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Rural sanitation innovation in India: what next?

Published on: 18/11/2016

Building on the lessons of the Sanitation Innovation Accelerator

GARV public toilet. Photo: Binti International

India needs a holistic approach to sustainable sanitation, which goes beyond constructing toilets, meets user demand and is marketable. India needs entrepreneurs who will not only help stop open defecation but who can also earn a healthy profit.

The Sanitation Innovation Accelerator (SIA) is a unique programme that was initiated to discover, support and scale up entrepreneurial innovations in rural sanitation in India. The programme was conceptualised by Ennovent, IRC and TARU Leading Edge, in the backdrop of the huge problem of open defecation in India, which has 564 million out of 946 people defecating in the open.

Improper sanitation and its inter-linkages with health risks, burden of disease and issues of safety and security underscore the need to create sanitation facilities that are accessible, affordable and most significantly acceptable to people. The Government of India (GoI) in the past three decades developed several sanitation projects to deal with the challenge, the most recent is the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched in 2014. The programmes have mainly focused on constructing toilets and have not addressed other aspects of the sanitation value chain. While sewer systems are common in urban settings, rural areas use onsite sanitation facilities. Data corroborates that 61 percent of the rural population defecate in the open compared to only 10 percent of the urban population in India.

The Accelerator therefore aimed to identify and promote solutions that are inclusive and sustainable and can impact the lives of large numbers of people, who are left out of the sanitation value chain.

Search for innovative solutions

Sanitation Innovation Accelerator 2016 posters

A rigorous nation-wide search for sanitation solutions began with the launch of the Accelerator on April 22, 2016. To ensure wide participation, partners leveraged their networks to pass on information across investors and sanitation networks in addition to conducting web searches and using international referral networks and grassroots linkages to identify organisations with potential innovations. The scope of the search was further widened to non-profit organisations that have innovative business models as few social enterprises working on sanitation could be found.

A total of 88 innovations were received. After a multi-layered selection process, six innovations were shortlisted for further skill building before the pitching event in Delhi on 7th September, 2016.  

 The shortlisted innovations primarily focused on promoting and supporting toilet technologies through technical or financial support. The organisations included:

  • BWDC (Bharathi Women Development Center), which gives out loans to construct toilets
  • Sara Plast Pvt Ltd., which provides a sanitation solution for the whole value chain
  • GARV Toilets that offers a complete public sanitation solution
  • NIDAN, which provides solutions for sanitation facilities
  • YouthAid.in which focuses on improving sanitation by developing human capital and addressing supply chain gaps
  • WATSAN Envirotech Pvt Ltd that helps to construct one toilet per day

Indestructible and smart model chosen as winner

GARV toilets, an initiative of sanitation entrepreneur, Mayank Midha, was selected as winner of the SIA award for developing an indestructible, smart, low-cost, quality toilet.

The toilets are entirely made of stainless steel that ensures  a long life and makes it easy to maintain. It is driven by smart technology, which includes LED lights and exhaust fans powered by solar panels and sensors for operation of lights and cleaning systems. The toilets are free to use. GARV Toilets’ preferred business model is a public-private partnership with municipal corporations for installation, operation and maintenance of toilets. Revenue can be generated through advertising and business partnerships with mobile phone operators.

When asked about the inspiration behind GARV toilets Mayank says, “as a child I saw how my mother and sister had to hold up during long journeys in absence of decent toilets.” He adds, “Women suffer the most due to shortage of well-maintained and clean toilets in India.”

Critical insights and recommendations

The Sanitation Innovation Accelerator selection process gave some interesting learnings and insights, in terms of innovations as well as innovators. While innovations included investment ready business models and breakthrough approaches for solving sanitation challenges, innovators followed a traditional non-start up approach and had limited knowledge for managing partnerships with key stakeholders.

Innovations

The assessment of innovation parameters indicated scalability as an important aspect for investing in a business. This turned out to be a problem because almost all innovations were highly localised and therefore lacked business potential for profitable investment. Most businesses focused on monetising their product or services. Out of the box thinking to expand revenue to promote their product was missing. Most applications were either at the post-concept pre-revenue stage or the products could only be used in a few regions, whereas investors were looking for investment opportunities that have proven their viability including marketing and sales. The responses were encouraging, but were not path-breaking enough to address key barriers in the rural sanitation arena. Products lacked forward and backward linkages due to lack of clarity on the role of public and private participation, as well as an understanding of gap areas, and interventions required for promoting them.  

The recommendations highlighted the need to develop human-centric designs which would fit in the value chain, are economically viable, technically feasible and socially desirable and can interest investors. Creating an innovative and scalable programme requires a willingness to solve existing sanitation challenges and a structured programme which supports the enterprises in monetising their business model and building a scalable framework. Having an international exchange programme in place will infuse best practices from different markets and will also force existing and new players to refine their business models through efficient pricing, innovative value propositions and community driven marketing and distribution strategies.

Innovators

Interaction with innovators revealed that most of them adopted a traditional non-start up approach, which mainly focused on the supply side and did not consider the needs and desires of users. As a result there were few takers of their innovation and customers were not willing to pay for a product that did not meet their needs. Most entrepreneurs had very little knowledge of potential business partners, technical and financial support opportunities like donors, investors and intermediary organisations and as a result they were operating in isolation.

To address the above concerns, innovators suggested that a platform should be created, which is dynamic and provides entrepreneurs and stakeholders with the opportunity to interact regularly and identify expansion opportunities, explore commercially viable business models and review global best practices in Sanitation Innovations. The need for structured sessions for building skills of entrepreneurs and providing need-based expertise was indicated. For developing a sustainable, scalable and credible business model it was recommended to collaborate with academic institutions for high quality research and development.

Way Forward    

The Sanitation Innovation Accelerator (SIA) provides immense opportunities to build on the process initiated to address issues for improving rural sanitation. Implementation of recommendations to create interactive platforms and systematically support skill building of sanitation enterprises, which is currently in a nascent phase, are critical steps to move the process of full sanitation coverage for India into the right direction.    

The SIA Alliance plans to undertake sanitation market landscaping studies in the India states of Bihar and Jharkhand. The studies will cover the following issues:

  • what is needed by entrepreneurs to get beyond the startup phase?
  • which environments are favourable to them?
  • what capacity do they need themselves?
  • which other systems need to be in place?  

Updates on the studies will be posted on the IRC India page.

For sharing your perspective/suggestions/comments on rural sanitation innovation in India, please contact Ingeborg Krukkert (krukkert@ircwash.org) and Ruchika Shiva (ruchika@ircwash.org).

For more information on the Sanitation Innovation Accelerator read the full report or visit the website: www.innovations4sanitation.com