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Jack Sim, Founder of the World Toilet Organization

Founder of the World Toilet Organization Jack Sim says that on the African continent there has been some progress in terms of the community-led total sanitation approach. Credit: Meropa Communications

Editor’s Note: This guest blog was authored by Fatima Asmal-Motala for the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency. Fatima interviews Jack Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO), about the state of sanitation in Africa and the strategies needed to improve upon it. A version of this post originally appeared here. 

When the founder of the World Toilet Organization, Jack Sim, turned 40, he literally began counting how many more days he had to live and felt a sense of urgency to do meaningful things with the remainder of his life.

“Can you imagine a person coming into this world and spending his life only helping himself? When this person dies, his life has had no meaning, so why did he bother coming here?” he asks.

A successful businessman, Sim turned his attention to an area which he felt was severely neglected.

“The toilet was completely neglected in Singapore (his home country). I realised it was the same all over the world. People felt very embarrassed. Now I’ve broken the taboo and legitimised the subject through 12 years of effective advocacy. I am proud to say I have broken the taboo surrounding the subject of sanitation.”

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Why is good sanitation so important?

To grow a country, you need healthy people. You’d rather prevent people from being sick than cure them once they’re sick. Toilets are the cheapest preventative medicine in the world.

Proper sanitation, together with hand washing with soap, will reduce illness by 50 to 80 percent. A lot of illness — diarrhoea, worms and other diseases — are basically due to the spread of pathogens from the feces, transmission paths through the fingers, the feet, the flies and the fluid. If you can break this, people can be healthy.

We need covered toilets which flies cannot reach, people cannot step on, and rain cannot wash away and spread, as well as a place to wash the hands. To achieve this we need education — why is a toilet good for you — to make it a trend rather than a prescription. If it’s fashion, people will follow.

Toilets also need owners. Without an owner it will become dysfunctional very quickly. If someone buys a toilet, he feels he owns it. If he doesn’t own it, a sense of ownership has to be cultivated. People have to be trained as cleaners and as security personnel.

If you have no toilets, you get unhappy, unhealthy people — as a result of which you have low productivity, and low income. You then have to incur expenditure due to illnesses and this can break subsistence survival, creating a poverty cycle, which becomes a political problem. Good sanitation can prevent all these time bombs.

What progress has been made on the African continent in terms of sanitation?

The good news is that Africa is currently experiencing one of its most peaceful periods in recent history. Because of that, its economic growth is on average faster than even the Asian growth rate. When people have a little bit more money, they have higher expectations. So the demand for toilets is easier to create.

On the African continent there has been some progress in terms of the community-led total sanitation approach which triggers people to dig their own holes, thereby encouraging them to have their own rudimentary toilets.

Through this approach, people realise the need for a proper toilet quickly. They start by digging a hole and going to a fixed place to defecate. This is already a big change of behaviour — they suddenly feel disciplined; they feel the need to be private, to protect their neighbours.

So the first phase is just to go to a fixed place, and to cover the hole. It’s very rudimentary, but it’s better than being outside, where women can get molested.

In the second phase, people are encouraged to buy toilets, which cost between 50 to 100 dollars. Once they own them, jealousy and comparisons set in — and nobody likes to be looked down upon.

How high is that “demand” currently in Africa?

What we need to do is to move the toilet to a higher level on the list of personal priorities — as high as the cell phone. For most people on the continent, the priority has been a television set, then a cell phone, but not a toilet. What we need to do is to make it fashionable to own a toilet — to convey the message that if you don’t have a toilet, you’re living in an animal state. People don’t want to be classed as living in an animal state.

What about the supply side — how easy is it for an individual to access a toilet?

We have to make toilets available either by the government, or affordable for people to buy, with on-site treatment, safe sanitation, and maintenance cleaners who are also professionally trained as technicians. And we also have to provide education for the community to care for their toilets so they can continue to enjoy using them. In other words, on the supply side, the effort requires a combination of people, the government and the private sector.

What about South Africa? Has any progress been made here?

A little bit. But the growth of informal settlements is creating a lot of difficulties, not just in terms of provision of toilets, but also where to put them. You can’t put a permanent structure on illegal land. Yet people need toilets. There needs to be some legal policy reform that allows a permanent toilet.

Why should it be mobile? Sometimes a mobile toilet is too far away to comfortably access. Also people are practising open defecation — so there’s a habit change barrier. They may ask, why should they use toilets which are not well-maintained, which are dirty and smelly and full and which can’t even be used?

The government is also not fast enough in terms of provision, but I think they are interested in speeding up the programme because they know that you can’t have a nation of sick people.

How is the World Toilet Organization involved in improving sanitation in Africa? 

We have partnered with Unilever to launch an academy. We are going to go to schools and encourage children to start using toilets earlier; when they use toilets at school, they’ll promote usage at home.

Supply of toilets on the African continent has not caught up with demand. This academy will train people to manufacture toilets in very small factories, thereby creating businessmen who are making affordable products at a profit, selling to their own communities.

What happens is that sanitation now goes beyond health and hygiene. When a woman has an income, she has more power at home; she can use her money wisely for the family; she has a bigger say when talking to her mother-in-law and husband.

