Our SDG 6 Includes Business Solutions: An alternative development pathway towards a Sanitation Economy

Discussions at this week’s High Level Political Forum on progress on the SDGs in New York have been expected to deliberate on what is going wrong with SDG6, which targets universal access to safe water and safely managed sanitation. Early monitoring results have found that SDG6 is making the least progress of all of the SDGs, continuing the experience of the MDGs where sanitation made the least progress overall.

A paper from UN Water titled “The World is Not on Track” offers a summary of what exactly is going wrong. It concludes mainly that not enough money is being committed by governments – citing that over 80% of countries have insufficient finance to meet national water sanitation and hygiene targets. As a result 4.5 billion people, more than half the world’s population, lack access to safely managed sanitation; water pollution is worsening, severely affecting human health, agriculture, ecosystems and their services which are cited to be in continuous decline.

This picture is bleak. Has the world conceded to sanitation being costly and difficult, a problem we must solve in essentially familiar ways, pouring in more and more money?

We would like to present another view: That there is value (and potentially a fortune) in our sanitation systems, in places where no one has been looking; that there is financing from sectors of the economy where no-one has been asking; and that the private sector is increasingly playing a new and important role in bringing innovative solutions to the sector – that could turn the outlook for SDG6 around.

A group of leading global businesses, working together with innovators and small businesses across markets where sanitation is most urgent, are building the Sanitation Economy.

Imagine a world where the provision of sanitation services – for all – is cost recovering and the value that lies within sanitation systems (water, nutrients, health information) is monetised to be revenue generating, and delivered through an eco-system of profitable business models which attract commercial investment. This would be an alternative development pathway for governments and supportive NGOSs, dramatically reducing the current enormous cost burden of the building and maintenance infrastructure of sanitation systems, while opening up new markets of business opportunity for the private sector.

Can we all agree with the inevitability that for sanitation systems to be sustainable and resilient for future generations, infrastructure needs to be more cost recovering and services delivered in partnership with the private sector?

Business can be part of the solution to ensure that we achieve SDG6, by joining forces with global governments and the global sanitation community to enable new models for sanitation systems that bring cost-recovery for governments and revenue generating opportunities for the private sector and commercial finance sectors.

The businesses of the Toilet Board Coalition are ready to lead to build the Sanitation Economy. The Toilet Board Coalition is a business-led public-private partnership of businesses, governments, and civil society that sees value (vs. cost) in sanitation systems. We launched our vision for the Sanitation Economy in 2017 (on World Toilet Day – November 19).  We have created a Toilet Accelerator Programme where large businesses and small business work together on Sanitation Economy business solutions. The economic case is clear and there is new evidence that the Sanitation Economy is on the rise.

In the Sanitation Economy, sanitation is a robust marketplace of value generation linking three areas of the economy:

  • The Toilet Economy – A vast diversity of products and services, providing toilets and multiple value-added services fit for different contexts and incomes – leaving no one behind (the toilet reinvented! Nod to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their tremendous investment and efforts). Unilever, Kimberly-Clark and Firmenich are currently working a small business in India, Saraplast to develop new business models for public and community toilets across the city of Pune – including specific models that cater to wormed and girls, Ti: Toilets for Her. LIXIL Corporation has been working with Indian SME, Tiger Toilets on an innovative integrated toilet & waste management system for rural and peri-urban areas – via the TBC’s Toilet Accelerator Programme. Manila Water has been working with the Toilet Board Coalition member companies to develop an innovative financing model to deliver sanitation to its most low-income customers in the Philippines via decentralised (non-sewered) solutions.
  • The Circular Sanitation Economy – Sanitation becomes a reliable and growing source of what are becoming scarce resources – nutrients, proteins, energy and water. Toilet Resources (our term for human waste) are the only biological resource that grows as the population grows. There are many examples of businesses creating valuable products which re-use water, replace chemical fertilisers and unsustainable wood burning for energy, all derived from toilet resources. Veolia, the world’s largest resource company, has joined the Toilet Board Coalition this year to help develop and proliferate circular sanitation business models. Braskem, at the World Water Forum in Brasilia this year, called on global businesses to look to sewage to address water scarcity for their businesses. Sanergy, a small business in Kenya provides a public toilet service to residents of Kenya’s slums while capturing and and up-cycling the toilet resources into nutrient rich organic compost. Sanivation also in Kenya produce fuel briquettes utilising toilet resources providing a more sustainable alternative to wood burning fuel. SafiSana in Ghana is producing energy by capturing and up-cycling a mix of various organic waste materials, including toilet resources, and selling the energy back to the grid.
  • The Smart Sanitation Economy – Improved sanitation, reducing pollution and infection, is the world’s biggest preventive health opportunity according to WaterAid. It can also provide a wealth of data, about human health and behaviour becoming the early warning system driving preventative healthcare, more effective and efficient than is possible today. The Toilet Board Coalition is now collaborating with the European Space Agency to catalyse new technologies and business models to realise this possibility. In the city of Pune, India we have partnered with the Municipal Corporation to co-create a roadmap for the development of Smart Sanitation Cities.

The Sanitation Economy, developed by the Toilet Board Coalition, is based on existing examples of business solutions and market opportunities captured by the Toilet Board Coalition’s work since its founding in 2014. Our evidence shows that these markets are huge – an estimated $62Bn by 2021 in India alone), and that the business models can be profitable at scale. There is both a top line and a bottom line for business, making the Sanitation Economy a real economy investment prospect.

The Sanitation Economy has a three point action plan developed by the Toilet Board Coalition:

  1. Support the creation of new business models, fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in the sector – across the 3 sanitation economies – by working in partnership with large and small businesses towards scalable solutions.
  2. Facilitate commercial investor interest in the sector through the support of innovative investment mechanisms for the sector.
  3. Work together with government and supporting NGOs to create the enabling policy environments to accelerate the societal benefits of Sanitation Economy business solutions.

Now is the time for action. Business has a vision for a Sanitation Economy that could provide new solutions for SDG 6.

What can governments do? Open the door to innovative private sector solutions for sanitation by creating supportive policy environments. Such as support for resource recovery from sanitation, standards for toilet resource derived products such as energy (to feed electricity grids), organic fertilisers (returning nutrients to the soil), and water recycled from sanitation systems. This means removing legislative barriers to entry, allowing fair competition, equitable regulation of the sector at an affordable cost to the private sector and the determination of the correct level of subsidy to allow the market to develop to become profitable without any further need for subsidies. And above all, sanitation system planning that goes beyond the building toilets will alone, but also consider ongoing operations, maintenance and improvements.

What can business do? Look beyond sanitation as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and consider the many core business opportunities for innovative products and services, new consumer insights, new raw materials, renewable resources, data, information, the creation of new markets, and much much more.

What can the UN do? Recognise the private sector’s role in providing sanitation solutions, by inviting them to the table as global policy recommendations are being written.

Let us collectively roll up our sleeves and do much better – Let us make SDG6 the target that achieves the most progress at the next monitoring session.

“Leaving New York we can choose a different future for future generations by creating new dialogues and new policy incentives that include business solutions, to achieve the global goals and targets of SDG 6, TODAY.”

— By Cheryl Hicks and Sandy Rodger


Cheryl Hicks is the Executive Director of the Toilet Board Coalition. Sandy Rodger is the Chief Operations Officer of the Toilet Board Coalition. Find out more about the Sanitation Economy at www.toiletboard.org

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