Happy New Year to everyone, and I hope it’s been a good one so far! I’m going to start out this year by talking about sanitation and a type of business that is helping people to gain access to improved sanitation and hygiene, the Rural Sanitation Mart (RSM). But first, let’s talk about why RSMs are even needed.
Maybe some of you are sitting on your porcelain throne right now as you’re reading this, but unfortunately 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have a toilet of their own. Never thought of reading on your toilet as a luxury, did you? Well it is. Besides being a luxury it keeps you healthy too (the toilet, not the reading). 700,000 children die every year from diseases that could have been prevented if they had access to a proper toilet, and soap to wash their hands. And it’s not only children getting sick; adults get sick too. This leads to people having to stay home from work, which means there’s no income, which makes their situation even harder. There are a number of other problems caused by the lack of access to proper sanitation and hygiene, but I’ll stop here and move on to the topic at hand, rural sanitation marts.
There are several reasons why people don’t have toilets in their home. Maybe they don’t think they can afford it; or they see no reason to use a toilet; or they don’t know where to get a toilet. Maybe they have a toilet but something broke and they don’t know where to get spare parts, or have the skills to fix it. Whatever the problem may be there’s a good chance that the good folks down at your local RSM will be able to help you out.
What is a Rural Sanitation Mart and What do They Offer?
RSMs aim to be a one-stop-shop for all things sanitation and hygiene. First, let’s talk about what kind of products they have. RSMs stock everything that you need to construct a latrine of your own: toilets, latrine pans, traps, footrest, pit covers, pipes, pit lining rings, doors, material for concrete or mortar, bricks, etc. They also keep a stock of items needed to practice good sanitation and hygiene at home, for instance, long handled ladles to scoop water out of a container without touching the water, long neck water pots, brooms to keep areas clean, water filters, and material for cleaning toilets (brushes, disinfectant, etc). Further, they also provide personal hygiene products such as soap, nail cutters, footwear, toothpaste, toothbrush, toilet paper, and menstrual hygiene products. So now you have all these great products, but why use them, and what do you do with them?
That brings us to the services that RSMs offer. First, and most importantly, RSMs employ motivators. Motivators go out into the surrounding communities and provide sanitation and hygiene education as well as promoting good sanitation and hygiene practices. Motivators are driven to do this work by being offered incentives of a certain amount of money per each toilet they promote that is installed. Because a lot of people don’t see the need for a toilet these motivators are critical in instigating behavioral change within the community. They spread the word by organizing community meetings, showing films, singing songs, or performing street plays about the importance of good sanitation. Schools are also a great place to promote proper sanitation and hygiene because, as one organization put it, “a convinced child is a committed advocate”. Woman’s groups should also be employed to promote good sanitation and hygiene practices, however, caution should be taken not to marginalize the men. Motivators also put up billboards and posters, as well as distributing pamphlets and brochures.
It doesn’t always go smoothly for the motivators though. Sometimes they are challenged by someone that, even after hearing the health benefits of using a toilet, still don’t see the need. Not a problem. There are a number of non-health related benefits of having your own toilet that can be used as motivation: privacy, convenience, safety, status, cost savings (because treating sickness caused by poor sanitation and hygiene is expensive), and income generation from selling compost or vegetables grown in a garden watered with reused water (if bathing station is included). A motivator’s job is never done, and it is a good idea that they visit the same site multiple times in order to really get the point across.
Moving on, now that the people in the community are convinced they want a toilet they can head over to their local RSM and talk with the friendly people about what type of toilet is right for them. A good RSM should have multiple toilet and latrine options at different price points to fit everyone’s needs. There should also be someone onsite that is trained to give people advice on which type of toilet or latrine is best for their situation.
The last crucial piece of the puzzle is having trained masons on staff to build the latrine and install all of the components. At the very least the RSM should have a list of local masons who are trained to build latrines available to their customers.
Tips for a Successful Rural Sanitation Mart
Once the RSM has the materials/products, the motivators, and the masons all that is required is a sense of business, a little creativity, and some customers. Well, in the perfect world that is all that is required. Here are some other ideas that could help an RSM be successful. How about setting up models of the various toilet/latrine combinations for display so people can see how they’ll look once they’re installed? Or even better, the RSM could have working models that can be used to show what they’ll look like, and to be used by motivators to show that latrines are not as dirty and smelly as some people may think. Also, I think it is a good idea to have a posted price list so people feel that they’re being treated fairly and they’re getting the same price as everyone else. Additionally, RSMs need to promote their business in the surrounding areas. How is someone going to buy a toilet from your RSM if they don’t even know it exists?
Further, a successful RSM needs to have a good reputation. Therefore, it is very important that the latrines being built are of high quality. This starts with your supply chain and making sure the parts that are being bought are of good quality. Speaking of supply chain, RSMs also need to make sure that they have enough stock in their store at all times to keep up with demand. You never want to turn a potential customer away because you don’t have what they need.
