girls are dropping out of school, negating the myriad benefits – passed from one generation to the next – that come with educating girls. But Rubin doesn’t just point out the problem; she details what her organization and others are doing to make things better. Likewise Niyatee Goyal and Jaya Srinivasan of Ennovent and Libby McDonald of MIT’s D-Lab, who detail the growing opportunities facing waste-pickers – 30,000 in Bengaluru alone – working in hazardous conditions and struggling to achieve respectability and futures for their children. It was rewarding to read about how Hasiru Dala and other social businesses are training these waste-pickers as entrepreneurs (they’ve even got a trade union).

If sanitation around the world comes to be thought of as a human right, and the costs of poor sanitation are being recognized, and technology and innovative thinking are enabling new ways of doing business, well, that’s where opportunity fits in so nicely. It’s being seized by companies like eWATERpay (as told by George Muruka of MicroSave), which is offering meters – basically “water ATMs” – that could greatly scale up access to water if installed at the household level. It’s an innovation that’s worked pretty well in the energy and mobile telephone sectors.

No doubt about it, the stakes are high, as Sara Traubel, Mai-Lan Ha ​and Ruth Romer point out: Every year, the equivalent of $4 billion is lost due to poor sanitation. But they see more multinationals “wising up to the benefits of providing water and sanitation to their workforce” and cite a new report that finds a number of opportunities – there’s that word again – that could be driven by collaborative efforts between companies and the WASH community.

The world these days is full of possibilities, thanks to new technology and an emerging class of social entrepreneurs who think anything’s possible. It’s good to know that they’ve trained their focus on the long-neglected WASH sector. We’ve enjoyed learning about their innovations and can’t wait to see what they come up with in the future. You can check out our WASH month coverage here.


Kyle Poplin is the editor of NextBillion Health Care.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, via Flickr.




Health Care, Social Enterprise, WASH
Base of the Pyramid, healthcare technology, infectious diseases, social enterprise