So we’re creating gender equality and sustainability. We did very well in Cambodia. In three years 24,000 toilets were manufactured, generating 48,000 dollars for sales agents. We look forward to the day every person everywhere has access to a clean safe toilet at any time they need to go.

Editor’s Note: This post highlights an interview with John Anner of the East Meets West Foundation on how a technology platform and online collaborative network can solve barriers to growth, and scale the impact of their WASH programs. It was authored by Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network.

How do you see technology scaling your Clean Water and Sanitation Program to provide more people in impoverished, rural areas with greater access to safe water and improved sanitation?

A 5-year-old girl in Da Nang, Vietnam benefits from an East Meets West Foundation project, which is tracked and managed on Blue Planet Network’s platform. Credit: Christine Krieg

A 5-year-old girl in Da Nang, Vietnam benefits from an East Meets West Foundation project, which is tracked and managed on Blue Planet Network’s platform. Credit: Christine Krieg

East Meets West Foundation (EMW) has partnered with Blue Planet Network since 2006 to plan, manage, and track over 40 WASH projects. We needed to find a partner whose technology services could help us scale and be more effective. We have uploaded nearly $1,000,000 worth of WASH projects on Blue Planet Network’s technology platform, increasing the impact of our projects for nearly 60,000 people in Cambodia and Vietnam. Blue Planet Network programs and services allows us  to spend less time inputting our project data and more time planning and implementing sustainable projects and learning from other NGOs doing similar work. Through the technology platform, we track our projects to make them even more scalable.

Can you provide an example of one of your WASH projects and how a tracking and management system is helping to scale your work even further?

Soramarith Secondary School students drinking clean water from a new water system at their school. Credit: Christine Krieg

Soramarith Secondary School students drinking clean water from a new water system at their school. Credit: Christine Krieg

One project in particular that we piloted in Cambodia was our Safe Water in Soramarith Secondary School project in the Kampong Chhnang Province, located 90 km east of Phnom Penh and one of the poorest provinces in the country. This is the first EMW clean water and sanitation project in Cambodia. We were able to secure funding for this pilot project and to expand our work further in Cambodia. The project enhanced the quality of life for 4,175 people in this area by increasing their access to clean water and improving hygienic and sanitary conditions. Today, we have four Cambodia projects helping approximately 12,000 people gain access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Being able to plan and track this project on an online technology platform that both our head office and our field offices could access improved communication and sped up our expansion plans without increasing cost.

Uploading the majority of our project data on an open-access system allows us to easily share the impact of our work and critical information on how we are improving WASH practices with international agencies, foundations, and state, federal, and local governments. 

How do you see the use of technology helping you launch new initiatives?

Recently, we were awarded a $10.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This grant will enable us to improve sanitation and hygiene practices among the rural poor in Vietnam and Cambodia. The right technology support is critical to our output-based approach and the success of our program. Since our expertise lies in program design and field work, and we don’t have the capacity, know-how, or resources to build our own WASH technology system, we use Blue Planet Network’s tools and services to help us plan, implement, and monitor our international programs. 

How exactly will monitoring and reporting help you achieve your Gates Foundation grant goals?

Screenshot of EMW’s Safe Water in Soramarith Secondary School project on Blue Planet Network’s platform.

Screenshot of EMW’s Safe Water in Soramarith Secondary School project on Blue Planet Network’s platform.

Using a project tracking and management system will help us increase the effectiveness and impact of our Gates Foundation $10.9 million program. We need to be able to track 1.7 million people in 344,000 households and 290 communes in Vietnam and Cambodia on the platform. We need a technology system that focuses on the full life of a project — from planning to implementation, and post implementation/monitoring — not just the final well or toilet. Other data we plan to track includes: region and time period, project challenges and successes, diversity and quantity of people impacted (women, children, low income), water volume and quality, water and sanitation usage, and more. And, we need to deliver ongoing project progress, data, and long-term monitoring reports online for easy access and full transparency to all our funders. This is invaluable data that we can share with stakeholders, and share with other NGOs so they can learn what worked best for us and the challenges we faced. We can even show funders or other NGOs how the communities are actively involved from the start, and empowered to manage everything from maintenance to financing to ensuring all community members live up to their commitments. The ability to customize the platform to meet all these needs will enable us to achieve greater results.

Going forward, we also want to use Blue Planet Network’s SMS reporting service to enable our cell phone-equipped communities, partners, and personnel to monitor and report on all our safe drinking water and sanitation installations. If a problem arises, we will be able to quickly see the reported texts and to provide immediate advice to remedy a challenge. SMS is a practical technology for us because most of our projects are located in very rural and marginalized communities of Cambodia and Vietnam. This service will scale the sustainability of our programs by reaching thousands of children and families living in some of the most high-need villages and empowering them to monitor and sustain their own community-led WASH systems.  

How would collaborating with other NGOs benefit your work and increase accountability?

