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Sanitation options for sustainability: reflections from the UNC Conference

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I am attending the 2016 Water and Health conference organised by the Water Institute at University of North Carolina USA. The conference whose theme is ‘where science meets policy’ focuses on safe drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and water resources. Participants and presenters include members of academia, governments, development banks, donor agencies and WASH implementers. So far, I attended sessions that discussed experiences from implementing projects around the world as well as results of case studies in the area of WASH. Topics include ODF sustainability, sanitation marketing, Inclusive programming, and WASH integration with other sectors among others.

When thinking about ODF sustainability and moving up the sanitation ladder an important consideration has been introduction of sanitation options/products. A number of organisation s have to date tried many product options and intervention strategies with varied levels of results. iDE had some lessons to share on what they have learnt from implementing sanitation marketing in Cambodia.

What is the ideal product for households? What is stopping you?
The discussion started with this simple question. The core message being that most programs design products based on some defined assumptions and then invest in changing behaviours of communities to adopt that product. When in essence a consumer centric approach has been seen to be more effective. The iDE experience in both toilet and water filter product development and marketing, led to the conclusion that listening to the consumer’s voice, obeying it and correctly interpreting the consumer’s desire results in much higher program success even at the BoP. So the question is, if we know this, why are we not doing it? Answers to this question include: fear of risk by private sector, lack of data, difficulty in building consensus, limited funding, affordability and lack of appropriate solutions.

If we identify the barriers to developing and designing the ideal solutions for households then we can identify possible solutions to removing the bottlenecks. This is usually the point at which different partnerships with various strengths are identified and the strategy becomes how to leverage their capabilities to make the ideal happen.

Getting the right partnerships
CLTS is often the fist approaching getting people to change their sanitation behaviours. Once the commitment has been made, on-going follow up is essential in getting to open defecation free status. This process can be human resource intensive.

In the case of iDE the partnerships developed included the local government, a private sector partner (Kohler- for the water filter), a donor and the NGO PATH. iDE partnered with  Kohler, an established multinational with strong capabilities in product design and distribution. They also received a grant from the Canadian government to lower entry barriers for private sector by financing some of the initial costs that the private sector could not cover

What do households want?
People want aspirational solutions. Those that meet their higher level needs like privacy, safety, dignity and self esteem. The more of this needs that are weaved into a sanitation product the higher the chances for its success. Often the assumption is that health benefits are the biggest criteria for product choice. But the experience from the iDE project and Haiti show otherwise.

In Cambodia, the initial solution was a bamboo toilet whose uptake was very low. The director of Sanitation at DINEPA in the government of Haiti shared her experience that households didn’t want simple pit latrines. They had a preference for designs that allowed the user to sit comfortably.
The critical thing is to find the nexus between desirability, viability and feasibility. That is designing a product that households love, being able to design this product and find a way to produce it at scale and finally making this solution commercially viable.

Is cost really a big deal?
Affordability is a big issue in most places when thinking of upgrading toilets. In CLTS we encourage households to build toilets that they can afford. Therefore when introducing new products to enable households to build or upgrade, a big challenge can be to decide the ideal price point for that product. iDE asked households a question about willingness to pay. From the research, they arrived at the price of USD15 and subsequently designed the bamboo toilet. Its uptake in the market was very low. iDe then went back to the drawing board and sought to truly understand what people find desirable. They found that this was a pour flush toilet, with ceramic and tiles. So, they went ahead to design a product that met these aspirational needs. Th result was the ‘easy toilet’. It retailed at USD 35, more than double the WTP price. So far they have sold more than 400,000 units worldwide, massively outselling the cheaper model.

But...I thought you promised?
Moving from purely implementing CLTS to introducing sanitation products and doing sanitation marketing requires some additional organisational capabilities. One of them is effective coordination.

This fits in quite well with a different session that discussed about WASH integration with other sectors. How do we identify programs that we can ride on to better succeed in WASH? More importantly, how do we effectively make this work? Without duplication, clashing and letting things fall through the cracks. The consensus here was to agree from the very beginning on whose role it is to do what. Often, it can be a challenge when for example private sector assume that the NGO will provide the last mile distribution, which maybe the NGO assumes that government would do etc

Why we do not want subsidy
Ms. Edwige of DINEPA spoke to me on the sidelines of this meeting on why she is very passionate about market based approaches after CLTS. She insists that subsidy has failed in Haiti and cannot be the solution. She started by saying that if an NGO gave free toilets to an area the overall sanitation coverage of that area would go down. Example, if an NGO identified a village with 100 basic latrines and 50 ODF households and gave toilets to the 50. Out of the 50 ‘free toilets’ 25 would be put into different use e.g. store, the remaining 25 would be locked up and used only for visitors. ODF will continue. However because others have seen the new latrines, the ones with basic toilets will demolish theirs and wait for the improved free toilet, which would not be forthcoming. The overall result is lower latrine coverage.

The conference goes on until Friday and I will certainly be sharing with you more learnings and probably provoke our thinking on some of these subjects.

Lillian Mbeki is a Social Marketing and Private Sector Development Specialist Consultant at Water& Sanitation Program-AF, World Bank

Date: 13 October 2016