A global index report released in 2015 shows India is performing poorly when it comes to sanitation equity and accessibility. While the country was positioned at a dismal 93rd in the overall ‘The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Performance Index 2015’ (developed by Water Institute at University of North Carolina, US), it ranked 34th in ‘sanitation access’.
It’s no wonder then that a number of companies, including start-ups, are now trying to address the problem. One such platform is Svadha, a Bhubaneswar-based social venture.
Svadha ‘aggregates’ from leading manufacturers to provide high-quality and affordable sanitation products in rural areas in Odisha. “Using design research and consumer insight, we also innovate (to produce) new sanitation products and services to better meet consumers’ needs. These products are then delivered to consumers through our vast network of over 250 sanitation entrepreneurs, whom we train and support to maintain sustainable sanitation access in rural areas,” says Garima Sahai, co-founder and CEO, Svadha, adding, “This integrated network brings greater impact through enhanced livelihoods for our entrepreneurs, and dignity and health for consumers.”
Svadha’s main operations currently focus on Odisha, which has a household toilet penetration rate of only 33%. “Svadha has impacted over one lakh consumers so far,” Sahai says.
Nature’s true calling
The market potential for toilets in India is huge. As per a report released by international non-profit organisation WaterAid in 2015, 60.4% people in India don’t have access to safe, private toilets. India, the world’s second-most populous country, also holds the record for the most number of people waiting for sanitation (774 million), the report revealed.
The situation in urban areas is no better. As per another report released by WaterAid in November last year, India—the world’s fastest-growing economy—is the worst country in the world for urban sanitation. India ranks right at the top for having the greatest number of urban dwellers living without a safe, private toilet (157 million), as well as the most number of urban dwellers practising open defecation (41 million), as per WaterAid’s report. The report also said the problem is so big that the daily waste produced on the streets of India’s towns and cities is enough to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools, or 16 jumbo jets, with poo every day.
As cities expand, the number of urbanites living without basic sanitation has swelled by 26 million since the year 2000, as per reports. “The industry’s potential is said to be about $20-25 billion, provided the government creates legislation and standards to stress the importance of sanitation,” says Rajeev Kher, founder and CEO, Saraplast, a Pune-based company that manufactures and services a wide range of portable and fixed sanitation products and services through ‘3S’, the sanitation services brand of the company. Some of its offerings include free restrooms, portable wash basins and urinals, bio-toilets, polyethylene septic tanks, ‘sanibins’ for sanitary napkin disposal, plastic and ferro-cement bio digesters, among others. “Ours is a temporary solution for unserved settlements at places where toilets can’t be constructed. Considering the growth of urbanisation, our business model is quite sustainable, primarily because of its mobility factor. It is difficult to construct permanent brick-and-mortar toilets, especially where land is unavailable. They also involve a lot of cost, first to construct and then to maintain. Portable toilets do not require much maintenance, making the concept popular,” explains Kher.
3S, which follows the pay-and-use model, provides toilets for labour camps, refineries, slums, sport events, music festivals, special events and for large social and religious gatherings. The company also works as an execution partner for different NGOs and foundations. One of its recent projects is a collaboration with Shramik Quisqualis Foundation, through which the company will adopt three villages in rural Maharashtra to provide education on hygiene and sanitation to villagers.
Similarly, Kerala-based Eram Scientific Solutions came up with the unique concept of ‘e-toilets’ looking at the alarming situation of sanitation in the country. The patent-pending product is fully automated and requires no manual maintenance. Explaining the concept, Siddeek Ahmed, the founder-MD of Eram Group, says, “To conserve water, the toilets are programmed to flush 1.5 litre water after three minutes of usage and 4.5 litre if the usage is longer. The toilet also washes the platform by itself after every five or 10 persons use it. It’s an innovatively designed and engineered sanitation model that involves unmanned operations, clean and hygienic facilities, and easy and continual operation of the toilets, while minimising unnecessary maintenance costs.”
Eram has implemented the concept in more than 20 states with over 2,000 e-toilets and 600 sewage treatment plants installed to date. “For the project, which was self-funded, we invested a total of R30 crore. Revenue is expected to exhibit a growth rate of 30% over the 2017-18 forecast period,” says the 49-year-old Ahmed.
Namita Banka, CEO and founder of Banka BioLoo, started the Hyderabad-based social enterprise in 2008 after she felt the need for adequate and hygienic sanitation—more so for womenfolk. “Women are more vulnerable and susceptible in the absence of sanitation facilities compared to men,” says the 43-year-old Delhi University alumna.
“The country had the highest rate of open defecation a few years ago. Half of India’s population didn’t have toilets. But with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, things are changing at a rapid pace, with significant number of toilets being built, combined with a great focus on behavioural change,” says Sanjay Banka, the managing director of the company.
The company’s star products are ‘bio-toilets’ and ‘bio-tanks’, which decompose 99% of human waste in a short period of time and enable recycling of waste water. Initially, Banka BioLoo served the Indian Railways, supporting the ‘controlled discharge toilet system’ (CDTS) and later bio-toilets. In 2012, there was a move towards household and school toilet systems, and Banka BioLoo began installing bio-toilets (or bio-loos) in houses, schools, construction and infrastructure sites, plantations, etc. Today, “Banka BioLoo serves a large user base across geographies,” Banka says.
The company generates revenue through the sale and service of the bio-toilets, bio-tanks and their components, and operations and maintenance of CDTS and bio-toilets in trains. “Our revenue has been growing at 50-60% year-on-year in the past two-three years. We have deployed bio-toilets in 20 states across the country,” says Banka.
There are also start-ups that cater specifically to women. Serial entrepreneur Deep Bajaj’s PeeBuddy, a flagship product of his company, First Step Digital, was born keeping in mind women’s hygiene. “The idea was born on a road trip from Delhi to Jaipur in 2014. We were four couples on a road trip. The women were really troubled. They didn’t drink water or any beverage for fear of using a dirty toilet. The eureka moment happened when one of them said how she wished she was in Europe because she could have access to a reusable, plastic device to urinate in any dirty toilet,” says Bajaj.
This is when it struck him that there was a need for a device to address this issue. The answer was PeeBuddy, a disposable and portable female urination device that allows women to stand and urinate, avoiding any contact with dirty toilet seats. Launched in 2014, the company sold around 10,000 packs—a pack of 10 costs R200—in the very first year, clocking over one lakh units last year. The company has also launched ‘oxo-biodegradable disposal bags’ as a hygienic and clean disposal tool for sanitary products.
There’s a lot more that needs to be done, feels Bajaj. “In cities, access to clean and convenient public toilets for working women continues to be a challenge. In rural areas, people may have a dish TV or mobile phone connection, but they still defecate in the open. The way forward would be for corporates to adopt villages and foresee management of toilets. Only building a toilet doesn’t help, we have to think of sustainable solutions,” he says.