Can mobile help solve the sanitation challenge?

This blog is the first in a series leading up to World Toilet Day, which is 19 November. In the series, we will zoom in on innovative business models leveraging digital solutions along the sanitation value chain and feature learnings from the five sanitation service providers supported by the GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities Innovation fund between 2017 – 2019. In this first blog, we discuss the barriers to solving the sanitation challenge and the role of mobile technology in providing solutions.

We are moving in the right direction but are not yet on track to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6

Access to a latrine or toilet, and access to effective faecal sludge management is a human right. SDG 6 focuses specifically on ensuring the safety, availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. In 2019, the JMP published a report on the progress made against SDG 6. The report finds that although access to basic sanitation has gone up from 56 per cent in 2000 to 74 per cent in 2017, two billion people still lack access to basic sanitation services. Only 40 out of 152 countries are on track to achieve ‘nearly universal’ basic sanitation services by 2030. Though the lack of access to basic sanitation is particularly concentrated in rural areas, urban areas are increasingly struggling to cope with rapid urbanisation, which has accentuated inequalities in access to sanitation services.

Though there has been some progress on tracking sanitation service delivery with more granularity, one of the key constraints on effective policy and investment responses to the sanitation challenge remains the lack of available data (see Figure 1). Digital technology plays a vital role not only in enabling innovative sanitation services, but also in tracking progress and providing actionable data.

Figure 1: Proportion of population using at least basic sanitation services, 2017 (%)

Source: JMP, progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000–2017 / reducing inequalities in basic services

Sustainable sanitation service delivery requires more than just building toilets

Merely building toilets will not close the gaps in access to basic sanitation. This is because the sanitation value chain does not end at containment, it goes beyond that from safe removal of excreta to transportation, treatment, re-use and resource recovery. Challenges to safely managed sanitation service delivery are highly context contingent, and have to take into account socio-economic issues, incentives, as well as the wider political economy. This is reflected by the Swachh Bharat initiative launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2014, which focused on ending open defecation by building toilets. The Indian government built more than 10 million toilets in 2014 and 2015 with plans to build an additional 60 million by 2019. However, many abstained from using toilets due to social, cultural, behavioural and psychological reasons. Though top-down infrastructure provision obviously has an important role to play, it is not always sufficient. Successful sanitation interventions have to leverage multiple stakeholders along the entire sanitation value-chain and go beyond the provision of hardware.

The intricacies of the sanitation value chain are further complicated by being intertwined with the water and waste value chains. This is reflected in the way the UN Sustainable Development Goal – SDG 6 – for water, sanitation and hygiene, has been phrased. The goal covers the entire water cycle including: Provision of drinking water (target 6.1) and sanitation and hygiene services (6.2), treatment and reuse of wastewater and ambient water quality (6.3) and more. (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: SDG 6 : Integrated planning approach

Source: UN Water

Financing SDG 6

According to an OECD report, economic losses due to inadequate water supply and sanitation are estimated at $260 billion. Projections of global financing needs for water and sanitation infrastructure range from $6.7 trillion by 2030 to $22.6 trillion by 2050. Official development finance, which contributed an average of $13.3 billion to financing water and sanitation in developing countries in 2016 – 2017, will continue to play a vital role, but cannot address the scale of the challenge alone. There is a clear need to unlock alternative sources of financing while deploying existing sources more strategically to strengthen and further develop innovative financing mechanisms required to deliver sanitation services for all. These mechanisms can also advance the use of innovative technologies in this sector, and unlock additional revenue streams, which in turn will also drive commercial sustainability and make the sector more attractive to private investors.

Digital technologies for efficiency and transparency along the sanitation value chain

The SDG 6 Synthesis report recognised that innovative solutions supported by information technology can improve many aspects of sanitation service delivery, but sanitation service providers still need to make better use of innovative technologies. The GSMA M4D Utilities Innovation Fund has supported five sanitation service providers that are leveraging mobile technology to operate more efficiently and reach more customers.

Figure 3: Mobile applications in the sanitation value chain

Source: GSMA

Although the use of mobile payments to pay for sanitation services and that of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions in waste treatment and toilet fill level sensing are still being trialled across the globe, the ability of mobile technology to track, coordinate, and generate timely, granular information has already had an important impact on sanitation systems across developing countries. Below are some examples of service providers unlocking access to sanitation services through digital solutions:

  • GIS based tracking tools: The Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) developed a mobile platform and geodatabase that connects pit-emptying entrepreneurs with customers and tracks service delivery across the sanitation value chain. This solution is particularly relevant in densely populated informal settlements where a significant proportion of the population is not connected to a sewerage network (in Kampala, 92 per cent of residents rely on non-sewered or on-site sanitation). It enables KCCA to map the location of communal sanitation facilities, such as school toilets, while tracking and coordinating regular pit-emptying activities by private service providers. With the support of digital solutions, KCCA has now completed over 6000 emptying jobs.
  • ePlatform and mobile payments to streamline delivery of container based sanitation services – A container based solution (CBS) is one where the waste is collected hygienically in safe containers and then transported for treatment and recycling. Since 2010, CBS solutions have been emerging as a viable low-cost option for sanitation service delivery, particularly in low-income urban settlements where demand for sanitation services is high and on-site sanitation and sewerage are not feasible or cost effective. The Container Based Sanitation Alliance (CBSA) is a coalition of CBS providers that seeks to help CBS services reach scale and have a sustainable impact in urban areas around the world. Through the GSMA M4D Utilities Innovation Fund, the CBSA received a grant to develop a mobile app and web-based platform to support agent logistics and customer management for household sanitation services across multiple countries. Furthermore, CBS customers are able to pay for services with mobile payments.
  • Connecting sanitation micro-entrepreneurs to product manufacturers – Another example of a B2B application comes from our Innovation Fund grantee, Svadha, a social enterprise based in Odisha, India, which builds better rural sanitation markets through aggregation of quality sanitation products and services. The company developed the mobile app, SaniMark, to optimise the fragmented value chain between product manufacturers and micro entrepreneurs who sell and install toilet products. Svadha has made great progress since launching the SaniMark app, with 375 micro-entrepreneurs currently registered on the platform. 60 per cent of these micro-entrepreneurs are classified as active users.

In the next two blogs, we will share further key learnings from our experience of supporting organisations scaling mobile-enabled sanitation solutions.

The GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), USAID as part of its commitment to Scaling Off-Grid Energy Grand Challenge for Development and supported by the GSMA and its members.