BBC World News - Horizons

An Insight into the Future of Global Business

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Toilet trouble

In the past few years travelling for the BBC World News series, Horizons, I have travelled to nearly 30 countries and interviewed world famous business and technology leaders such as Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia; Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford and great grandson of Henry Ford; and Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto who discovered a new form of Carbon. But amongst all the famous names who have appeared on the programme, there is one man who sticks in my mind more than any other and you won’t have heard of him, and probably have not heard of his work.

Dr Doulaye Kone is the Gates Foundation’s senior program officer for sanitation. He grew up in rural Ivory Coast and is now spearheading new efforts to reinvent the toilet.

It’s difficult interviewing someone about toilets. We just don’t have the language to discuss it. Kone talked of faecal sludge and I talked of poo – neither seemed to stroke the right note; his language seemed stuck in the world of the laboratory and mine was stuck in the world of the nursery. We lacked the words to discuss it without sniggering or sounding overly technical.

This lack of the proper words isn’t a minor issue. Partly because we can’t discuss it, we don’t give this issue the attention it deserves and it certainly deserves greater attention.

Across the globe, two and half billion people, including one billion children, do not have access to a clean, safe toilet. According to the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation every 20 seconds, that’s 1.5 million preventable deaths each year.

Doulaye sticks in my mind not just because of the work he is doing but why he is doing it. He grew up in a small African village where a shocking number of his own siblings and close family died as a result of poor sanitation. His neighbours believed the deaths were down to some black magic and they were ostracised. But Doulaye was a clever child and was given a rare place at a boarding school. As a result he left home and was fed well at school and went on to secondary school and university, where he was determined to learn about the kind of sanitation engineering that could prevent the deaths like those in his close family.

It was that mission and journey that brought us together to discuss how to change the way the world poos.

The flush toilet that so many millions of us use is deceptively complex. To make it work, we need a huge infrastructure of power stations, distributed water supplies, pumping stations, sewage works, and treatment facilities. When we flush the loo, we are calling on the coordinated efforts of thousands of people and millions of pounds of infrastructure investments. Those kinds of resources are just not available in many parts of the world.

One answer to this problem would be to build the infrastructure needed in as many places as possible. It would cost billions and probably would never happen. So the other option is to develop toilets which don’t need that kind of investment. It’s about developing appropriate toilet technology for the millions who currently don’t have access to it.

That’s what Doulaye and the Gates Foundation is doing. Our programme on sanitation doesn’t just look at toilets but how to use human waste; how to use it as a resource to be exploited as opposed to a waste product to be disposed of.

Dealing with human waste is one of the most important public health objectives on the planet. Today two-fifths of the world’s population still have nowhere to go to the toilet except on open ground. It’s a problem that needs to be tackled and this is one of our most important programmes in highlighting the issue and its possible solutions.

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