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Editor's Note: In this post, Marc Gunther, a reporter at Nonprofit Chronicles, discusses approaches to sanitation problems worldwide. This post originally appeared in Nonprofit Chronicles, to view the original post please click here.

It’s easy for most of us to take the simplest things–like flushing a toilet–for granted. Yet almost 2.4 billion people lack access to modern sanitation, and nearly 1 billion practice open defecation, according to the World Health Organization. The problem is worst in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, particularly India.

What’s to be done?

That’s hard to know, says Seeking Sanitation Success, an excellent report commissioned by Catholic Relief Services:

Very little information on sustained solutions is available, making funders and practitioners in the sector vulnerable to repeating mistakes or investing in unproven approaches.

The report also found:

There has been no NGO-led sanitation approach that leads to success at scale (depending on the definition).

The report was written by Susan Davis, who is the founder of Improve International, a small NGO aimed at improving the quality and sustainability of water and sanitation projects in poor countries. By phone, she explains that most progress in delivering modern sanitation has been led by governments, and not NGOs.

That doesn’t mean that NGOs can’t play a constructive role, she says. They can advocate for government action, they can help spur behavior change around sanitation (which is harder to do than you might think) and, importantly, they can help figure out which of the many approaches to sanitation work best.

This is an all-too-familiar story in global development. We don’t know enough about what works. Programs are under-studied. Results are under-reported, if they are reported at all. Successes are trumpeted. Failures, not so much. Followup is rare.

“People aren’t really paying attention to what happened 10 years ago,” Davis says. “We’re more excited by innovation.”

A NONPROFIT FOCUSED ON EVIDENCE

Helping governments, foundations and nonprofits use evidence to improve their impact is the purpose of IDinsight, a nonprofit that I profiled in the July issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. My story, Data at the Speed of Life [subscription required], explains how IDinsight does high-quality, affordable research to enable nonprofits to learn quickly, adjust their programs and make more of a difference.

IDinsight’s work is valuable because too many leaders in global development “lack the evidence they need to make well-informed decisions,” says Neil Buddy Shah, IDinsight’s CEO and founding partner. This isn’t something you’ll read about on the websites of charities that help the global poor, but it’s true.

While reporting on IDinsight, I came across one of its clients, a Colorado-based nonprofit called iDE (it stands for International Development Enterprises) that stands out because it is committed to learning, to measuring its impact, to transparency and to developing market-driven solutions to global poverty. (All my biases!)

Which brings us back to toilets.

Traditional approaches to sanitation have provided free community latrines or toilets to all, driven by the belief that if-you-build it-they-will-come. But absent strong reasons to change behavior, these projects have disappointed. Put bluntly, people continue to crap outside, the way their parents and grandparents did. Numerous other strategies have been deployed to end open defecation which, in case you didn’t know, can spread disease, pollute waterways and contaminate fruits and vegetables growing nearby.

iDE favors an approach known as sanitation marketing, which sets itself apart by treating households as consumers, not as beneficiaries. The NGO has been working in Cambodia since 2009, with the support of US AID, The World Bank, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which paid for the research with IDinsight), the Stone Family Foundation and the government of Australia.

It is getting results. iDE’s work in Cambodia has grown into “the largest-scaled improved rural sanitation project” led by an NGO anywhere in the world, according to Yi Wei, who directs iDE’s global WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) initiative.

THE RIGHT PRODUCT AT THE RIGHT PRICE

Sanitation marketing aims to (1) increase the demand for toilets and (2) to strengthen the private sector’s capacity to supply them. This is Econ 101. "Everything we do is market-based,” says Chris Nicoletti, the global IQ director at iDE, who oversees its work on measurement. “It’s very much our ethos.” To succeed, iDE and its local partners need to design and make the right product and sell it at the right price.

Their product, known as the Easy Latrine, was developed in the late 2000s with the help of Jeff Chapin, a designer on leave from the renowned design firm IDEO. It’s been modified since then but remains a simple, low-tech, low-cost concrete latrine that came about using the principles of human-centered design, which is a fancy way of saying that Chapin and iDE  listened to their customers at every step of the process. It’s made by local manufacturers and costs roughly $36, before delivery and installation, which brings the price up to about $50. A growing number of customers add what’s called an Easy Shelter, a cement structure that provides privacy to latrine users and costs another $200 or so. (That’s price-competitive, more than shelters made of sheet metal and less than those made of bricks, I’m told.)

Latrines sold slowly at first. A World Bank Field Note from 2012 found that households bought 10,621 latrines from local private enterprises in the first two years, results it called “promising.” WHO’s most recent estimate, also from 2012, is that 8.6 million Cambodians practice open defecation. How could iDE speed adoption? 

Being a learning organization–seeing what works and what doesn’t–was key.

