The power of partnerships and mobile to tackle the sanitation gap

On 19 November, World Toilet Day reminded us that 2.4 billion people, or one in three people worldwide, don’t have access to a private and safe toilet. This has a deep social and economic impact on underserved populations:

  • Nearly six per cent of global deaths are the direct result of diseases related to unsafe sanitation and every day about 1,400 children under five years old die of illnesses resulting from poor sanitation;
  • Having to use the bathroom publically expose women to the danger of attacks and is one of the contributing factors to why many girls are out of school; and
  • The lack of access to basic sanitation costs the world approximately $260 billion annually.


Out of these 2.4 billion people, our Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities programme estimates that up to 1.8 billion are covered by mobile networks and could benefit from mobile enabled solutions to improve access to sanitation infrastructure and services. Mobile has a role to play in bridging this giant divide and reaching Sustainable Development Goal six, which calls for universal access to safe sanitation.

A productive Toilet Summit in Mumbai

A few days before World Toilet Day, I participated in the first Global Toilet Business, Innovation & Investment Summit, organised by the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC), bringing together organisations from the public and private sectors. This event was focused on demonstrating the untapped business value in sanitation, encouraging new entrepreneurs to enter the industry, and generating business partnerships to scale innovative models. It was also an opportunity for several entrepreneurs to showcase their products to investors and potential clients.

Circular Economy Approach and the Digitisation of Sanitation were highlighted as key themes for the next generation of sanitation models, based on two recent feasibility studies carried out by the TBC.

    • The circular economy approach to sanitation, through which valuable resources are derived from toilets, creates added revenues for sanitation entrepreneurs and encourages investments in sanitation businesses. A number of organisations, including Sanergy, Loowatt, Safisana and Sanivation, are already transforming human waste, or ‘toilet resources’, into valuable by-products, including irrigation water, bio-gas, charcoal briquettes and fertiliser products, which are in high demand in the markets they’re serving.


  • The digitisation of the sanitation value chain, from toilets to transport and treatment, can drive customer demand, efficiencies and potentially unlock new models of service. The Internet of Things and Mobile Money were highlighted as important channels to create the next generation of sanitation systems and services. This theme was exemplified by Sanergy and Loowatt, two organisations currently supported by our M4D Utilities programme:
    • Sanergy is piloting sensors to optimise the waste collection process in Kenya; and
    • Loowatt is developing an ICT platform and a mobile application to improve toilet servicing and waste management, while enabling customers to pay using their mobile money account.


In the off-grid energy sector, mobile has already ignited change in business models through solar pay-as-you-go systems. It is still unclear for now how exactly mobile can play a critical role in the sanitation value chain, yet it is encouraging to see that several organisations are already leveraging mobile tools to create impact. Some further examples include:

  • In urban India, Samagra aims not only to increase access to toilets, but to make toilets affordable and aspirational, empowering customers through access to mobile wallets and saving products; and
  • In Bangladesh, BRAC has been piloting the disbursement of sanitation loans to build latrines through mobile money accounts, which demonstrate strong repayment rates so far and drive new mobile money accounts in rural Bangladesh.


The summit ended on several positive notes, with the announcement of the TBC new Accelerator Cohort and new partnerships and commitments. Jack Sim, also known as Mr Toilet, the founder of the World Toilet Organisation who has been working relentlessly to draw attention to sanitation issues for the past 15 years, re-emphasised that behavioural change will be a big driver to bridge the current divide; toilets have to become aspirational and status symbols, much like mobile phones.

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