“Who would have expected a toilet to one day filter water, charge a cellphone or create charcoal to combat climate change?”
So wrote Associated Press last week in a story about the Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India. The foundation has funded 16 research organizations around the world to “reinvent the toilet” and these toilet prototypes – toilets that aren’t connected to water, sewer, electricity, that reuse the waste for energy or fertilizer, that are affordable for the poor – were on display last week in New Delhi for a two-day event.
Researchers from India and around the world were among the more than 700 participants who gathered to discuss how to bring safe sanitation to the 2.5 billion people who lack access. This was the second “toilet fair” hosted by the foundation; the first was in Seattle in 2012. This year’s event was co-hosted by the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology, with the support of the Ministry of Urban Development.
Chris Elias, president of the foundation’s Global Development Program, was at both fairs….and here are some of his impressions.
What impressed you the most about the fair in Delhi?
One of the things that was most striking about the fair in India was how much progress our grantees have made over the last 18 months. When we held the fair in Seattle in 2012, there was a lot of really cool science, and you could see the potential, but it was early stages. Since then, things have really started to come together.
Take the Loughborough project. In 2012, their prototype looked more like a chemistry lab – and it was big. Now, they’ve connected the waste processing unit, which is much smaller, to a front end that has a very interesting, user-centered design. It’s a great example of how all of the pieces that were evident 18 months ago are now embedded in a more practical application. It still needs some work in terms of bringing down the size even further, but now you can see the direction it’s headed.
It’s also exciting that several prototypes are ready for field-testing. CalTech will leave two prototypes to be tested in India. Loughborough plans to conduct field tests in China. And we just signed a memorandum of understanding with South Africa to test there.
Once you put things into the field, the real world will challenge our assumptions – and then our grantees will adapt and change things and make them better. That’s the nature of innovation. And that’s what’s truly exciting here.
What were the conversations like among the exhibitors and participants?
You could feel the buzz walking around—all the entrepreneurship, all the science, all the thinking about how to make these toilets really usable and applicable to the poor. You saw interesting and varied groups of people from all around the world – from students to more seasoned and experienced people. In fact, there were more than 700 participants from 47 countries here.
One of the things you have to remember about a fair like this is that it’s not just innovation for innovation’s sake—it’s innovation to save lives. A couple of years ago, when we first started thinking about the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, we realized that the problem was growing faster than the solutions. If you look at India, one out of every two people don’t have access to a safe toilet. That’s more than 600 million people. One government official here told me that only 30 percent of the wastewater in the entire country is treated. So given how rapidly the sanitation problem is growing and how much slower the traditional solution of a networked sewer-based sanitation system is scaling to meet those growing demands, we realized we needed to innovate.
Did you see innovations other than technology?
What was most evident was the technological innovation, because you could see the technologies. You could see the components and crawl under the hood of the toilet and see how people are trying to do onsite processing. What was less evident, but just as important, were the innovations in the business models: thinking through how to actually begin to take these technological solutions into real-world environments and make sustainable businesses out of them and products that are affordable to the end user. The other thing we saw was some innovations in partnerships—among governments, civil society, and businesses. To ultimately deploy these solutions at scale is going to require a lot of partnership innovation.
There was so much buzz, so much excitement in Delhi. People are excited about the technology because they feel like we might finally be able to find a set of solutions that can be scaled as rapidly as the problems are scaling—and maybe faster—so we can start addressing the issue of safe sanitation and improve people’s dignity, improve the economic prospects of families and communities and countries. And, of course, save lives, because there are many lives lost to diarrheal disease and other consequences of poor sanitation.
Why did you have the fair in India?
When we were trying to figure out where to hold a second Reinvent the Toilet Fair, we immediately thought of India. India is known for its entrepreneurship, its innovation, its energy, and its ability to think outside the box. As one of the most vibrant emerging economies in the world, India is a natural place to have a fair that’s focused on innovation.
And we had a great partner with the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology. Secretary VijayRaghavan and his team have been integral to finding more innovators in India to move along this work. In fact, together we have six new grantees now in India focusing on finding innovative solutions to the sanitation problem.
At the foundation, we say we’re impatient optimists. We challenge ourselves and our partners to deliver new innovations that can really make a difference in people’s lives. After the last few days, I think you can say we are excited and enthusiastic impatient optimists.