Entrepreneur turned toilet crusader Jack Sim from Singapore wants to turn the toilet into the new gold standard of status in Asia, which would signify “making it” - as mobile phones have for years and as 24-karat gold did before that.
But for this to happen, aid groups, which have long promoted the health and hygiene benefits of safe toilets for the world’s estimated 2.6 billion people who do not have a toilet, need to step aside and let the market take over, said Sim.
“The aid community has good intentions, but they are not as efficient as businesses, which look at a problem and look for the shortest road to the solution. We [businesses] do not do costly baseline studies, spend half our time fundraising and the other half writing reports. All that time lost and still there is no solution,” he said from London where he is promoting World Toilet Day with a private sector partner, the hygiene company Unilever.
The “Big Squat”
Founder of the Singapore-based NGO World Toilet Organization (WTO) in 2001, Sim and his staff created in 2005 the “world’s first” Toilet College, which has certified 500 graduates in urban toilet cleaning and design; commissioned toilet art; hosted annual global toilet summits for sanitation and health experts; inducted members into its toilet Hall of Fame, most recently the senior advisor of hygiene and sanitation for UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF); and founded World Toilet Day, commemorating it this year with song and a “Big Squat” of solidarity to raise awareness about open defecation.
According to UNICEF, some 1.2 billion people worldwide defecate in the open rather than using toilets.
At times irreverent in its loo humour, but always business-minded, the WTO (the toilet organization that is) wants now to mass market toilets (in countries lacking them) through SaniShops “social franchises” which will provide marketing and sales training, branding, and maintenance support.
The international association of entrepreneurs, Ashoka, the Singaporean government, the Asian brokerage firm CSLA, Danish design NGO Index, and branding designers Fridbjorg Architects currently support the initiative.
Why the designers? “Because toilets don’t have to be ugly,” Sim replied.
Tapping into people’s dreams
Starting in Cambodia, where diarrhoea linked to open defecation kills 11,000 people every year - more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, combined - Sim wants to “tap into people’s dreams rather than fears”.
“If you tell someone they may die of diarrhoea, it is not much of an incentive to build a toilet. But if toilets become a sign of wealth, jealousy over their neighbours’ latrines will drive them to build their own.”
When asked if jealousy and one-upmanship drive poor people’s buying decisions as they might in urban developed cities, he replied: “Jealousy and the market are universal. Profits work where fear does not. The biggest motivation is to not be looked down on by peers… If people can buy 20 million hand phones in India, they can buy 20 million toilets.”
In India, 638 million out of a 1.1 billion population live without toilets and more households have TVs and mobiles than decent sanitation, according to UNICEF.
After recent flooding in Pakistan, a survey carried out in four water-logged provinces showed 61 percent had a cell phone while only 20 percent had access to a clean and functioning toilet.
But things would be different if toilets were symbols of the good life, said Sim. “Aspirational marketing” is the way to sell toilets and whether in Singapore, UK or Kompong Speu Province 60km from the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, the same principles are at work for Sim: getting ahead and profits. “People want a better life,” he said.
With support from the US Agency for International Development, WTO piloted the production and sales of toilets designed by the NGO International Development Enterprises Cambodia, which are a copy of ones sold in India by the NGO Sulabh International Social Service Organization.
Retailing at US$32, $6 profit goes to the manufacturer and $1 goes to the seller. Villagers have produced and sold 2,000 pour-flush latrines thus far, and WTO wants to create more factories, which cost $400 each to set up.
However, market approaches have their limits in spreading the message of sanitation: There is a difference between targeting poor people who have some money to buy toilets, and helping the poorest of the poor, said Sim. “That is for aid groups. We are not doing charity.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions