Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

  • F H Mughal
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Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

It is, quite often, said that the governments alone in developing countries, cannot solve and handle the sanitation problems. The private sector has to step in to provide improved sanitation. How far is that correct? While the answer may vary from country to country in developing world, by and large, this has some plus points.

However, the innovations in private sector, though interesting technically, might not go well hand-in-hand, for the simple reason that these innovations in toilets are technically advanced, well beyond the competence and social fabric of the developing countries.

The case in point is a BBC news ( www.bbc.com/news/business-35305796 ) that highlights innovations in toilet sector. While simple innovations would be helpful, high-tech innovations in toilets will not commensurate with developing countries’ sanitation scenarios. The BBC news says: “Three years after winning their prizes, the CalTech and Loughborough ideas are still being tested and evaluated.”

F H Mughal

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  • DianeKellogg
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

This strikes a chord with me today as I am struggling with the writing of a chapter titled "The World's Sanitation Crisis: A Role for Business" for a book titled Beyond the Bottom Line. (Greenleaf PUblishers, UK) Each Chapter covers a different SDG, and is intended to educate MBAs and undergraduates, too, on the potential for sustainable businesses that actually address the world's intractable problems.

ANY IDEAS? I've pasted in the Introduction, below. The big question is exactly the one FH Mughal poses: Can the private sector solve the sanitation problem?

Your ideas, observations, and thoughtful posts will be duly credited......with appreciation.
___________
The Chapter focuses on access to household toilets and discusses the (1) current reality in the developing world. What alternatives are available and utilized? What are the (2) consequences of the lack of access to a household toilet? What are the consequences for individuals, for public health and for the environment? The chapter discusses the (3) root causes of the problem, focusing on both the lack of sanitation infrastructure and the lack of sanitation solutions that don’t require an extensive sanitation infrastructure. There is enough blame to go around: government has failed to build infrastructure and business has failed to develop and market affordable sanitation solutions. Finally, the Chapter presents some (4) solutions. Toilets that don’t require sanitation infrastructure and don’t pollute the environment are now available. The Chapter mentions several inventors who have started small toilet companies that could address the needs of the urban poor. However, so far no private enterprise has made any kind of dent in the global market. Is it possible to build a sustainable business while marketing toilets to the poor?

Could PPPs be the answer? The interdependence of government and business is discussed, with the conclusion being there are natural limitations to what either can do on their own, yet barriers to coordination and cooperation that must be overcome for PPPs (public-private partnerships) to be successful.

To encourage managers and aspiring managers to thoughtfully engage with the topic, the Chapter poses the question, “How can government and business, individually and together, address the need for household toilets?” What avenues can governments pursue on their own? What avenues can businesses pursue on their own? What can be done to overcome barriers to coordination and cooperation? What are the characteristics that must be built into PPPs to increase the potential for improving the number of household toilets?

Diane M. Kellogg
Bentley University Management Department
Partner, Kellogg Consultants
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  • JKMakowka
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

I guess I speak for many when I say the "reinvent the toilet" drive has been a big disappointment so far. Not that there aren't cool projects among them, but nearly all of them seem so far removed from the daily realities of the people those sanitation problems are meant to be addressed...

I get (and like) the idea of relatively randomly funding projects and see if maybe one is actually the brake-through, but something went seriously wrong either with the selection of applicants or (more likely) with raising the interest of suitable applicants in the first place.

Where are the interesting sanitation projects from transitional countries like Malaysia (?) etc. that have a significant but not so rich middle-class (and not an extreme social stratification as in some other places) that would be really fertile ground for private sector approaches? They all seem to be stuck in the 1950ties "septic-tank and sewers" mentality, with generally very little thought put into environmental health ("flush and forget" as soon as you can afford it).

University projects from places like the US or Europe (& I guess China these days) are just too far removed from the people they are supposed to support, that usually "well intended" is the nicest way to to describe them, and largely donor funded projects in African slums are interesting, but those people are just too poor to enable self sustained private sector development (and thus the projects remain charity only).

Krischan Makowka
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  • ggalli
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

Dear all,

Thank you for this very interesting discussion. It is a topic I also often have critical thoughts on. I would like to respond by pointing out one thing: we should not conflate the 'private sector' with 'technological innovations'.

If you ask me: should the private sector play a role in sanitation? I would say yes! But the question is which role? The private sector can provide products and services, but this does not mean that it can take over all the tasks required to make sanitation work. States have still to fill up this role and in most cases they don't. I'm talking here about regulation, monitoring, taxation etc.

Also we should really move away from this technological mentality that a new product will fix the problem. It doesn't matter if the product comes form a US university or locally designed, sanitation is more than just a latrine. It's part of a larger system. If we keep thinking that new latrines models will solve all the problems, we will just be disappointed over and over again.

Best,
Giacomo

Giacomo Galli
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  • Marijn Zandee
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

Dear Friends,

I would like to re-plug the synthesis that Ken Caplan made of last year's discussion on local private sector roles. As it seems to me that it at least contains some half answers to Diane's questions.

forum.susana.org/forum/categories/224-th...nitation-and-hygiene

In addition to Giacomo, I would like to repeat one of my statements from the Thematic Discussion namely that the private sector cannot by itself create a nation wide market for sanitation products and services. They can supply toilets, conveyance and treatment systems, and services. But, I am convinced that they are too small, and to fragmented -in most developing countries- to create a mindset among the general population that their life is not complete without a proper toilet.

Regards

Marijn

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  • TanjaRosenqvist
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

Thank you for initiating an interesting conversation.

I agree with Giacomo that 'innovation' should be seen as far broader than 'technology innovation'. Let's not forget that 'innovation' describes any new product, service, system or method that make radical or incremental changes to existing conditions. While new technologies continue to emerge, very little 'innovation' is seen in how sanitation services are delivered or governed or by whom.

I believe the private sector has a role to play in providing sanitation services for all, but importantly I think this role goes far beyond selling latrines or other sanitation technologies and will vary across contexts. We have so far only scratched the surface of potential models for public-private sector and civil society collaboration in sanitation service provision and this remains an area hungry for innovation.
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

Very interesting discussion indeed!

I also agree that innovation and private sector in sanitation are not necessarily connected and are better discussed as separate issues. I would like to comment only on the private sector part.

In my opinion, it is wrong to hope that the private sector can or should fill the gap of a public sector failing to adequately taking care of sanitation. I think that the public sector, governments and administrations are central to solve the sanitation crisis, and I fear that putting much hope in the private sector and resources in supporting private sector risks to divert the attention from the central role of the public sector.

Ok, I'll try to explain why I think so...

Firstly, I think its not really helpful to discuss public service provision versus private service provision. It helps more to distinguish between the demand and offer side. On the demand site are public or governmental institutions (who want better sanitation to achieve better public health, clean cities, healthy environments) or individuals, perhaps several individuals organised in a community organisation (who want to have clean and comfortable toilets and the waste evacuated from their plot or community). On the offer side are either public service providers or private service providers. Indeed, the private sector has a huge potential to offer sanitation solutions.

However, in many situations where sanitation is a problem, it's not so much the lack of solutions on offer that is the problem, but the lack of demand from governments, because they fail to do their job, and from individuals, because they have other priorities. Sanitation is usually very low on the priorities list of poor people. Income, houseing, education of children, water supply, electricity, phones are all more important and more urgent, and they rather invest their money for such things than to to build or upgrade a toilet.

Mobile phones have been a big success: private sector has successfully filled the gap of public services failing to provide land lines to remote and poor areas. This is because there is a clear demand: people, including poor people, want to communicate by phone and they are willing to pay for this. Unfortunately, the same is not true for toilets.

Raising the demand for better sanitation, educating people about the importance of sanitation, making people desire toilets and make them ready to pay money for better sanitation is certainly possible (to some extend). But it is also costly. Private sector can invest in promotion and advertisment, but will only do so as long as the returns generated are bigger than the investments needed to trigger the demand. And I don't think it is realistic that the private sector can invest in increasing the demand of 100 % of people of a poor area. It won't pay off and it is also not the private sectors responsibility to do so. It's the governments responsbilitiy to do so, and only the public sector (or international NGOs substituting the governments tasks) can invest in massive awareness and education campaigns, CLTS etc.

In addition, the individuals concern for sanitation will always end at the limit of their plot, at best at the limit of the settlement. Again, it's only the government, the public sector, that realistically can be expected to be concerend about the protection of the environment, the protection of downstream communities from the impact of wastewater discharge upstream.

In summary: I agree that the private sector has an important role to play in offering sanitation solutions, be it infrastrucutre or services. And it is certainly worthwhile supporting the private sector to do so. In some areas where the public sector is really disastreous, it also may be a pragmatic way to support private sector to offer sanitation solutions. But this will only work for a segment of the population and it is unlikely that the one most in need can be reached through this.

The solution to the sanitation crisis, the drive to provide all people with adequate sanitation considering the full sanitation chain, this can only come from the public sector. Without moreless functionning governments and public institutions capable to do their job, there will be no solution to the sanitation crisis and no achievement of "access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all (SDG6)", I am convinced.

So far my opinion on this... ;)

Florian Klingel
Water and Sanitation Specialist at Skat Consulting Ltd.
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

Maybe still a word on technology...

Basically, I agree very much to this:

ggalli wrote: Also we should really move away from this technological mentality that a new product will fix the problem. It doesn't matter if the product comes form a US university or locally designed, sanitation is more than just a latrine. It's part of a larger system. If we keep thinking that new latrines models will solve all the problems, we will just be disappointed over and over again.


In my post above I mentionned the mobile phone analogy, where private sector has successfully provided solutions to many people where public sector has failed to do so. Of course this has indeed been aided by technology, its only the emergence of mobile phones that made this possible. And this idea is very much behind the Reinvent the Toilet competition, the thinking that the reliance on century old technologies needs to be overcome and the invention of a new technology will be the key to solve all problems.

I don't believe in this. As I said above, toilets are not mobile phones, and what has worked with mobile phones does not necessarily work for sanitation. We have a lot of technical solutions to sanitation problems, century old or more recent, the challenge is applying them to serve everybody.

Florian Klingel
Water and Sanitation Specialist at Skat Consulting Ltd.
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

I think it is a bit hasty to rule out the impact innovations (i.e. "remixes" of existing technologies) could have in the sanitation sector. One important point is definitely that technologies can travel borders, while all current experience points to the sad fact that "good institutions" do no.

I think we also need to realize the fact that in many part of the world we are indeed facing a "retreat" of governments, not only in so called failed states. Many developing & transitional countries face what it called "premature de-industrialization" and increasing social stratification as well as urbanization which often leads to an "capital city" mind-set of many government elites.

All this leads me to having a low confidence that we will see any significant improvements on the government/institution side and so what's left are location appropriate technological innovations and maybe the private sector that takes the role of a quasi-government for its salaried employees and other more affluent parts of the surrounding society that can buy themselves into the communities run more or less by the private sector. In addition there might be a role that the surrounding service "industries" have in catering to these more affluent communities.

I know this is not the "private sector" we are commonly talking about here, but rather something that sounds more like a "corporate sector"... but usually these are not big international firms, but larger local companies that are serving a subsection in the export sector or as part of the service chains that feed the capital cities.

Edit: A somewhat related thought is that we need to stop thinking in terms of latrines and water-points, but rather in terms of housing and neighborhoods. Then the thought of having a complete water & sanitation solution becomes more obvious and this kind of thinking is also much closer to the aspirational mind-set we have to enable for self-driven scale up. And the private sector and innovations play a big role in bringing affordable housing and safe neighborhoods to an increasing number of people around the world.

Krischan Makowka
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

JKMakowka wrote: maybe the private sector that takes the role of a quasi-government for its salaried employees and other more affluent parts of the surrounding society that can buy themselves into the communities run more or less by the private sector. In addition there might be a role that the surrounding service "industries" have in catering to these more affluent communities.


No doubt that private sector can serve those who can and want to pay for good sanitation. But this does not bring us any closer to the "access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all", which our governments have recently agreed to be the goal from now on...

I'm equally pessimistic about the prospect of governments and public institutions in many countries. But I think we should not fall in the trap and accepting that as a unchangeable fact, give up on the governmental systems and putting all our hopes in the private sector instead. It won't work. All experience so far show that private sector can work towards the good of all, but only under strong regulation. Without good regulation, the private sector will tend to serve only the rich, often on expense of the poor (e.g. wastewater collected from gated communities ends up in slums). But good regulation is possible only with functionning governments...

Florian Klingel
Water and Sanitation Specialist at Skat Consulting Ltd.
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

Hello Diane,

For the private sector sanitation business in rural Malawi, please check out our work under a SHARE grant:

• Holm, R., Kasulo, V. and Wanda, E. Identification of funding mechanisms for private sector participation in the provision of rural household sanitation facilities, in Nkhata Bay District (Malawi). Sustainable Sanitation Practices, 2014, 20, pages 27-31.
• Holm, R., Wanda, E., Kasulo, V. and Gwayi, S. Identification of the potential opportunities, barriers, and threats within the sector in taking up sanitation as a business: rural sanitation in Nkhata Bay District (Malawi). Waterlines, 2014, 33:3, pages 269-274.

Rochelle Holm, Ph.D., PMP
Mzuzu University
Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation
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  • DianeKellogg
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  • I support sanitation projects that result in sustainable toilets for households and schools. Currently, my largest project is a grant funded by the Dutch government titled, "Private and Social Toilets" (PRISTO). I am also working on the SuSanA grant from the BMGF, to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing in the sanitation sector.
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Re: Innovations and Private Sector: Can They Solve the Sanitation Problem?

Thanks for these references. I'm reading everything I can find.

Diane M. Kellogg
Bentley University Management Department
Partner, Kellogg Consultants
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