Usha Ganesh

How ‘Toil-o-preneurs’ Are Scaling Sanitation Solutions

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the December issue of Searchlight South Asia, a monthly newsletter created by Intellecap for The Rockefeller Foundation to report trends in urban poverty around the South Asia region. The project started in September 2009 as way to highlight on-the-ground urban issues and initiatives in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Through the research and content presented on education, water and sanitation, health, energy and infrastructure, the newsletter seeks to raise awareness and inspire ideas to action. NextBillion is proud to feature one article each month from Searchlight.

Nearly 50 percent of the urban poor in India do not have access to clean toilets. With increasing migrant labor population to cities like Mumbai and Delhi, most of which settle down in slums, the pressure on public sanitation facilities has been immense. Government-provided community toilets, which are poorly maintained and often unfit for use, have done little to meet the sanitation needs of the urban poor. According to a report, the ratio of people to toilets in India’s slums can be as high as 1 toilet seat per 2,500 people.

Lack of clean toilets and the resulting open defecation impacts the environment and pollutes water sources. More devastating, however, is the fact that it strips poor women, especially, of their dignity. Embarrassed, women and young girls often wait to find a public space until after dark, making them dually vulnerable to infections as well as assault and molestation. Additionally, their productivity is adversely affected making them more dependent on the male members in the household for survival. The high drop-out rates of young girls from schools is linked to the onset of menstruation and the poor sanitation facilities available to them.

The need for clean sanitation is huge, in terms of size and significance. According to the National Sample Survey 2010, 10 percent of notified slums and 20 percent of non-notified slums did not have toilet facilities. According to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board, a mere 13.5 percent of sewage from Indian cities is treated. The rest is let out untreated, causing pollution to land and water bodies. While the government has specific allocation for sanitation in the budget, most of it is spent on building more toilets and enhancing the sewerage network around cities. Academics and experts say this is inadequate, and the failure is visible. Against this backdrop, private sector interest in sanitation with solutions ranging from community toilets to individual household toilets is more promising.

Sanitation Solutions

Shramik Sanitation Systems (3S), one of the early social enterprises that looked at sanitation in a holistic manner, provides community toilets in urban environments of India. Focus areas include events, construction sites, large pilgrimage centers as well as urban slums. 3S currently has a project in Anand Vihar, a sprawling slum that is home to around 50,000 people in New Delhi. In addition to providing access, 3S has taken into consideration the important—and often overlooked—factor of waste collection and disposal. The model involves three organizations: 3S provides the portable toilets as well as collection and disposal of waste; an NGO self-help group maintains the toilets and collects payment for use; and the Dell Foundation underwrites the collection. The social enterprise is in talks with the Dell Foundation to roll out to four to five additional cities in India, according to 3S Managing Director Rajeev Kher.

While 3S has gone to market and is ready to scale up, Ecoloove, another community toilet solution provider is scaling up its product and market-testing activities. Ecoloove emerged out of a university project by founder Annamaja Segtnan. Their solution comprises a mobile toilet that is mounted on a tricycle. The first Ecoloove prototype was ready in 2010 and was tested with women from a slum in Ahmedabad. Currently funded by family and friends with no external investor, the founder-designers are now ready with a few more mobile toilets and set to roll out with a larger test across more slums in Ahmedabad, which is home to around 1.6 million slum dwellers.

Marius Kriening, the business and strategy head on the team, and Annamaja Segtnan see a huge opportunity in sanitation provision focused on women in urban slums. The mobile toilet provides employment and empowerment to “toil-o-preneurs,” who are women from the slums, can lease and operate the toilets and offer a hygienic sanitation solution to other women in the same area.

One of issues with the community toilet solution, however, is there is often not enough room in city slums. Household toilets, of the kind that X-Runner, a Germany-based design firm, offers, provides maximum privacy to users and also takes up the least space. X-Runner, however, faces more challenges in going to market, because having toilets in individual homes makes waste collection and disposal a bigger and more complex task.

Challenges to Scale Up

It took 3S’s Rajeev Kher six months to gain acceptance for the first toilet, and it was not easy. As Kher says, “Nobody wants to talk about the need for toilets.” Ecoloove’s Kriening adds that social acceptance has been the biggest challenge in their pilot project in Ahmedabad. While everyone showed a keen interest, they were hesitant to use the toilet. Answering the call of nature, it would seem, was best done furtively, without attracting too much attention to the activity.

