World Toilet Day – How mobile networks can improve sanitation services

Virginia Gardiner is the CEO of Loowatt Ltd., a GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities grantee based in the UK and Madagascar

Regardless of technology or market, all toilets depend on some kind of system or service—whether based on traditional piped sewer and wastewater treatment service, or the sorts of transformative technologies demanded by this century’s global water shortages.

Our company, 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 is currently rolling out this same technology in the UK, for outdoor events, and in Antananarivo, Madagascar, to prove that our systems can transform household sanitation in urban areas. Both markets require service to support our toilets.

In Madagascar for 2016, we will improve our household toilet service by building a mobile platform, for which we’ve been honoured to receive a seed grant from the Mobile for Development Utilities programme.

The Loowatt ICT Platform
The purpose of the GSMA grant is to develop a Loowatt ICT platform and mobile application that will use mobile networks to gather and transmit information on toilet servicing and waste management within our systems.

Serviced sanitation businesses—from latrines to container-based toilets—require logistics management. The Loowatt platform will enable us to test whether using mobile-enabled ICT could lead to a step change in efficiency of service and payment, and create regulatory assurance related to tracking and documenting waste collection. These challenges to efficiency and assurance are holding back our emerging sector of collection-based sanitation provision and value-generating faecal sludge management. Loowatt is already an innovator in this field and we are working to bring inventive solutions to these issues.

Sanitation and Mobile Phone Infrastructure in Madagascar
In Sub-Saharan Africa, 644 million lack access to improved sanitation of which 400 million have GSM coverage – meaning that in the future, mobile network operators could reach more customers by linking to sanitation solutions that meet this widespread need.

Antananarivo also has more phones than toilets. Even in lowest-income neighbourhoods, over 80% of households have mobile phones, and those who have them possess an average of 2 phones and 2 SIM cards. 3G service is widely available in Antananarivo and use of smart phones is not yet common but increasing rapidly.

Meanwhile, 75% of Antananarivo city residents use dry pit latrines, while the entire urban area is without any formal disposal system for faecal sludge. 98% of latrines are emptied by private service providers with no regulation as to where waste is discarded. Madagascar is also highly vulnerable to natural disasters—including cyclones, droughts and in many parts of the capital, flooding. Pit latrines are often shallow, with the water table one metre below ground. Frequent flooding from heavy rains carries the waste from latrines to close by canals and further increases health risks.

What the sanitation sector can learn from MNOs
Loowatt has always taken inspiration from mobile phones, as the world’s best-known “leapfrog technology” that surpassed the need for fixed phone line infrastructure, and in the process fundamentally transformed life in developing countries. We believe that in the 21st century, sanitation systems will do the same, leapfrogging the need for piped sewerage and adding fundamental value while providing for an essential human need.

When we recently attended the GSMA Mobile360 in Cape Town, we discovered that mobile and sanitation companies have even more in common:

  • For both, good customer service is essential. Service providers will need to continuously ask, listen, analyse and respond in order to retain customers.
  • Scale means thinking big. In a market with 2.4 billion unserved, scale means 10 million, not 10,000.
  • Data is the job. While MNOs live and breathe data, sanitation services also cannot grow to scale without the incorporation of ICT-based data collection to increase efficiency and accountability.

How MNOs can benefit from linking to sanitation service
As new sanitation technologies grow and scale in developing countries, we believe mobile network operators will also benefit from working with us, in several important ways:

  • Increasing mobile money uptake: Mobile-enabled services linking solar power services to mobile money have shown that Pay-As-You-Go solar drives mobile money and usage—sanitation, also a utility, could positively impact user adoption and increase activity rates;
  • Linking mobile services to sanitation services that are innovative and aspirational can increase customer uptake through branding and marketing;
  • Sanitation can be considered a value-added service, and value-added services for MNOs have been shown to reduce customer churn.

As we work towards implementation of our new ICT platform in Madagascar, we would love to hear from sanitation practitioners and MNOs alike to discuss its development and impact. Please contact us!