Business

Mixing toilets with profit in Cambodia

Local businesses making the "easy latrine"
Image caption Local businesses can make and sell the "easy latrine"

The man in the white T-shirt has just won the prize. It is not one to cherish.

He has been declared the person who produces the most excrement in Sleng, a rural village in Kandal province, central Cambodia.

Amid much laughter, all eyes turn to the middle-aged farmer sitting cross-legged in front of the village hall.

Not cracking a smile, he does a little victory dance without getting to his feet.

"I'm not ashamed," he says. But his face suggests otherwise.

Poor sanitation

This is precisely the impact that the yellow-shirted sanitation marketing team from International Development Enterprises (IDE) were hoping they would have.

Cambodians' toilet habits are causing serious problems - and gently suggesting changes has not worked.

Most of this small south-east Asian country's people live in rural areas - and only one in five of them have access to a toilet.

In fact, people are twice as likely to have a mobile phone.

The consequences are predictable. Poor sanitation causes illnesses that kill more than ten thousand Cambodians every year - most of them young children.

The economic costs are high as well.

'Lack of appreciation'

Days off sick and time searching for somewhere to go to the toilet reduce earnings and productivity - and families spend hard-earned income on healthcare which is frequently of dubious quality.

The Asian Development Bank says that 7% of Cambodia's GDP is lost due to its lack of sanitation.

Image caption Poor sanitation causes illnesses that kill Cambodians

Well-meaning development organizations have tried giving toilets away.

They frequently come back a few months later to find them being used as storage rooms or animal shelters, with the family defecating in the open as before.

"When you give something to someone, there's a lack of appreciation," says IDE's sanitation programme manager, Cordell Jacks.

"If you haven't mentally bought in to the concept of sanitation it's not likely that you're going to use it properly or maintain it properly. So the whole health benefit is moot."

IDE - which is itself funded by donors including the World Bank - developed a fresh approach, using disgust and shame to make people want a toilet enough to buy one at full price.

Rush to buy

The young facilitator at the presentation in Sleng is half stand-up comedian, half sanitation ideologue.

Image caption Chhun Dina tells villagers they are surrounded by their own excrement

As she moves between her audience and the whiteboard, Chhun Dina manages to elicit hearty laughter and rueful smiles even as she tells the villagers in no uncertain terms that they are living among their own filth.

She scribbles down the numbers volunteered by the audience and adds them up.

"That's more than a hundred tonnes a year," she says.

"It's like a mountain. Imagine if it rained and that mountain fell into the river. You'd be washing and bathing in your own excrement."

Before the presentation, only two of more than 40 houses in Sleng had a toilet.

But when Chhun Dina finished, there was a rush to sign up to buy one.

'Private enterprise'

This is where the second part of IDE's plan comes in.

It commissioned a design for a low-cost "easy latrine" which, with a little training, local businesses could make and sell.

The price to the newly-enlightened villagers is around $30 - and the easy latrine can be installed and ready to use on the same day that someone decides they no longer want to live without a toilet.

The overall idea is to move away from the traditional model of aid - and towards a solution which brings both economic and health benefits.

"People aren't going to want to purchase a latrine if they think an NGO is going to come along a week later and give one to them.

In which case you don't supply a sustainable demand for private enterprise to flourish," said Mr Jacks.

IDE were hoping that ten thousand easy latrines would be sold within 18 months.

They passed that target with several months to spare - suggesting that it may indeed be possible to reposition the toilet as a status symbol to match the mobile phone and motorbike.

Shame marketing

And success breeds success.

Observing the burgeoning rural demand for toilets, copycat businesses have set up.

Some of them have even reverse-engineered the easy latrine so they can sell something similar.

Far from being affronted, IDE is delighted.

As well as the benefits to entrepreneurs, it reasons that if people can see a business opportunity in selling low-cost toilets, they should be able to spread sanitation far more efficiently than aid organisations ever could.

With this approach showing such promise in Cambodia, other countries are already showing an interest.

Shame marketing may soon become a global phenomenon.

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