In a world where smart phones and devices have become commodities, how can it be that 2.3 billion people still don’t have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines? Whilst consumerism in the developed world sees people desire the latest gadgets, 892 million people still defecate in street gutters, behind bushes or even into open bodies of water.

For social enterprises who want to make a difference in the world, sanitation-focused innovations can have significant impact. This isn’t to say that innovators aren’t working in this area already; quite the opposite in fact. The Bill Gates Foundation has been funding innovations through its ‘Reinvent the Toilet’ challenge since 2011. The U.N. High Level Panel on Water also runs the Urban Sanitation Challenge programme, which funds projects tackling poor sanitation in developing countries. There is even a World Toilet Day to emphasise the plight many are living in. It is clear there are initiatives and innovations that are beginning to make a difference. The challenge is to make the solutions affordable and sustainable for both the businesses who make them, and the communities who will use them. Many social entrepreneurs are teaming up with funded charities or NGO initiatives in order to have scalability and to maximise impact around the world. 

The UK’s Toilet Twinning initiative’s mantra focuses on community-led sanitation. Based on decades of research, they believe that sanitation projects are most effective when local communities in developing countries see the need to improve their sanitation. The want for change has to be driven from within.  Once the desire is there, the organisation provides new toilets funded by donations from the developed world through ‘toilet twinning’. By donating £60 to twin a toilet, the money is used to enable families to build a basic toilet, have access to clean water, and learn about hygiene. This is both life changing and life-saving. To date, over 107,000 toilets have been twinned across 30 countries, transforming the lives of 646,000 people.

Social inclusive models are also being used by private businesses as a means of trying to improve the lives of its customers. Swedish-based, Ecoloo, is an award-winning green innovation company. It has designed an eco-social innovation toilet system that is ‘odourless, sewerage free, energy free and maintenance free.’ Its patented design uses bacterial culture to treat the waste and create organic fertiliser that is ‘pathogen free yet rich with nutrition.’ It doesn’t need water to flush, so scarce supplies can be kept for washing and hygiene purposes.  Its socially inclusive model provides opportunities for people living at the base of the economic pyramid. Options include a franchise model, where individuals in its target markets are trained by Ecoloo on key business skillsets in order to begin operating. 

The company is involved in a UN initiative, Business Call to Action (BCTA), where it has pledged to tailor its products to make them affordable for low income rural communities in Ghana and South Africa. Ecoloo Founder and CEO, Imad Agi, explains: “We will engage local community with low income – especially women and single mothers – by giving them the opportunity to invest in our eco toilet through their own capital or microfinance. They may then rent the toilets to the public and maintain it to earn passive income from the rental and the by-product liquid fertiliser generated in the system.” 

These are only a few examples of the life-changing innovations tackling toilet poverty. To achieve safe sanitation in developing countries, the need goes further than inventing suitable toilets and latrines. It’s also about providing sustainable systems for waste. At least 10 per cent of the world’s population is thought to consume food irrigated by wastewater, which is unacceptable. Innovation needs to continue around the safe collection, transportation, treatment and re-purposing of waste. One thing’s for certain; safe sanitation should be a basic human right – and it can’t come soon enough. 

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