Soramarith Secondary School students celebrating clean drinking water. Credit: Christine Krieg

Soramarith Secondary School students celebrating clean drinking water. Credit: Christine Krieg

As a member of Blue Planet Network, we participate actively in a semi-annual peer review process to share best practices with other implementing organizations working on similar programs around the world. We have reviewed 34 WASH applications since we joined the network in 2006. This has been a valuable learning experience for us. Additionally, 11 of our applications have been peer reviewed by other NGO members on the platform. These WASH organizations and leaders have included Dr. Meera Smith of Project Well, Lynn Roberts of Agua Para La Salud, and Carolyn Meub of Pure Water for the World. In order to complete the peer review process, we have to answer very technical and in-depth questions about our projects.

During our 2011 Cambodia project peer review, Lynn Roberts noted, “The Andoung Snay and Andoung Chrey Clean Water Project systems seem dependent on electricity. How reliable is the supply and is the cost included in the maintenance?” That discussion made us think more about contingencies on many levels. We welcome questions from fellow experts who aren't too close to our work. They help us make sure our project plans are designed for sustainability and have the full potential of addressing the WASH challenges in rural communities throughout Cambodia and Vietnam. 

Our former Water, Sanitation, & Environment Specialist with over 25 years of experience in planning, managing, and evaluating rural development projects, Rick McGowan believes that, “People who have more experience in the water development business have an obligation to help tutor and encourage those who have less experience...” And we couldn't agree more! We know that together — as one network, made up of many minds and sharing one purpose — we can collaborate and share learning to better plan, implement, and monitor sustainable water programs globally. 

Editor’s Note: Our new Spotlight On... series shines a light on funders and NGOs working to bring critical solutions to water, sanitation, and hygiene issues. This guest blog is the first in the series. It is authored by Adrian Fradd, senior consultant at New Philanthropy Capital, who is in charge of the day-to-day management of the Stone Family Foundation and provides strategic support to its trustees.

Spotlight On... Stone Family Foundation

Credit: Photo courtesy of SNV Cambodia

Being a new funder in the WASH sector has sometimes felt like being the new kid in high school. It can be hard to know where you fit in — particularly when you’re not that big, or experienced, or well-connected. You have to decipher a whole new language and get up to speed on all the unspoken power dynamics and history. And there’s the danger you’ll fall in with the wrong crowd, try and be something you’re not, or get frustrated, drop out, and go it alone.

Of course the analogy only goes so far, and also has the effect of making people think I had a very unhappy time at high school. But I guess in a way it highlights some of challenges that a new, mid-sized funder faces when trying to work out its strategy, and the importance of initiatives like WASHfunders.org.

For us at the Stone Family Foundation, we still feel very much like the new kids, but we’re getting a clearer idea of the direction we’re heading in and the way we want to spend our annual WASH budget of £4m ($6.25m).

Our current approach is based on three main hypotheses. First, that market-based solutions, have the potential to provide sustainable, scalable, and efficient water and sanitation services to low-income households. Second, that more grant funding is needed to help these initiatives to transition from a successful pilot to operating at scale. And third, that the Stone Family Foundation is well-placed to fill this funding gap. We can provide grants of a meaningful scale, we have an appetite for risk, and we can take advantage of the business skills and experience of our trustee board and their contacts.

Since the end of 2010, we’ve started to put in place specific funding programs to refine, develop, and test these hypotheses. And as we seem to like to do things in threes, this has coalesced around three main initiatives.

The first, the major grants program, is focused on three countries, Cambodia, Zambia and Tanzania, where the foundation is making a small number of grants, with an average size of £1m ($1.6m). In Cambodia, it is funding a cluster of work in sanitation marketing — two programs are scaling up their work with local entrepreneurs, and then a third is exploring how to integrate sanitation marketing into a portfolio of approaches (such as targeted subsidies, CTLS, and government regulation) in order to achieve 100% sanitation coverage in a specific area.

The second, an innovation grants program, is looking to reach further down the food chain, identifying projects that are at an earlier stage of their development. In sanitation we are continuing with a proactive model — as promising ideas have been relatively straightforward to source — but with water, we’ve taken a different approach and have set up the Stone Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water. (First round applications close on 22nd March.)

And then the third, more nascent initiative, is a strategic grants program looking at how the foundation can help strengthen the resources and the support available to organisations looking to develop and scale their work. So for example, the foundation is funding Monitor Inclusive Markets to support a group of Indian organisations to test and strengthen the business model of their urban water purification. And it is exploring potential ways to open up sources of finance, by partnering with social impact investors and microfinance providers, as well as potentially supporting organisations to access carbon financing.

This is where we are at the moment. It’s all quite early stage, but also quite exciting, and we feel we’ve already learnt a lot, and are starting to refine and challenge some of our working hypotheses — for example, the specific role and potential of market-based solutions, and also the extra capacity the SFF will need to fund in this space.

As we learn more and our partners start to report back on the progress of their projects, we’ll post and blog the lessons on this site, and we’re happy to talk with others off-line and share our experiences in more detail — like why we chose Cambodia, Zambia and Tanzania as a focus for our major grants program. We’re also currently writing up a short report on what we’ve done to date, which should be out at the beginning of April.

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