Changing the world through the business of sanitation

By Ben Tidwell, The Rotary Foundation Global Grant Scholar

Imagine that you are a mother or father, trying to support your young family in a time when the economic conditions in your region are challenging. You need a good job, but you are living in a small town where there just aren’t enough jobs anymore. So, you set off for the city and are immediately struck by how expensive everything is – food, transportation, and rent.

Now imagine that you start to look at a few apartments—just barely in your price range—and there’s one small problem, none of them come with a good toilet. Instead, they just have a little hole in the floor leading to a smelly pit filled with waste.

“Oh, you can’t find a proper toilet in your price range,” says the realtor. “You might be able to find a building with a shared toilet at the end of the hall. Or maybe you can just go across the street and sneak into the one at the café.”

“They’d just dirty the thing up if I provided it,” you overhear the landlord saying on the phone.

Can you imagine what that would feel like? You don’t have the money to afford a more expensive place so how can you find an apartment with a nice toilet? It’s hard to comprehend, but for almost 900 million people around the world living in urban slums of lower-income countries, this is the situation they face every day and they feel powerless to do anything about it.

I recently completed a PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine supported by The Rotary Foundation and the British Government, where we set out to make a dent in this complex problem. The problem is that landlords in urban slums don’t think tenants value good sanitation, and they certainly don’t want to risk building a toilet for which no tenant will pay more in rent.

So, we set out to do some market research to understand tenant demands, and then communicated our findings to landlords. We also formed landlords into groups so they could discuss whether our findings were true, and usually someone would know of at least one landlord who had tried to invest in good toilets. These group discussions led to an understanding of how important sanitation was to tenants, and we saw increases in many aspects of toilet quality that we measured.

I share this example because many Rotarians are not toilet engineering experts, but come from backgrounds in business, marketing, sales, or finance, and there are opportunities to use your skills to bring sanitation to the masses!

Around the world, new sanitation businesses are springing up: Clean Team in Ghana is bringing portable toilets that tenants can put in their own homes requiring no infrastructure to be put in place; SaTo, a product of the LIXIL Group, is creating affordable toilet products, costing only $3-5 USD for an improved toilet pan that stops smells and is easy to clean.

Young entrepreneurs are everywhere, only needing connections to advance their businesses. Providing your professional expertise and guidance is a great way to start making a difference and multiply your impact around the world!

To help with this, and to be a part of the many other amazing water and sanitation projects Rotarians support and carry out around the world, I joined the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group (WASRAG) after completing my studies. Please reach out to me and the many others with far more expertise than me in WASRAG if you would like to know more about how to use your own skills and talents to do even more good in the world!

2 thoughts on “Changing the world through the business of sanitation

  1. I would be keen to hear how you overcame the Sewerage Treatment after collection as I do believe that any sanitation solutions require the input of Local Government and the development of the infrastructure to treat the sewerage and the effluent generated. This is a significant problem in growing urban and peri-urban communities where the Local Government have not kept pace with the growing demands of urbanisation.

    I may also note that the experience that we have in Cape Town, South Africa where the systems which you describe have been rolled-out by the City, but where most house holds in the “Informal Areas” see this only as a temporary measure.

  2. Thanks for your comments John. Certainly these two are only a small snapshot of the kinds of companies working in sanitation. No business will be able to provide a wealthy-country standard of toilet to a low-income consumer, but they can help the consumer take steps along the way.

    SaTo is simply designed to give people an inexpensive, high-quality way to take a first step up the sanitation ladder. Clean Team does collect and process waste, and you might also find Sanergy in Kenya to be of interest (

    It is true that governments are key partners in all of this, and that it’s unlikely for businesses to construct major sewer infrastructure. But privatized utilities, decentralized waste processing centers, and toilet product businesses all contribute. Even in the wealthiest countries, governments don’t provide the toilets!

    It’s also true that some of these businesses may be “temporary”- but I personally don’t think governments will ever be able to build enough sewer infrastructure to meet all demand in rapidly urbanizing, lower-income countries, and in the meantime, I don’t think people should be powerless to take matters into their own hands to some degree- especially if the alternatives are giving toilets away (more expensive and less sustainable/effective) or doing nothing!

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