From Disgust to Delight – The Transformation of the Toilet Market

There’s no question that there’s a huge business opportunity in toilets. 2.3bn people are ‘waiting for the toilet’ – that is, willing and ready to pay for building materials and components, ready to subscribe to emptying and waste disposal services and who are keen to buy cleaning products, if only these were easily available at an affordable price. But as poverty recedes around the world and housing stock is improving exponentially, somehow the humble household toilet isn’t keeping pace. Why is this? And what more can be done?

One of the reasons for the neglect of human waste is psychological. Whilst we enjoy long conversations about our food, its provenance, the recipes we use and how it tastes, the consequences of that consumption (ie excretion) are not a fit subject for polite company. Whilst billions are spent advertising fancy kitchens and cooking gadgets, ads for toilets can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Whilst food is an attractive topic, human waste belongs to the dark side of human psychology, “anti-matter” that we prefer to drive, not just out of our lives, but out of our thoughts as well. There are good evolutionary reasons for this. Animals that avoid wastes tend to stay healthier and therefore procreate more successfully. Most species come equipped with a disgust instinct that causes them to avoid parasites and pathogens. Humans are no exception: disgusting things are aversive and countering this innate avoidance for the subject of wastes will always be an uphill battle.

But there are ways around this. The huge success of the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign has shown that there are votes in toilets. The Indian public sees the campaign as the best thing that PM Narendra Modi has done, and he’s done it partly because toilets are an unlikely cause, promoting his image of humility and public service. The Unilever brand Domestos has recruited Indian film stars to ‘pick up the brush!’; modelling the use of new toilet cleaning products. In Africa, smart blue toilet components known as SATO made by LIXIL are selling like hot cakes. Sanitation is coming out of the shadows as a live issue. Businesses can build on this new readiness to talk about toilets, but their offers need to be visible, to provide a ‘wow’ factor, and to delight, not disgust, the consumer.

As we talk more about toilets and they get a more positive spin, this will help to unleash consumer demand. But demand needs to be met by supply, and whilst industry is avoiding toilets, they miss the opportunity of the decade. According to the Toilet Board Coalition’s Sanitation Economy in India report, the total market for construction of individual & community toilets, deployment of portable toilets, maintenance, repair & cleaning is estimated to be worth $14 billion in 2017 and could more than double to $31 billion by 2021. But what products are on offer, and at what price? Because of the toilet blind spot, investment in innovation and branding hasn’t kept pace with increasing demand. New solutions are urgently needed that are attractive, work well and that are affordable for low income consumers.

Should we sit back and let the market do its job or should we capitalise on the new interest and political will from governments around the world to do more? I believe now is the time to strike, before the wave of interest in sanitation breaks and the world finds other issues to care about. A radically new approach is required, however. My vision begins by signing up five go-ahead cities, municipal governments who are ambitious to meet their SDG targets and who work with the development banks to agree a level of sanitation service that is desirable and acceptable while offering a unit price for the services. For example, the city will guarantee any service provider $10.00 per household per month in return for the provision of safe, effective, environment-friendly, human and domestic waste removal. This offer attracts the big sanitation players who compete to offer services, and, spurred by the proven financial incentives, start innovating. This de-risks investment and creates a local market for components, products and services. Smaller SMEs, whether in manufacturing, transport, waste treatment or nutrient recovery then crowd in. Innovation starts to reduce costs, industry starts to turn a profit, new cities join in with new improved versions of this model, and the cities start to see visible improvement.

Of course, cities are complex systems; new monitoring and regulatory systems will need to be developed. Financing mechanisms will also need to be designed, but could be based on the World Bank’s Payment for Results (P4R) programmes, which are a tried and tested development instrument. New blended finance models will need to emerge, where it will become clear who should pay for what.

This is a bold idea, and potentially a costly one; however, the sorts of sums needed are lower than the costs of building sewerage systems for cities. And the costs of not doing this are higher than doing it. For every dollar spent on sanitation, the economic return to countries is at least fourfold. It’s time to unblock our sanitation systems and start thinking big, or we will fall hopelessly short of our SDG targets. More importantly, if we don’t start doing this or something like it, it will be too late for a whole new generation of children, who will grow up in polluted cities with poor health, poor environments and a poor quality of life. It’s time to overcome our innate disgust and start seriously investing in toilets. Now that’s an attractive idea!

Professor Val Curtis is Director of the Environmental Health Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is author of ‘Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, the Science Behind Revulsion’. She co-founded Global Handwashing Day and advises the Indian and Tanzanian Governments on sanitation.

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