03/19/2014 10:20 am ET Updated May 19, 2014

How to Make Sanitation Sexy

Water For People

Pictured: Sanitation As A Business (SAAB) entrepreneur John Mathias prepares to empty a pit in Blantyre, Malawi

An estimated 2.5 billion people around the world lack access to working sanitation facilities and the statistics continue to soar every day. The knee-jerk reaction by humanitarian organizations has been to build free toilets for households and communities, and while this may offer some reprieve, it's a little like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon. Without long-term sustainable solutions, households depend on free aid, and don't reap the benefits of personal and community investment.

At Water For People, we've adopted a "Sanitation as a Business" (SAAB) model through which we collaborate with key partners such as local governments and civil society organizations to push forward the private sector as the main driver of sanitation services (like in the U.S.) at a reasonable cost and with household buy-in.

The Business Opportunity

So now the million-dollar question: how to make sanitation sexy? A rose may be a rose by any other name, but when you're talking about doesn't always translate. Sanitation is a challenging sector and without the appeal offered by industries such as fashion, historical preservation, or high tech, entrepreneurs (and microfinance institutions) need extra motivation and incentive to get on board.

One way of achieving this is by highlighting the potential profitability of the sector. A 2011 market assessment by one of our partners quickly dispels myths that the market is small and that those without sanitation can't afford it. In Kampala, Uganda, alone, the potential of the pit-emptying business is estimated at $6M annually. As is characteristic of most cities in the developing world, the large number of slum dwellers and limited space for latrine construction provides a huge opportunity for prospective sanitation entrepreneurs. To attract more interest in the industry, business owners are getting creative with their marketing, using music, dance, and sports to educate districts and recruit more entrepreneurs. These tactics are already seeing results, with new business opportunities popping up during special trade fairs and awareness weeks. Malawi pit-emptier John Matthias says, "When people look at shit, they see something yellow and dirty; I see a gold mine -- yellow is the color of gold."

Toilets Get Technical

While toilets and latrines may seem like the most basic of infrastructure, sanitation operations are beefing up their products and services with innovative technology to address the unique needs of each district at an affordable price. Our own Sani-Hub program develops and tests advanced sanitation technologies, such as the Gulper -- a latrine-emptying solution for urban slums that are largely inaccessible to more conventional cesspool trucks. Gulper entrepreneurs make up the largest number of sanitation entrepreneurs in the SAAB program in Uganda and Malawi, due to the low entry costs of the business model.

We've learned that working hand in hand with the communities we're serving is the best way to identify unique sanitation needs and offer targeted solutions to households based on income, environment, culture, and behaviors. Thanks to this type of teamwork, more than 700 households have obtained pit-emptying services that were previously unavailable to them in the last year alone.

A Bright Future for Entrepreneurs

But as other nonprofits working in the development business know, achieving scale at this level of entrepreneurs is no easy feat. Because of this, Water For People and our partners in the sanitation sector have made it a priority to create opportunities for the business owners to grow their operations through strategic collaborations with governments, financial institutions, private sector firms, and social investors. We've already seen some initial success, like with John Businge, a Gulper entrepreneur in Uganda who invested $400 to start his business and has been emptying pits in slum areas in Kampala for nearly a year. After cutting his teeth, he's earned $7,000 from 350 households and is looking to expand even more, and he's earned a spot in the first class of fellows for Unreasonable Institute East Africa.

Women are making their place in the sanitation business, too. Towera Jalakasi, managing director of Tools for Enterprise & Education Consultants (TEECS), is one of many leading the charge for SAAB in Malawi. She is currently in talks with Acumen about financing sanitation loans for 5,000 households a year for the next six years. And we constantly hear of women who continue their education to receive engineering and sanitation degrees and then return to their home districts to work in local government or to open or join sanitation businesses.

What's Next?

More than ever, groundbreaking technology based on real-time reporting and analysis is essential for deep, lasting change. This month, the Re-Invent the Toilet Fair in India will feature hundreds of exhibits showcasing this progress, including two new technologies of our own, the Rammer and Parry Latrine.

SAAB isn't a contemporary rabbit out of a hat solution; it requires teamwork among several players to provide affordable and sustainable sanitation solutions to an ever-growing population. The best way to get the results we wish to see in philanthropy is to change the way we think, and to change the game overall. Learn more about Water For People and how sanitation as a business is changing the game here.

Cisco helped Water for People develop Field Level Operations Watch, which uses smart phone and web-based technology to monitor water investments and collect and analyze data, increasing the water sector's effectiveness, accountability, and transparency. For more information about our Cisco's Community Partners, visit