As the classic children’s book says, “Everyone poops.”
That makes the global sanitation crisis an opportunity for top global corporations to deepen their relationship with an emerging class of global consumers and their own employees. The UN estimates that more than a third of the world’s population, or 2.5 billion people, lack basic sanitation services such as toilets and latrines.
Lack of sanitation leads to multiple health and economic challenges, including children, particularly girls, missing school and reduced productivity due to illness. Universal access to sanitation is No. 6 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The idea is that if you can get thousands of entrepreneurs around the world starting sanitation businesses, they will find a way to make it accessible and part of people’s lives.Mauricio Troncoso, Kimberly-Clark
For the Toilet Board Coalition, a new toilet innovation accelerator, taking care of business is just good business. A World Bank report, “The Economic Impacts of Inadequate Sanitation in India,” found that improving sanitation infrastructure in India alone could be a $152 billion market. The TBC is the world’s first business-led accelerator.
The coalition of companies, investors, sanitation experts and non-profit organizations wants to scale market-based solutions to sanitation. TBC’s corporate members – consumer-goods giants Unilever, LIXIL, Kimberly-Clark and Firmenich – know how to run businesses. Experts at bringing complex solutions to scale, from creating demand to building supply chains, they have a deep understanding of consumer incentives and business models.
Supporting sanitation solutions “is giving us a unique opportunity to connect with consumers globally, engage employees and attract the best talent,” says Mauricio Troncoso, vice president and managing director for Western Europe at Kimberly-Clark, a member of the coalition. “It’s not only the right thing to do as a corporate citizen–it also creates value and offers a competitive advantage.”
The new effort is part of a broader acceleration of private sector efforts to scale-up sanitation solutions. Foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Vodafone Americas Foundation have launched challenge contests to provide early-stage financing for sustainable sanitation solutions. Sanitation startup Seva, which makes a self-diagnosing maintenance system for toilets and other sanitation solutions took home first place and $300,000 at the most recent Vodafone’s Wireless Innovation Project. The Caltech-based team’s technology uses a series of sensors, text messages and video displays to simplify toilet repair.
Sanergy, a startup social enteprise that manufactures sanitation facilities and franchises them to local entrepreneurs in Kenya while recycling waste into organic fertilizer for farmers, recently raised a new round of funding from Novastar Ventures, Acumen and Eleos Foundation, among others.
TBC brings together groups from the public, philanthropic and private spheres. Foundations help with identifying enterprises and cover operational expenses of the partnership. NGOs have the knowledge of the development needs in underserved populations and rely on the corporations to bring in technical expertise to multiply their social impact.
The corporate members lend their marketing and supply chain expertise by assigning their staff to work closely with the accelerator companies to identify and address specific challenges. These early-stage businesses often need help with marketing strategy, supply chain and long-term financial planning.
“The idea is that if you can get thousands of entrepreneurs around the world starting sanitation businesses, they will find a way to make it accessible and part of people’s lives. They will also have a business to support them, which they don’t have today,” says Troncoso.
Kimberly-Clark, for example, has recently started collaborating with one of the companies the TBC has identified– Svadha. Founded in 2013, Svadha provides a comprehensive sanitation solution for low-income consumers in India. The company trains and supports local entrepreneurs that manufacture latrine components, market them in villages and offer installation and after-sales service.
Working closely with Svadha’s founder, Kimberly-Clark helped complete the initial business assessment and identified some opportunities that will make the company more effective and attractive to local entrepreneurs. In the next few weeks, Kimberly-Clark and Svadha will go through a workshop tailored to its business needs to improve the entrepreneur sales pitches and to map its supply chain. The ultimate goal is to create a scalable business model.
In addition to significant reputation benefits, supporting local sanitation entrepreneurs allows corporations to learn about new markets and grow their consumer base in the developing world.
Each year, TBC is planning to work with between four and six companies over the course of a six to 12 month program based on the needs of each business. Last month, TBC launched its first cohort – five businesses that have the potential to be disruptive and catalytic.
Alliances such as TBC underscore the tremendous potential the marriage of corporate and philanthropic worlds can bring. Corporate engagement is key to addressing pressing social challenges and so is social impact for corporate bottom lines.
Consumers increasingly want to put their money where their heart is. According to a recent Neilsen report on consumer behavior, 66 percent of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands, up from 55 percent the year before. The study also found a greater increase in sales of consumer goods from brands with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability compared to those without.
Responding to this growing trend in consumer behavior and to remain competitive, leading consumer-goods companies are not only embedding sustainability practices in their business operations but taking a lead in addressing some of the most pressing social challenges.
“Businesses are becoming bolder, and are taking a leadership role in the quest to enable universal access to sanitation,” says Cheryl Hicks, the Toilet Board Coalition’s executive director. “They are working together with the global sanitation community, governments and NGOs to provide a business view on new solutions to the global sanitation crisis.”