Rishabh Kaul

The ?Big Squat? and the Market Opportunity in Tackling Sanitation Challenges

If you’d been to the Chowpatty beach in Mumbai on November 19, you would have found a group of people squatting together with a couple of portable toilets in the vicinity. If you didn’t check the papers in the morning, you would probable have thought it was part of a ritual of some bizarre cult. Instead, what these people were doing was showing support for the 2.5 billion people all over the world that lack access to basic sanitary facilities. The folks at Chowpatty beach were not alone. People all over the world were celebrating the “World Toilet Day” by taking part in “The Big Squat“.

“If there are five people in each family, then we require 500 million household toilets. Then, we require another 500 million away-from-home toilets – in the workplace, in schools, in religious places, in the marketplace, in transport centers. So in this market, we need 1 billion toilets.” says Jack Sim, founder of World Toilet Organization (WTO) (which conceptualized the World Toilet Day) in a interview with Beyond Profit.

The oft-avoided topic is becoming a major cause of worry for developing countries. According to a paper written by Rowshan Nantaz (Associate Professor, Department of Civil Engg, BUET), Dhaka City Corporation runs only 69 public toilets for a city whose population is beyond 10 million. And this isn’t half as bad as the condition in Nigeria (est population as of 2008:151.3 million), where reports suggest that there are less than 500 public toilets.

In a recent article by Reuters, Sim was quoted saying “You see it long enough, and there is a basic acceptance that dirt is normal. But being repulsed by dirt, its smell and sight is a natural defence against disease”. He estimates that the sanitation market is in excess of 1 trillion USD (which, for sake of comparison, happens to equal India’s GDP). Still, it’s interesting to note there have been times in the past where investors have hesitated to invest in this sector,which happened in the case of Saraplast, nowadays one of the fastest growing portable toilets companies in India today. Despite having made record profits for the last three years they had a tough time attracting investors, until Aavishkar finally saw sense in the business and bought a 21% stake for an undisclosed amount this last August. Saraplast will be tying up with the New Delhi municipality for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi next year.

Ecotact (an Acumen Fund investee) is another interesting organization working in the sanitation industry that has received lots of publicity lately. It’s Ikotoilet brand works on the build-operate-transfer principle of public-private partnership and plans to open another 200 facilities in Kenya in the near future. An interesting variation to the standard pay-per-use toilet model here is that it complements the toilet facility with additional service such as shoe shining, soft drinks and newspapers, which bring in additional revenue.

The Pee Poo bag, made by a Swedish architect provides an effective solution to the problem for its low cost, biodegradable and since its lined with urea, it sanitizes the feces and doubles up as fertilizer when buried. However, such solutions can at best be a short term measure to a problem which is closely related to the water and sewage industry. In fact, sanitation sufres in many rural areas due to the poor state of the water works and the high costs involved in initial investments. Maintenance costs also become a considerable issue once the public toilets are setup. Issues such as keeping the toilet dry, ensuring there is adequate water supply and flushing function is working become issues of prime importance.

Despite of these challenges, sanitation concerns are huge and growing, which presents an undeniably attractive market opportunity for innovative enterprises willing to tackle it.