Now that the RSM is successful maybe they want to branch out into other markets. Besides sanitation and hygiene products RSMs could provide spare parts for water storage tanks, hand pumps, irrigation, etc., and maybe even employ someone that is trained to repair and install this type of equipment. Or how about setting up a system to provide low-interest loans or credit so people don’t have to pay for their latrine all at once? The RSM could offer the option, for a little extra money, of having someone come out and check on the latrine once a year, or every two years, to make sure everything is working properly, and if not fix it. Kind of like a warranty. Then there’s the critical question of what to do with all of the waste that is being generated by all the latrines being installed. This is another potential business opportunity. There are actually a couple of opportunities. One is that the RSM could have a composting latrine available for sale for a little more money (because the compost will be a source of income for the owner). The second is to create a branch of the RSM that will go around and pump out the waste from the latrines. This could be a free service provided to people who buy a latrine from this RSM, and a service that people who have latrines from other sources could pay for. The free service would be worth it to the RSM because they could then take the waste, compost it, and sell it. These are just a few ideas of ways to branch out. Do you have any?
As with any business, there are some problems that can come up with RSMs, and I’ll just quickly mention two of them that I came upon during my research. One that has been seen in the past is that the demand in an area can be fulfilled by a RSM (good!), and then the owner is no longer able to make a profit (bad). In order to avoid this a demand assessment study should be carried out in the area before a RSM is set up. Here are a few reports on demand assessment: Demand Assessment for Sanitary Latrines in Rural and Urban Areas of Cambodia, Behavioral Indicators of Household Decision-Making and Demand for Sanitation and Potential Gains from Social Marketing in Ghana, and Optimizing the Selection of Demand Assessment Techniques for Water Supply and Sanitation Projects. Another option is to make the RSM semi-mobile so that if demand is fulfilled the RSM can be moved to a new area that has demand. Or the RSM could shift focus from providing education and new latrines to only providing replacement parts and personal hygiene products; and other things that are still required. People will always need these.
Another issue that I touched on already is what to do with all of the waste. This is actually a great opportunity for a second business, or for a partnership with an established waste removal business. Whichever direction the RSM goes, there needs to be a plan put in place (either by the RSM or by the local government) to dispose of the waste or else there will be a mess down the line (literally).
Government of India’s Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in partnership with Ram Krishna Mission Lok Shiksha Parishad (RKMLSP) and UNICEF – This program to set up RSMs started back in the 1990s in two districts in West Bengal. With a population of 9.6 million, this was no easy task. They started by reaching out to community organizations to promote proper sanitation and hygiene. Each of these 15 organizations opened 4-5 RSMs each. In large part because of these RSMs between 1991 and 2001 the number of households with sanitary latrines jumped from 5 percent to 60 percent! By 2007 coverage had reached just under 100 percent! Because of the success that was had the model was expanded and by 2007 there were 333 RSMs in 18 districts of West Bengal. To read more about this case click here: Rural Sanitary Marts: Developing a sustainable alternate delivery mechanism for sanitation in West Bengal
Local government of Rajarhat Upazila in partnership with the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) and UNICEF – In this case the local government and the DPHE promoted a standardized toilet model that was sold at RSMs for US$2.90. Sanitary health and hygiene was promoted by the Chief Administrator of the district, as well as community members, school teachers, and religious leaders. The enclosure for the toilet was separate, and was usually built by the homeowner with locally available material (bamboo, palm fronds, etc.). Because they realized at the beginning of the project that it would be hard for poor families to afford the $2.90 they set up a saving scheme in which $0.17 was collected monthly from groups of ten households. Every two months one of the ten families would receive the $3.40 that had been collected, and this money would be used to buy their toilet components (2000 families bought their toilets through this savings scheme). In a little over two years the RSMs had sold more than 32,000 toilets which resulted in an increase in households with toilets from 16 percent to 99 percent! That’s great, but as time passed toilet usage and sanitation coverage dropped. This was due to a number of factors, including damage to toilets, the modification of toilets to make them dump waste into nearby ditches. These problems could have been solved with the warranty type idea that I spoke of above. Even worst, some people interviewed said they were forced by government officials to buy toilets. This is a huge problem which does not lead to a sustainable solution. Were these people even educated or just told that they had to buy toilets? Intimidation is never the way to go with anything, and this case shows that it doesn’t work. To read more about this case (and a few others) click here: Scaling-Up Rural Sanitation in South Asia
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No one can argue against the fact that access to good sanitation is needed by a lot of people, however, you can argue about how to get it to the people. I think the RSM model, when done right, is a great way to increase sanitation coverage and improve people’s quality of life. And besides bringing toilets and hygiene products to people, it creates a livelihood for the people running the RSM, for the masons building the latrines, and for the motivators that are out educating the public. This article was meant to just to spread the word of what RSMs are and how they work, but I think it can be a great tool to help improve your local RSM, or to start your own (especially when used with the sources below). One question I have for you: In my research I was only able to find RSMs in India/Asia. Does anyone know of RSMs in other places? Maybe they’re called something different which is why I couldn’t find them. Please let me know. I hope this was an informative and compelling write-up, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it so please leave a comment below and share this with anyone you think it could be useful to. As always, thanks for reading!