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Can businesses can help improve access to toilets?

posted 26 Jun 2014, 23:35 by Sekuma Peter
Access to sanitation has remained largely off corporate agendas, but high-profile companies are finally taking up the challenge

It is a dangerous world to be a woman. Elliot Rodger's hate-filled attack in California, the stoning and beating to death of a pregnant woman in Pakistan, a woman forced to give birth in shackles, and two teenage girls in India who are believed to have hanged themselves after being gang-raped as they walked through the village fields at dusk.

All of these incidents are appalling. In the latter case, what is heartbreaking is that the circumstances that made the girls more vulnerable could have easily been avoided. The two girls, cousins aged 14 and 15, were on their way to use the fields to defecate. Nearly half a billion people – about half of India's population – do not have access to a toilet. In villages, where the situation is especially bad, the open fields are the only option. Strict traditions and modesty mean that women often go to relieve themselves after nightfall, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to attacks.

The story isn't any better in urban areas or unique to India. Violence against women on their way to and from relieving themselves has been reported from Kenya and Uganda.

Sometimes, an incident might make international headlines, outrage is expressed and firm measures are avowed by governments in light of international pressure. But the prevailing attitude of politicians and a perception by some that "boys will be boys" mean changes have little effect, especially at the grassroots level.

Unlike water, its counterpart in the Millennium Development Goals, sanitation has remained largely off corporate agendas. It's not difficult to see why – water access and quality pose a direct operational and social risk to business. Sanitation, on the other hand, has little relevance on a risk framework and is further complicated by a highly fragmented market and an investment climate that doesn't offer much for ease of entry.

It's often also seen as an infrastructure problem and therefore, the financial and operating headache of governments. On the international aid front, UN agencies have generally limited themselves to promoting knowledge about toilets but not providing the toilets themselves. Those living in poverty cannot afford the materials to build toilets themselves and unsurprisingly enough, no corporation feels like taking on a sewerage system.

That isn't to say that companies aren't interested in doing their bit. "The overwhelming majority of households today, who have access to on-site sanitation – a toilet or latrine in their home with some means of primary treatment such as a septic pit – have such access through intervention by the private sector," Jemima Sy, senior water and sanitation specialist has said. But the sheer complexity of the problem has made it a difficult beast to tackle and efforts have been sporadic so far. This is now changing.

In 2012, Jeffrey Sachs said a lack of funding was a key obstacle to progress. "If a country is in need of scaling up sanitation, there is no place to turn," he said. "You do not go to the bank for your toilet and this is why after 12 years (since the MDGs were announced) we don't have toilets." It was around this time that championship of the cause from Bill Gates helped galvanise funding by the private sector for sanitation.

In 2014, it is the deployment of sanitation solutions that is the next hurdle. The Gates Foundation's Reinventing the Toilet drive has helped produce a slew of innovative standalone technologies (pdf) to increase access to sanitation. Corporations can – and should – take the opportunity that lies in getting these technologies from the lab to the villages.

By making available their considerable wealth of knowledge, resources, influence, and political leverage, businesses can help scale up pilot projects to impact hundreds of people. Nor would it necessarily be a sunk cost. Many of these technologies combine social benefits with innovative business models – such as toilet facilities that create fertiliser for sale or village-level systems that can be combined with bio-digesters to produce power and heat. This allows investors to eventually recoup their money.

When applied through dynamic public-private partnerships that create a holistic view of the problem, such initiatives have already shown great promise of success.

Combining strengths with a national government or the branding of a UN agency and the grassroots knowledge of an NGO mean that corporations can implement solutions that have lasting value. A forerunner in improving sanitation access, Unilever partnered with UNICEF, Ideo.org, and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) in 2012 to tackle the problem of open defecation in Ghana. A popular delivery method there has been through toilet rentals, where families lease toilets on a monthly basis and have the waste cartridges picked up and replaced twice a week. Along with information campaigns, these rentals have helped cut the rate of open defecation in Ghana by 5% in two years, which in turn will help reduce water-borne diseases.

Another champion of the toilet is Nestlé. The company recently reinforced its commitment with the Red Cross Society and the International Federation of the Red Cross to improve access to water and sanitation in Cote d'Ivoire's cocoa-growing communities. The initiative has helped fund the construction of toilets for 3,088 families and 68 schools, reaching almost 100,000 people by 2013. Not only is the community healthier, women are safer and girls stay in school longer.

It is a trend that is gaining traction, especially with any business that includes women and children in its corporate social responsibility mandate. For companies such as Coca-Cola, which pledged $4.6m at the 2013 World Water Week towards sustainable solutions in water and sanitation access in Africa, the answers could lie in the radical technologies showcased at the Reinvent the Toilet fairs.

The idea of not having easy access to a toilet would be unfathomable to most readers. Yet access to sanitation remains a basic human right even though 2.5 billion people globally do not have it. For businesses, the reward for facilitating this access isn't merely social branding but the creation of new markets and new consumers. For those living without access to sanitation, modern toilet facilities provide them a chance to lead a healthier life and pursue their dreams. For women and girls, that especially vulnerable demographic, access to sanitation gives them their dignity, their safety and the chance to be fully functioning members of society.