Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Smart Toilets and Poop Games: Innovations to Help the Poor

August 21, 2012

On a recent trip to Nigeria, I came across a man who was charging for access to an air-conditioned “VIP” toilet with a red carpet in front of it. I couldn’t help peeking in and what I found was a clean and cool public toilet.

What struck me about this experience was the toilet entrepreneur’s clever marketing and use of technology to provide a much-needed service. Like him, the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been thinking hard about how to use innovative digital and mobile technology to reinvent the toilet for the 21st century.

Why reinvent the toilet? The flush toilet, as we know it, hasn’t changed much in the past 200 years. Because it’s expensive to operate, wastes precious water, and requires a sewage system, 2.5 billion people around the world don’t have access to one.  These people resort to pit latrines or have to go to the bathroom out in the open. As a result, fecal matter often makes its way into food and local water supplies, killing 1.5 million children a year from diarrhea.

We believe that by redesigning, increasing access to, and educating the public about toilets, digital and mobile technology can be part of the solution to this problem.   One technology we’re particularly excited about is Eram Scientific Solutions’ ‘eToilet.’    

The e-Toilet uses digital, electronic, and mobile technology to clean itself, and conserve water and power.  Dropping a coin in the slot opens the door, switches on the light, and gives the user audio commands. When an eToilet needs maintenance or its water tank level gets too low, it alerts a control room. Through a $450,000 grant, we hope to help make the eToilet even more eco-friendly and hygienic for the urban poor.

Here are a few other digital and mobile technologies we’re excited about:

In Japan, Toto’s original Intelligent Toilet uses digital technology to measure the user’s blood sugar, blood pressure, and obesity. It then sends the data to a computer where the user can track his or her health. Although currently too expensive for our target population, this technology shows what’s possible.

Poop Games, by Hattery Labs, are mobile games that teach players how to wash their hands and use sanitation facilities safely.

Finally, imagine if there was a mobile application that could help people in the developing world find and rate public toilets, much like Sit or Squat in the US? It would provide an incentive for owners to keep their public toilets clean.  

The Reinvent the Toilet Fair this week showcased some of these and many other innovations.  To see pictures and video from the fair, check out Impatient Optimists, and follow the conversation on Twitter.

 
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