To improve the sales process, iDE worked with Whitten & Roy Partnership, or WRP, a global consulting firm, to train the Cambodian rural sales agents who go door to door selling toilets. “They get very high-quality training on how to sell,” Nicoletti says. “They are mentored, managed and trained by WRP.” WRP found, among other things, that sales commissions at first weren’t high enough to motivate the agents, so the commissions were increased. Instead of wielding Powerpoint presentations, Cambodian salespeople go door-to-door with flip charts to guide them through their spiel.

IDinsight was brought in to see if offering financing would help, as I wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

To test the market, IDinsight ran a set of randomized, controlled trials. Nearly 90 percent of Cambodian consumers, they found, were unwilling to pay the market price for a latrine, which ranged from $35 to $55. But when they were offered a 12-month loan, half of these same consumers agreed to pay $50.

Meantime, iDE worked to simplify and consolidate the supply chain and help local government officials promote improved sanitation. “The iterative approach is part of our DNA,” Yi Wei says. “There’s always room for improvement, and the market is always evolving.”

All the tweaks made a difference. Latrine coverage in Cambodia had grown by about 1.5 percent a year from 1992 through 2012. Since then, coverage has increased by 6.4 percent a year in the seven provinces where iDE works. Cumulatively, iDE has sold 238,406 latrines through its network of about 100 latrine producers and 300 sales agents. Program costs per unit have dropped, as volumes grew. Here’s an iDE website with more information.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

That’s the good news, but issues remain. For now, there’s no single strategy for disposing of the waste after the latrines fill up, which takes months or years.

Susan Davis of Improve International says that, without a plan to recycle or dispose of sludge, the program can’t be called a success, yet. “We as a sector have focused on getting people to stop going outside and start using a toilet,” she noted. “What happens next?”

iDE is seeking “a commercially viable fecal sludge management solution,” perhaps by creating businesses to collect the waste and turn it into fertilizer, Nicoletti says. The Stone Family Foundation and the government of Australia continue to support iDE in Cambodia but the Gates Foundation no longer supports the work, unfortunately; it’s been pushing a a buzz-generating challenge to reinvent the toilet.

A couple of closing thoughts: First, solving hard problems like sanitation takes time. To tackle them, grantmakers need to commit for the long term, particularly as nonprofits like iDE demonstrate progress and a willingness to learn. It’s tempting to turn to the next new thing, before we even know whether the last old thing has worked.

Second, iDE’s commitment to research does not appear to be rewarded in the nonprofit “marketplace,” such as it is. Without shared metrics around success and with little transparency in the sector — as I blogged about last year in Water Taps and Information Gaps — the work of one NGO can’t be compared with another. Flashy websites and marketing claims (“every dollar goes directly to clean water projects”) carry the day.

Yi Wei asks: “How are we ever going to use resources more efficiently if we are not going to be more transparent and accountable?”

Fortunately, people at IDinsight tell me there’s more demand for their work than they can handle. That’s a sign that more foundations and charities, like iDE, want to learn how to do what they do better.

Here’s an excellent video about iDE’s work in Cambodia:

How to Spend a Penny

Last week, the UK-based Stone Family Foundation, in collaboration with New Philanthropy Capital, published a paper that summarizes 10 lessons learned as a WASH funder since the Foundation made the decision to concentrate much of its grantmaking in the sector in 2010.

How to Spend a Penny: 10 lessons from funding market-based approaches in water, sanitation and hygiene (PDF) presents lessons drawn from the Foundation’s experience that have helped it to target funding toward the most effective and sustainable solutions -- from the value of market-based solutions that go beyond the ‘toilets and taps’ approach to the importance of understanding customer motivations.

How to Spend a Penny also identifies challenges in WASH that philanthropy may be uniquely positioned to address. Noting the lack of high risk capital in the WASH sector, as well as the attendant risks of scaling up a solution too quickly, the paper describes how the Foundation identified one of its niche areas: providing support to projects that have gone through the pilot stages, but still need to refine their business models in order to become attractive to investors and other funders.  

To learn more about the Stone Family Foundation’s investments in WASH – and those of other foundations active in the sector – view our Funder Profiles.

World Toilet Day

In June of this year, the UN General Assembly officially designated November 19 as World Toilet Day. This declaration was the culmination of efforts by the World Toilet Organization (WTO), which has been celebrating the day since 2001 to raise awareness of the 2.5 billion people who do not have access to basic sanitation. In August, Jack Sims, the founder of the WTO, wrote a post on WASHfunders.org describing the events surrounding the UN’s official recognition of World Toilet Day and explaining the tongue-in-cheek strategies that his organization uses to bring greater attention to the world’s sanitation crisis.

