Is there a monster under my bed? Or maybe something lurking in my closet? Probably not, but for a child growing up in a developed country these are the kinds of fears that can rule their bedtime. Silly? Yes, and as a child grows up they will realize that it was all in their mind. Anjali Sarker had a different fear growing up, and one that was actually based in reality. While growing up in a rural Bangladeshi village Anjali’s biggest fear was something that a lot of us take for granted, but that millions don’t have access to: her toilet. It looked something like this:
Imagine being a little child and having to use this type of toilet. It’s dirty and unhygienic, there are flies everywhere, and it’s quite possible that you could fall through into the smelly waste below. Unlike monsters in the closet this is a real fear that I think we can all understand. Because of her fear, as a child Anjali came up with her own solution: limiting the amount of water she drank so that she didn’t have to use the toilet as often. Obviously this isn’t a healthy solution, and she soon learned that lesson when her kidneys failed and she had to be hospitalized. Fortunately she recovered, but unfortunately neither her fear or her solution is limited to Anjali, and many children (especially little girls) die every year because they see drinking less water as a way to defeat this fear. Another solution often employed, but one that is not any safer, is open defecation, a practice that can also lead to death through water contamination and disease.
Anjali’s fear was traumatic for her growing up, but as she got older that fear turned into motivation. She decided to do something about it, and developed Toilet+. Toilet+ is a safe, hygienic, and affordable way for rural villagers to gain an improved toilet (and even make some money). One problem often faced when working with rural communities on sanitation issues is how to get the people to change their behavior. Time after time organizations will go in, install sanitation and hygiene facilities, and maybe even educate the people on why they should be used, but after a short time the community goes back to their old ways. So how do you change this behavior?
Whether you’re in the middle of a cosmopolitan city or a rural village one thing always holds true: money talks. Anjali knew this, and decided this was the key to changing the behavior of people in rural Bangladeshi villages. With Toilet+ villagers are literally, in Anjali’s words, “paid for shitting”. I’ll get back to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about how someone acquires a Toilet+. The toilets cost $150 US, and villagers can either pay for the toilet in cash, or by getting a micro-credit loan from an NGO which partners with Toilet+. $150 may sounds like a lot, however compared to other similar toilet systems it is fairly inexpensive. A typical family that takes out a loan will pay $1.50 US a month for three years, a very manageable amount. After the three years their loan will be paid off and then they can start to, again in Anjali’s words, “shit and earn”.
So how do you earn money from your toilet? One of the key features to the Toilet+ toilet is that it doesn’t discharge any waste into the environment. The solid waste is collected in a chamber and heat panels are used to heat up the waste and dry it out. After 6 months the waste is odorless and harmless. This is where the money making comes in. Toilet+ will come and collect the waste from the toilet, as well as any organic (kitchen) waste that has been collected, and transport it to a local organic fertilizer facility for processing. The owner of the toilet will be paid for their waste, and therefore they will be motivated to continue using the toilet. Toilet+ says that a typical household can make $4.40-7.00 US per month by selling their waste (after their loan is paid off)! Over the projected 15 year life span of the toilet this could be a lot of money. Toilet+ will then sell the organic fertilizer to local farmers to be used in their fields. Now you have Toilet+ making money from the toilets and fertilizer, the users having hygienic facilities and making money from their waste, and farmers benefitting from the use of healthy compost. A win-win-win situation.
Now before the comments start coming in I realize that for this solution to be viable you need to have an organic fertilizer facility set up somewhere in the vicinity of the villages using Toilet+ toilets. However, I look at that not as a problem, but instead as an opportunity for someone to start their own business and therefore also benefit economically from what Toilet+ is doing. If the demand is there someone will provide this service. Add one more win to the list.
Further, Toilet+ toilets are made from locally available materials which will help the local economy to grow and make them easier to maintain should a problem arise. Also, because flooding is common in many parts of Bangladesh the toilets are designed to be built off of the ground. This will keep the toilet from being damaged during a flood, but more importantly, it will keep the flood waters from spreading the waste, and diseases that come with the waste.
Toilet+ has been recognized and awarded for their efforts, including being showcased at the MIT Startup Workshop in Istanbul, winning the Championship Award and Sustainability Award at the Queen’s Entrepreneurs’ Competition in Toronto, making it to the semi-finals of the Global Social Entrepreneurs’ Competition (put on by the University of Washington), and being a finalist in the Business for Good Competition (put on by Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business).
Although it came out of a little girl’s fear, Anjali’s hard work has already benefitted a number of communities in Bangladesh, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Because of her work, and the world of her colleagues at Toilet+, livelihoods have been improved, lives have been saved, and fears have been diminished. It is because of this that Anjali is a real water hero, and I look forward to seeing what else she does in the future. Thank you for reading, and please leave a comment and share this story with others.