I recently attended the Global Toilet Business Innovation Summit hosted by The Toilet Board Coalition in Mumbai, India. The summit brought together key players from across the sanitation sector, but what was especially refreshing to see was the significant presence of the private sector – a sector often spoken of as the key to achieving success at scale, yet rarely actually in attendance at such summits. The range of the private sector attendees was broad, including large multi-nationals such as Unilever, Kimberly Clark Corporation, LIXIL and Firmenich, and over 75 small- and medium-scale entrepreneurs and businesses.
Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the three days was a talk from Firmenich on Eliminating the “yuck factor” with smell science. You might have already seen the video that they premiered at the event, or read about it on Bill Gates’ Blog. Essentially, Firmenich is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle latrine malodour with “smell-cancelling” technology. The argument is that too often toilets don’t get used because they smell bad, and to combat this, Firmenich researchers are working on developing fragrances that block certain receptors in our noses, making us unable to register certain malodours. Think of noise cancelling headphones for example, but using your nose instead of your ears. As Bill Gates himself puts it, “The question now is whether this technology is good enough to make a difference in communities with poor sanitation.”
Innovative solutions to tackling global water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues are often a cause of much excitement, especially when a large multi-national company is seen to be working on something as exciting as this and is backed by the Gates Foundation. There is, after all, plenty of depressing statistics and indicators on access to sanitation in our sector, so why not afford ourselves the opportunity to get excited by something as pioneering and potentially as game changing as this? I would agree, however, perhaps the question that needs to be asked is not whether this technology is good enough to make a difference, but instead how can it make a positive difference?
Although smell-cancelling technology is still a long way from being usable and available, let’s just assume that it is ready to roll out and let me play devil’s advocate for a moment to pose some key questions about the potential impacts of this innovation:
- Would you still be keen on using a latrine if there was poop all around the toilet even if there was no smell? This technology could be seen as a substitute for Operation and Maintenance (O&M) which will be required, perhaps more than ever, if a latrine has more users. Caretakers might feel that they no longer need to keep up hygiene standards – there is no smell, so it must be clean! Effective O&M from caretakers is often needed (but not always) to manage the emptying of pits, ensure there is access to water and soap, maintain hygiene, and collect user fees where relevant. Can we expect them to do all of this if they can’t keep a latrine clean and smelling decent without the use of this technology? Are we addressing a simple problem with a complex technical solution? Should we also be concentrating on behaviour change (people are embarrassed to be seen going to a latrine), increasing capacity, and promoting adequate monitoring with suitable incentives?
- How will this technology be rolled out and integrated into existing supply chains so that it is accessible in hard-to-reach places in sub-Saharan Africa?
- Public latrines aren’t always used as latrines. I’ve seen them used as homes, storage, and even a pigeon breeding home. What will happen if we make them smell too nice?
- Flies are attracted to strong smells and there is a direct correlation between smell and presence of flies. I wonder, would this technology also work on pathogen vectors? It would be fantastic if it did, but if it didn’t, people might think their toilet is lovely when really there are many vectors spreading disease. Our overall target as professionals is to improve public health – not to increase latrine use. There is a case to be made that there is a logical and evolutionary reason for smell. In 2003, researchers at the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine carried out a study on smell and our association with disease. One of the researchers on the team, Val Curtis, echoes a suggestion that goes back as far as Charles Darwin: that we think poop stinks for our own good. Our disgust towards certain sights and smells, said Curtis, is a “behavioural immune system”: an adaptation—biologically rooted, but tweaked by culture and social conditioning—that evolved to keep us from coming into contact with infection and disease. Perhaps we shouldn’t be playing with this formula.
I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. One area where this technology could really have an impact is in container-based sanitation. Many of the enterprises like Clean Team, Sanivation, SOIL or Mosan working in and pioneering this approach, rely on business models where the collection of waste from households is every two or three days. This is how long it takes it starts to smell and it doesn’t become something you want in your house. But what if this technology could be used here? Collection time could be increased to perhaps five days or more and this could be a successful method for scaling up access to sanitation by making business models more attractive and cost neutral.
Refugee camps and those for internally displaced people might also provide a great opportunity to trial this technology. The O&M works differently in this setting, there is a reliable supply of international products making their way to the camp from the implementing partners, and the focus here is less on behaviour change and more on public health impact.
I congratulate Firmenich and the Gates Foundation on this project and their early results. Let’s hope that if the opportunity comes, we as a sector can utilise it in the most beneficial way possible.