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Are toilets the next big market opportunity?

columns Updated: Apr 01, 2014 17:03 IST
Sanchita Sharma

In the month when his US $76 billion fortune helped Bill Gates reclaim the world’s richest title from telecom mogul Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico after a four-year hiatus, you’d think he’d have a lot of thoughts to share.

As the world’s richest man, you’d expect advice on how to ride recession and survive shaky economies. As the founder of the world’s most widely-used operating systems, you’d expect insights on Windows 8. As the co-chair of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest philanthropic organisation with a $36 billion endowment that he runs with wife Melinda, you’d expect him to talk about saving the world from hunger.

Instead, the 58-year-old many-times-over billionaire chose to blog about toilets. Of course, being Gates, he phrased it right and sold it to the world as “the next great market opportunity.”

And he backed his argument with data. “More Indians have access to cell phones than to toilets that are clean and private. One consequence is a terrible diarrhea epidemic, which contributes to India’s huge burden of malnutrition and 200,000 deaths every year,” he wrote.

And he had the economic argument down pat. “According to a recent World Bank report, inadequate sanitation costs India nearly $54 billion a year – equivalent to 6.4% of India’s GDP. Some smart people are starting to realise that on the flip side of this economic penalty is a big economic opportunity. As the World Bank report notes, improving India’s sanitation infrastructure could be a $152 billion market.”

For those of us who live in India, just a walk across the countryside is like an “evade the poop” obstacle course. Almost half (49.8%) of India’s 1.27 million population treats the country as an open-air toilet and poops wherever they want to. Only 46.9% of the nation’s 24.66 crore households have a toilets, with 49.8% people defecating in the open and only 3.2% using public toilets, shows data from Census of India 2011.

Less than one in three rural homes (31% ) have toilets, the Census found, a figure that is almost the same as the 35% thrown up by the National Sample Survey (NSS) 2009. The NSS found that nearly 49% homes had no toilets, with the ruralurban divide being considerable. Two in three rural homes (65%) had no toilets compared to 11% of urban homes. The Union Ministry of Rural Development’s Indian Rural Development Report 201213 put the numbers of households with toilets at a far more optimistic 73%. Jharkhand tops toilet-less list with 77% of homes with no toilet facilities, followed by 76.6% people in Odisha and 75.8% in Bihar.

It’s not that India hasn’t been trying. The Centre rolled out the Central Rural Sanitation Programme in 1986, but it failed to reach targets. Next came the Ministry of Rural Development’s Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) that aimed to eradicate open defecation by 2017 through schemes like the Nirmal Gram Puraskar, which awards village, block and district governments that ensure all homes and schools have toilets.

In 2012, TSC was renamed Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan that had another target -- full sanitation coverage for 50% villages by 2017 and for all of India (Nirmal Bharat) by 2022. All of India, especially those who live in smelly open fields, are watching with bated breath.

India is not alone. Globally, 2.5 billion people don’t have access to toilets and safe water. Safe sanitation, that could save the lives of 1.5 million children under the age of 5 globally every year.

Diarrhoea is the leading cause of under-5 deaths in India. Gates, in his blog, argues that India is especially well-positioned to lead the world in sanitation innovation because it has an educated workforce with a demonstrated capacity for technological innovation. What’s even better is that it has a ready market of 630 million people looking for affordable sanitation solutions that do not require vast amounts of water or a sewage system that the municipality often fails to provide.

What the Gates Foundation is doing is working with innovators across the world to reinvent the toilet and come up with next-generation solutions such as converting faecal waste into electricity or faecal sludge into potent fertiliser.

India’s lags behind all its neighbours, with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal showing significant improvement, said the UNICEF-WHO’s Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water Update 2013. This can change, but only when disposing of poop becomes a priority with innovators and entrepreneurs, and not just governmen.