This is a guest blog by Polly Gardiner, the COO of Loowatt Ltd., a GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities grantee based in the UK and Madagascar. Loowatt, has developed an innovative waterless toilet system that generates energy from human waste. The Loowatt toilet seals waste into biodegradable polymer liner for hygienic collection and transport, and treats the waste and film in anaerobic digestion systems, to generate energy and fertilizer. Loowatt customers purchase the liner regularly in what is essentially a subscription service for toilet waste collection.
In November last year, we set out our plans to develop a Loowatt ICT platform and mobile application using mobile networks to gather and transmit information on toilet servicing and waste management within the Loowatt systems. Loowatt runs a household toilet service, where customers buy our unique biodegradable liners which capture the waste. Then our service team collects these used liners from customers’ homes and transports them on a short but crucial journey to a locally sited waste-to-energy treatment centre. Since then, we have learnt a great deal about what it takes to successfully unite sanitation and mobile services, particularly regarding mobile app uptake, mobile money and our female customers.
We have seen the importance of flexibility when rolling out a mobile app. Conditions on the ground in Antananarivo, where our operations and GSMA project are based, can be changeable, especially localised flooding in the rainy season. For example, we can plan the service team’s route when making households visits – but pathways get washed away and areas become inaccessible. Even though we worked closely with Acrea and Every Interactionto tailor-make a solution, being able to adapt is key, not only in the design of the mobile app, but also in the uptake.
Our sanitation operations were already up and running when we went live, meaning we needed to capture a backlog of customer and service information while maintaining customer service standards. Imagine running a race whilst trying to change into new shoes – even the great Usain Bolt does not try this! We responded in two ways. We took our time on the data entry of this backlog to ensure all items were recorded methodically, which was critical as we also had new toilet installations underway too. We also focused on the most important user and use case, which is when our collectors pick up Loowatt toilet waste from customers’ homes. This helped iron out bugs in the mobile app quicker and also served our operations well as we are able to capture an improved quality of data.
We believe mobile services for sanitation customers will be critical to grow quickly and operate sustainably at scale. When we surveyed our customers earlier this year, we found only a handful using mobile money. One thing we know about sanitation services is that customers want convenience and to avoid hassle. So we responded by running tailor-made mobile money training sessions for our customers, where we helped register mobile money accounts and answered queries. We added a free SMS hotline to communicate freely with our customers, as well as locally based community liaison managers. Within two months, we have 20 per cent of our customers using the mobile money service for our liners for their household toilet.
We are keen to learn more about our female customers and how we can serve them better, as they are much more important household decision makers than we previously thought. As part of our GSMA project, we conducted an extensive baseline survey. 90 per cent of respondents were female, of which 96 per cent of these women responders also stated that they were the contract decision maker. 83 per cent of existing mobile money users we surveyed were women. At one of our mobile money events, over 70 per cent of attendees were women.
We will be moving onto the next stage of our work in the coming months; we are really excited to extract more insights from our project and share lessons with the mobile and sanitation sectors. We know it is still early days – but there are real signs of promise here.