Jack Sim’s mind is in the toilet. Or rather on the toilet. In face, he thinks that toilets are not only one of the keys to a global economic recovery, but also to empowering the developing world. Perhaps he’s spent too long on the “seat of wisdom”, or maybe he’s got a damn good idea.
Consider this: worldwide there are 2.5 billion people without access to proper sanitation. This is really bad news as it means that many are left to do “business” in rather uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions. It also means that effluent is not properly treated in many countries, and often winds up contaminating the ecosystems of rivers, lakes, and streams. This of course has knock on effects with drinking water, and that can spell some nasty diseases from contamination.
Now move from this scene to one of a corporate board room on the other side of the planet: business people are trying to find new markets and new products to make money. The recession has meant belt tightening, and not only that, how many flat screen televisions does the average household really need?
Well if a 2.5 billion person market doesn’t attract attention, what would?
Problem is, conventional business strategy sees these underprivileged “bottom of the pyramid” people as poor, and therefore, not worthy of much business attention. As with the conventional logic that spurned our recent economic crisis, this notion is worth flushing.
While the poor might not have heaps of wealth, they are still are promising market for businesses as they represent a volume opportunity. Why not try selling a million useful things to people at a reasonable cost, than a few expensive big ticket items to the really rich?
Telecoms have recognized this opportunity for millions of new customers. Nokia is one such example. Its introduction of Nokia money (a credit that is swappable between mobile phones) in developing nations has not only meant success for the company, but has also served as a de facto second currency in several African nations. African warlord got you down? National currency a bit deflated? Use your Nokia money to pay for groceries instead this week. Not a bad idea.
So back to the toilet. How to connect the bottom of the pyramid with the businesses in a position to help?
Jack Sim started the World Toilet Organisation (or WTO) to connect these two seemingly disparate parties in the name of mutual progress. The UN estimates that $1 spent on sanitation yields $9 in economic benefit (think lower disease rates, less trips to the doctor, better environmental quality, better health, which then means higher productivity, and consistent wages). Good sanitation is therefore one cornerstone of alleviating poverty.
Breaking down silos, the WTO works to bring governments, aid agencies, community groups, and businesses together to help solve sanitation challenges worldwide. According to Mr. Sim, just throwing money at the problem is not going go solve anything. “Merely throwing aid dollars around only creates a dependency mentality, and incentivizes people not to help themselves,” he says.
The answer lies in treating this new market just as you would with any market. That means involving the customers, respecting them as real people with very real needs, subsidizing the market development instead of hardware costs, developing rural markets for sanitation services, empowering local entrepreneurs, and facilitating links between demand and supply.
“Poor people are intelligent, discerning, brand conscious, and prudent with their money. Quite literally, they cannot afford to make a purchasing mistake,” says Mr. Sim. “Not only that, poor people are highly entrepreneurial out of necessity. They do not want to look poor and have a great amount of pride. Part of the solution is to make toilets a status symbol to help spur demand. A vision needs to be created in the community that everyone aspires to better health and sanitation.”
The good news is, even in developing nations, there are many low cost fixtures on the market already, some as cheap as US$250-400. There are also many ways to keep the whole process affordable. A village might come together to build a shared toilet block and biogas digester unit, or individuals might get a microfinance loan to have facilities installed in their home. In many countries, distribution networks are largely already in place, with over 4000+ low cost distributors in Bangladesh alone.
As sanitation becomes community and national priority, it opens up opportunity for new jobs and micro enterprises. Sure there are some gaps to fill along the way, but with some careful planning, coordination, and facilitation of low-cost financing, they’re not impossible to overcome, and certainly worth the results. Healthier people, better environment and water quality, increased economic opportunity, and new business possibilities—it’s a hard bottom line to argue with. And that’s where the WTO comes in to catalyze the process.
From a business point of view, Mr. Sim sees it like this: sanitation and hygiene yield health and optimism. Optimistic healthy people are then better positioned to work and be entrepreneurial, thereby getting a better income and slowly raising themselves out of poverty. As they climb up the ladder, they enjoy better well-being and have more opportunity for the future.
Mr. Sim started the WTO in 2001 and has seen progressive involvement since, with everyone from the UN to the Clinton Global Initiative getting involved. It now has 215 member organizations in 57 countries. Annual conferences have raised attention to sanitation issues on the global stage. While the WTO might seem to have achieved glamorous standings, even for a toilet association, the reality is that it started from a very humble, simple background.
At the age of 25, Mr. Sim started in business and was quite successful. By age 40, he was comfortably wealthy and pondering retirement, or starting a new business. He then had the inkling that perhaps, rather than put his wealth on a roulette wheel once again just to make more money, a change was in order. “I was looking for something meaningful,” he says. “Death is a sure thing and I might as well do something positive. I saw toilets and sanitation as a neglected area, something that in many cultures, people were afraid to talk about. I figured it couldn’t get any worse, so it was time to make a difference.”
With that very simple motivation, he got things flowing. “The more difficult the challenge, the more kick you get from solving it,” he says. “For me, it was about becoming an ordinary human being again, and just feeling happy.”
Jack Sim recently spoke at ISEAS as part of their ongoing series on climate change and environmental issues.
Chris Tobias is Celsias Editor-at-Large and Lead Strategist at Forward.
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