In celebration of the day, we’re lifting up recent philanthropic initiatives focused on sanitation:

  • In August, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it will expand its ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’ [PDF] to China. The program, launched in 2011, is aimed at supporting the research and development of inexpensive toilets that process waste into energy and water.
  • In April, Sesame Workshop announced a $2 million grant, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote hygiene and sanitation practices in high-need areas of Bangladesh, India, and Nigeria. The grant supports the development of media that deliver culturally appropriate messages around positive sanitation behaviors.
  • The Stone Family Foundation, based in the United Kingdom, authorized several grants in 2012 for basic sanitation, including a $2.1 million gift to iDE Cambodia for their ‘Sanitation Marketing Scale Up Project’, which supports local supply chains in the production, marketing, and selling of latrines to the rural poor.
  • Another grant from the Stone Family Foundation, also issued in 2012, committed $868,416 to WaterAid Tanzania for two initiatives: 1) a program using a combination of communication around behavior change and sanitation marketing to increase demand for unsubsidized latrines, and 2) a project to develop a local economy in Dar es Salaam for emptying sludge from household latrines.
  • The Laird Norton Family Foundation, a Seattle-based family foundation, awarded several grants in 2012 to expand access to sanitation, including a $25,000 grant to El Porvenir for the construction of double pit latrines in Nicaragua.

These grants illustrate the range of innovative ways foundations are supporting improved sanitation, from developing social marketing campaigns to changing behavior to funding research that will expand options for affordable sanitation services. For more information on how foundations are investing in sanitation, as well as other areas within the WASH sector, take a look at our funding map. New grants are added on a regular basis.

Editor’s Note: This guest blog was authored by Trupthi Basavaraj and Rachel Findlay of the charity think tank and consultancy NPC, which provides strategic support to the Stone Family Foundation and has coordinated the Stone Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water. Here they share some of the key lessons that NPC has learnt from running the Prize. A version of this story also appeared in Alliance magazine.

Chlorine dispensers used by communities in Kenya. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Chlorine dispensers used by communities in Kenya. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Prizes have long been successful at inspiring technological innovation, from determining a ship’s longitude to creating a toilet that costs less than five cents per user per day to operate. What is less common is using a prize as a tool to stimulate innovation in service delivery. So when the Stone Family Foundation set up the Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water, it was all about doing just that.

As a part of our wider strategy to support entrepreneurial initiatives in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector, we launched the £100,000 Stone Prize earlier this year. After an extensive eight-month process of identifying and short-listing candidates, we finally found our Prize winner — Dispensers for Safe Water (DSW) in Kenya — and four other organisations that we hope to support outside of the Prize.     

The Prize came about as a way to identify early stage water initiatives that the Foundation could support, and eventually help scale up. The search was for innovative approaches to delivering safe water in a sustainable and cost-effective manner to those without access in sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. For the Foundation, running the Prize has been an exciting process, and one that has taught us several key lessons, three of which we have highlighted here.

Firstly, to attract the right type of initiatives and ultimately short-list candidates, it was important to set clear criteria — without being overly prescriptive. We identified six criteria for the Prize, but with a particular emphasis on two areas: a) innovation in technology or service delivery, typically in response to a specific need, and b) innovation in financial model, looking to harness the power of the private sector.

Dispenser’s valve releases metered dose of chlorine into jerricans. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Dispenser’s valve releases metered dose of chlorine into jerricans. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

DSW meets both of these requirements. It addresses a clear need in rural Kenya: its water purification technology, a simple dispenser, is filled with chlorine and placed near a communal water source, allowing individuals to treat their water free of cost with the correct dose of chlorine. (To learn more about DSW's work, read this post.) But what makes this initiative truly exciting are two innovative financial models. First, the dispensers generate carbon credits by reducing the demand for boiling water using firewood, which DSW will eventually be able to sell. Second, DSW is able to bundle the dispenser as part of a wider package of agricultural goods sold by its partner, One Acre Fund. If successful, both models offer new ways of making water purification accessible and sustainable for low-income communities. It will also allow DSW to expand the Kenya Chlorine Dispenser System program into other countries.

Secondly, running a prize scheme is not just about funding. It’s also about generating publicity in a way that reactive grants programmes cannot. Getting publicity right is important not only for attracting applicants, but also for promoting the winning candidate and its approach. Our strategy was to identify the right partners and to leverage their extensive networks, reaching out to organisations both within the WASH sector and outside it. At the end of the first round, the Foundation received 179 applications from 39 different countries. We hope the Prize will not only help DSW gain recognition and attract further support from other funders, but also stimulate wider discussion on what innovation means for the water sector.

Finally, we also learnt that it was important to have the right reward in place. The promise of £100,000 for scaling up the winning initiative attracted a pool of strong applications, but as we narrowed down the candidates, it became clear that the level and type of funding offered through the Prize was not necessarily appropriate for all. As a result, the Foundation is now looking at the best way to support four highly commended candidates outside the Prize framework — this could be through providing investment or smaller grants to further test an aspect of the approach, or simply by helping to identify partners to move an initiative from pilot to scale.

For the Stone Family Foundation, the Prize has been a successful endeavour. It has enabled us to find some exceptionally strong grantees for the Foundation that we might not otherwise have discovered. It has also given us a sense of the wide range of innovations within the WASH sector, especially in countries such as Kenya, India, and Cambodia where the local environment has led to a growth in entrepreneurial initiatives. Much depends on what a funder is looking for and how a prize is structured, but we feel prizes can be an incredibly powerful tool for identifying and driving innovation.

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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