The world toilet crisis can be solved

September 18, 2014


September 18, 2014

Jack Sim


Widely known as Mr Toilet, Jack Sim broke the global taboo of toilet and sanitation by bringing the agenda to global media centre-stage.  After attaining financial independence, he retired from business to devote the rest of his life to social work.  In 1998 he founded the Restroom Association of Singapore and the World Toilet Organization (WTO) in 2001, a global network and service platform for toilet associations to promote sound sanitation and public health policies.  WTO declared November 19th as World Toilet Day which has now been adopted as Official UN World Toilet Day.  In 2004 Mr Sim was awarded the Singapore Green Plan Award for his contribution to the environment.  He is also an Ashoka Global Fellow and Schwab Fellow of the World Economic Forum.  Time Magazine named him Hero of the Environment in 2008.  In 2012 his film “Meet Mr Toilet” premiers at Sundance Film Festival and the WTO audience reached 3.3bn.

Globally up to 2.5bn people do not have access to proper sanitation. The dire situation of 1m children dying from diarrhoea every year alone requires an urgent call to action, argues Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organisation (WTO).

To solve this sanitation crisis, world leaders need to do three things:

-Turn poop culture into pop culture

Past methods of driving demand through rational messaging on health and hygiene have only had limited success, because changing habits from open defecations to using a proper toilet is a big emotional threshold to cross. Instead we should drive demand for toilets by adopting an aspirational approach. Toilets should be positioned as a status symbol: bright, self-ventilated and colourful, as opposed to dark, smelly and dangerous. When these well-designed toilets become conversational pieces to show off, it gives bragging rights to their proud owners. We need to engage local celebrities and opinion leaders to make the toilet sexy. This could be an effective means of spreading this message and making toilets the norm. People would then aspire to own a toilet as a matter of keeping up with their neighbours, and feel out of place should they not have one. We can imbed fun messages into songs, movies, and daily conversational greetings until pop culture takes over the advocacy and makes using the toilet a norm.

- Turn toilet into a business for local economies

Giving toilets is not as sustainable as selling them. Donated toilets are typically used as storerooms or for non-toileting purposes. Countries should train local masons to set up small decentralised production centres of affordable latrines, treatment systems and shelters, so that local entrepreneurs can sustainably promote sanitation for economic reasons. When sanitation becomes a business, the market creates entrepreneurs and jobs which increase income and quality of life. This is especially true when women earn income from either producing or selling the latrines, as income also raises their status in the eyes of their husbands and mothers-in-law. SaniShop, a micro-franchise training locals to produce toilets in Cambodia, India and Mozambique, is a proven example of this sanitation as a business approach.

- Create cross-sector collaboration to promote toilet distribution

Working in silos is expensive and wasteful. No single one of us is as good as all of us. So instead of reinventing new distribution channels, we should piggy-back on existing distribution networks of other non-sanitation businesses, which will create economies of scale by developing partnerships that leverage each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

We need to create a more effective socio-economic ecosystem. Much as it works in nature, where there is zero waste because every living thing exists in symbiotic relationship with all the rest. Mapping existing resources will allow us to match isolated efforts with collaborative and integrated delivery. We need to trust each other and have the humility to work together to deliver essential goods and services to the people who need them most at a price they can afford. 

Ultimately, single-product shops can become multiple-product centres selling sanitation, solar lamps, filtered water, fertilisers, mobile chargers, groceries, banking, etc.

Eventually, this clustered selling will create an ecosystem where the poor are included in the supply chain, thus increasing their income and quality of life.

Jack Sim is a panellist at the World Water Summit which will be taking place on November 6th 2014 at The Crystal in London. He will be discussing collaborative approaches to moving the sanitation challenge forward.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU) or any other member of The Economist Group. The Economist Group (including the EIU) cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this article or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the article.

Enjoy in-depth insights and expert analysis - subscribe to our Perspectives newsletter, delivered every week