Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What Happened at the “Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India” and What’s Next?

April 11, 2014

Upon my arrival in New Delhi to review progress on the Reinvent The Toilet Challenge Program at the “Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India”, a colleague and I visited a slum community, Jain Mandir Cluster, in the outskirts of the city. We wanted to confirm that the technologies that would be exhibited at the fair could be deployed in such communities and meet the needs of the people we were visiting.

During the visit, we heard fathers worrying that their daughters were being harassed when attempting to use the only available pay-per-use public toilet. I talked to some women who are splitting their kitchen or main room in two sections in order to build indoor toilets so that they can avoid being harassed and to protect their young daughters. These investments are the result of years of savings and incremental construction progress.

Experiencing the needs and approaches of communities first-hand, coupled with the rigorous data we collect through scientific investigations, help define the specifications and requirements for the Reinvented Toilet Challenge (RTTC). Conducting site visits like the one we took to the slum in Delhi, we are better able to confirm and validate some of the assumptions we made at the inception of the RTTC program. We use all of this information to help assess the projects on exhibit at the 2014 Reinvent The Toilet Fair to ensure they are solutions that will meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

For those who attended the 2012 Reinvent the Toilet Fair 18 months ago in Seattle, the answer to the question whether the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and their partners could reinvent the toilet was “probably maybe” or “probably yes”, but still seemed like an ambitious challenge.

Yes, the 2012 fair showcased concepts, ideas, technologies and approaches that could be used to reinvent the toilet. But wow! We saw a tremendous amount of progress at the 2014 “Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India” we held in New Delhi last month. Just 18 months after the first fair, our partners came to New Delhi with early versions of toilets that look like real commercial products. It was amazing to see so many ideas and technologies integrated into devices that can safely collect and processes human waste.

In fact, some of the exhibitors were frustrated that they had to use simulant (fake poop and urine) again because their toilets are ready to process the real stuff (urine, feces, cleaning papers, sanitary pads etc.). They had hoped that visitors could actually use their toilets or urinals and see by themselves how germs are being destroyed, energy is being recovered, and water is being treated to high quality levels that it can be recycled for hygiene and cleansing purposes. Personally, I have never seen this level of accelerated progress in sanitation technology in my whole career. I was impressed by the designs of products displayed as the result of great partnerships with leading design, prototyping and manufacturing industries! Among the many stories worth recalling, I discussed with manufacturers, such as Lixil, Kohler, Roca, Larsen &Toubro, Battelle who are now engaging our grantees and partners to build the first generation of the reinvented toilet. We hope to build more industrial partnerships in years to come.

Similarly, the Conference of Indian Industries also hosted a workshop to define a strategy to support the roll-out of new sanitation technologies in India. The industry representatives and high level government officials from Indian cities and states agreed that the next generation of toilets and sanitation technologies will be deployed through an organized utility service by local entrepreneurs. Yes, this was an important paradigm shift in planning for improved sanitation. The role of private service providers working together with local and national authorities through public-private-partnerships is an opportunity to accelerate progress and service delivery if we want to end open defecation and provide sustainable sanitation services that improve children’s health AND support businesses and local entrepreneurs.

Several technologies displayed at this year’s fair will be field tested in coming months in cities across India and Africa. These include reinvented toilet technologies, pit latrine and septic tank emptying technologies, as well as sludge-to-energy processing technologies. Some of the participants at the fair in New Delhi, like the President of the Fecal Sludge Emptying Association from Senegal, wanted to buy some of the technologies on display on the spot. He was very disappointed to learn that we still need to do additional testing to validate their performances before commercialization but we were thrilled about his excitement.

Beside the field testing we have planned, the Government of South Africa signed an Memorandum of Understanding with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in which it committed ZAR 30 million (approximately 2.7 million USD) to test and promote leading toilet technologies being developed by our grantees in schools and rural communities in South Africa.  This commitment is another testament to the progress our partners are making in reinventing the toilet.

I was also excited to hear the outcomes from our Emergency Response colleagues who hosted a 2-day workshop with leading organizations to identify the 10 best sanitation solutions that may have potential applications in emergency relief settings. The results of their investigation and deep interaction with the “Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India” exhibitors will help us shaping the next generation of solutions for use in emergency situations.

During this fair, we also had numerous exhibitors from India presenting their existing technologies and policy and advocacy campaigns. The number of exhibitors from India was impressive enough to convince city, state and national government representatives in attendance that there is an existing and vibrant private sector in India that is ready to participate in providing affordable sanitation services. The technologies presented at the fair are all working toward the goal of providing safe sanitation services to families or communities for 5 cents per user, per day so that they can be accessed by even the lowest income users. We now need government and city managers to define service level requirements as is done in other utility services such as water, cellphones or electricity.

We also featured technologies that will solve today’s sanitation problem. For instance, fecal sludge treatment plants (Omni-Processors) that will process several tons of human waste into biochar, fertilizer, electricity and hot water, and can services communities ranging from 5,000 to 150,000 inhabitants.

Finally, I am very grateful for the partnership with the Government of India, especially it’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) who co-hosted this event with us. As a result of a fruitful collaboration, the DBT is now taking up the challenge of documenting the next step of sanitation product development, and technology validation to support other ministers in charge of urban development, poverty alleviation and drinking water to formulate product and service requirements for the tendering and roll-out of innovative sanitation solutions in India.

I left Delhi full of optimism and confident that the sanitation challenges faced by the community, and particularly girls and women, in Jain Mandir Cluster can be resolved with innovative technologies and great services. I remain very optimistic that our partners are on the right paths to transform the health and lives of billions people in years to come.

To learn more about the Gates Foundation’s work in Water, Sanitation & Hygiene, visit here. For more videos from the "Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India", visit here. 

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