‘India’s sanitation economy has opportunities worth $62 billion a year … Now, access to sanitation is a resource story’ 

The sanitation drive in India has been led mainly by the state. Of late, private companies have begun work to make it financially viable. Cheryl Hicks, CEO and Executive Director, Toilet Board Coalition, speaks to Surojit Guptaabout the business model of sanitation: 

We hear about other coalitions but not one about toilets. What do you do? 

The coalition started in 2015, around the time when the Millennium Development Goals were highlighting that sanitation had made the least progress in the period of the MDG from 2000-15. A number of businesses who are in the markets of sanitaryware and consumer goods, or bathrooms, really took a wake-up call of the billions of people across the world who did not have toilets or bathrooms. For them these are all customers they don’t have. These are also purposeful companies that have been providing solutions on other SDGs [sustainable development goals set by UN in 2015] and have come together to look at how business can provide solutions to the global sanitation crisis. 

Are there services across the chain? 

[Among] the two things they wanted to look at in the beginning was whether there are business models out there that can deliver sanitation through the market. At that point it was really all about business models for access to toilets. We created an accelerator programme – toilet accelerator – to support businesses who were experimenting with models. Its uniqueness is that the large businesses which understand scale – working with these innovators and creating solutions that they would never think of themselves from a global perspective – come together and create really lasting solutions that are new, market based, consumer based and deliver sanitation with benefits for business and society. That’s the “why” we came together. 

Do they see a business proposition at the bottom of the pyramid where India is focussing on right now? 

In 2015 the two questions were can sanitation be delivered through the market, and is there new value in sanitation systems that would justify bigger investments on behalf of business? In 2019, the answer is yes. There is a case for new business models for all income levels and we call it the sanitation economy. In 2017 we produced a report on India, and market opportunities for the sanitation economy, which showed such opportunities valued at $62 billion a year. 

These include opportunities for toilet access, toilet hardware that needs to be bought and the business service models. What is less talked about is the upgrade model – at all income levels when we get something new we want to upgrade. So there’s a huge market there, also feminine hygiene products, just generally new cleaning products. And hygiene products for low income are coming into the market. These are huge opportunities. Then on the resource side, we’re seeing a lot of other sectors coming into the market for reusable water from sewage, or renewable energy from sewage and for the nutrients for agriculture, or compost from sewage. And this is a huge market demand. 

Make a case for the business. 

What we say now is that in 2015, sanitation was a development story. Now, access to sanitation is a resource story. It’s a data story, and it’s a consumer story. In Pune, we are unveiling the first smart sanitation city, where we’ve connected the Smart City infrastructure to sanitation. That means putting sensors everywhere in the sanitation system. 

Just like cities are putting sensors to monitor traffic and pollution AQI [air quality index], we’re putting them in the toilets. And what we’re monitoring there is footfalls. We’re monitoring the usage so that the city can see an increase and basically be able to defend their ODF status. We can see the environmental quality of that; is there increased moisture and heat that could cause vector disease and could be a signal for operations and maintenance.  

We’re experimenting also with robots that go into the sewer system to monitor the quality of the sewage, for upcycling this move into energy. And also biomarkers for virus and bacteria circulation, infectious disease circulation. As you can see, from an issue of access, to tapping all of these business opportunities via the ecosystem. And that’s the role of the toilet board – to help identify these new opportunities to derive value out of a system that has been mostly cost. To support the businesses that are developing these new models, and also how to create this new narrative, this new story. For us sanitation is a delivery system for resources and information rather than just a place to capture waste and send it out into the sea or even worse causing pollution in our cities and communities. So, the toilet is really being transformed. Bill Gates said we need to reinvent the toilet and we are seeing that today. 

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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