Getting the urban poor to pay for something they have not needed before is another huge challenge for all of the innovators. With open defecation, potential users have neither had to pay for the service nor worry about waste disposal. Sanitation for the poor, for this reason, can never be a pure business, according to Kher, who also invests in education and advocacy that targets poor women and seeks to teach them the importance of hygiene and the need for dignity. Affordability varies in different places, so pricing needs to be adjusted for the diverse markets. In Delhi, a monthly charge of INR150 (US$3) per month for multiple uses of the toilet was accepted by the slum households, but in a place like Sangli, a small city in Maharashtra, the acceptable amount could be as low as INR30 (US$0.55).

Most service providers have focused on access to toilets. With off-grid solutions such as portable toilets, there is a need to plan ahead for the waste collection and disposal end of the sanitation value chain. 3S is perhaps the only solution provider to have extended its service to include toilet maintenance, waste collection and disposal. An associated challenge is the regulation regarding manual scavenging of human waste, which bans individuals from carrying waste to disposal units. This law stems from the deep rooted stigma associated with manual scavengers’ isolation from society in India. Ecoloove’s Kriening says that they are talking to partners for efficient disposal. He adds: “We would perhaps examine the possibility of setting up a central collection point where toil-o-preneurs will come to put the waste.” X-Runner COO, Joshua Engel, says that providing a toilet is less about the product and more about the service. X-Runner has been grappling with getting around the regulation and addressing the problem of waste collection. On the other hand, the 3S solution of technology and trucks to collect waste has worked for community toilets, but has been tougher to implement for individual households.

Finally, the sanitation sector could also do with some competition that would drive quality standards. Says Kher, “Right now, there are no standards for quality of toilets, or its maintenance or disposal of waste. There is a huge need for more organizations in this space.”


In order to achieve scale, the sanitation value chain needs to be more thoroughly evaluated within the country context. Sanitation solutions cannot be about investing only in basic access and sewers and neglecting to invest in maintenance or waste disposal systems. As Kher says, “The government has budgets. There is a need to lobby for setting standards for sanitation. Building toilets everywhere is not the solution.” Sophie Tremolet in her paper, “Identifying the Potential for Results-based Financing for Sanitation,” published by the Water and Sanitation Program and the SHARE consortium, discusses misaligned incentives in the sanitation value chain and proposes results-based funding instruments such as Cash-on-Delivery (COD), Output-based Aid (OBA), Advanced Market Commitments (AMC) and community rewards to correct the misalignment on the supply side. She adds that advocacy and conditional cash transfers and vouchers are the way to correct the situation on the demand side.

Incentivizing use of toilets where the poor have to pay for use is a slightly more nuanced problem. “Telling them it is good for the environment will not help. They need to understand that it is about offering dignity to the women in their families,” says Kher, adding that slum dwellers keep their houses clean, they wear clean clothes and want better sanitation facilities.

The trick is to arrive at a price that is acceptable to the users and sustainable for the service providers. Kher arrived at 3S’ pricing after considerable research and testing. The self-help group charges households INR150 (US$3) per family per month (they assessed average family size to comprise five members), and, in turn, pays 3S INR75 (US$1.30) per toilet per day. Appropriate pricing emerged from understanding how the poor spend small amounts to recharge their mobile phones. Evidence showed that they would not pay INR1,500 (US$30) to buy a portable toilet, but they would not mind paying INR2 (US$0.04) for using clean and well-maintained toilets.

Ecoloove has examined a few pricing options as well: The toil-o-preneur can buy the mobile toilet unit outright at a cost of INR5,000 (US$100). But Kriening sees more potential in the lease option, where the operators lease the unit for a rental of INR250 (US$5) per month. Ecoloove has not yet tested price points for the end user, but the team does see the toil-o-preneurs charging INR1 (US$0.02) to INR5 (US$0.09) per use.

X-Runner’s Engel points out that “sustainability for the service provider could also come with bundling the service with other products and services such as fuel, fertilizer and hygiene products.” 3S has plans to venture into biogas to achieve sufficient scale, while Ecoloove is examining the idea of encouraging their toil-o-preneurs to sell associated hygiene products, such as soap.

A large part of the acceptance will come with education programs for end-user communities. Organizations such as 3S are already engaged in building this acceptance for their products. Government and non-government campaigns are focused on supporting dignity for women, such as the “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign in Haryana, where families with daughters of marriageable age tell prospective grooms that they must have an indoor toilet. The campaign certainly brings dignity to many young girls, but for the poor women in slums across India who have to cover their faces when they defecate in the open, the movement has yet to gain traction.


Health Care
public health