Before I arrived in Haiti for my Sustainable Development Internship with SOIL, my friends and family sent me a series of articles about wastewater treatment technology and the latest research on sanitation in poor countries (watch Bill Gates drink a glass of water made from poop!).
A friend compared the research and development happening to address the global sanitation crisis to a moonshot, an allusion to the U.S. Apollo moon landing mission, i.e. the intense application of resources to a big technical problem that needs to be solved in a short time-frame.
Moonshot investment has resulted in a range of innovative “next-generation toilets” that address sanitation from the perspective of supply, but have failed to consider it equally as a problem of demand. Studies have shown that even with the provision of free latrines, there is little likelihood that people will change their behavior; in addition, the supply of sanitation technology needs to be financially sustainable. Sanitation is a set of behaviors dictated not only by access, but also by available technology, behavioral and social norms, and economics.
SOIL’s EkoLakay social business initiative has reframed the sanitation issue as a market, packaging behavioral change with next-generation sewage transformation and reuse technology into a service model that offers opportunities for revenue generation. The business concept is sustainable both from the perspective that it provides a long-term strategy of resource recovery and that it’s financially self-supporting: the customer’s demand drives supply.
Social businesses like EkoLakay create markets for change by understanding why a potential customer might demand the service and selling to those reasons, a challenge that’s of particular interest to me. Since graduating from college in 2011, I’ve been lucky to serve integral roles in the start-up of two social businesses: 1) Let Us Compost, a residential composting service in Athens, GA; and 2) Blue Hill Partners, an energy efficiency project developer in Philadelphia, PA. At both companies we faced the challenge of understanding how an individual might become willing and able to pay for a product or service that changes the way they use resources. What we found to be most surprising is that for some customers, the motivation to close the sale was not the environmental and social impact that were central to the company’s mission, but would instead be something like: the energy efficiency savings would pay for deferred building maintenance; or their friend Sally was composting so they wanted to do it, too!
While SOIL’s development of the EkoLakay model is motivated by a desire to provide the public good that is access to sanitation and the resulting environmental and health benefits, individual customers may be motivated to purchase the EkoLakay service because they want to be free of the shame of open defecation, they want the prestige and convenience of having a private toilet, or they’re interested in the safety and security for children that can use a toilet indoors at night.
SOIL has an advantage in understanding their customers because the majority of staff is from the neighborhoods in which they work, giving them a clear understanding of the daily realities that restrict access to sanitation, as well as the benefits a customer might experience with the EkoLakay service. SOIL’s marketing team is working toward having a thorough understanding of potential customers’ needs and tailoring promotion/communication strategies to those needs in order to generate demand.
Years of work in Haiti has refined SOIL’s EcoSan toilet, a context-appropriate next-generation toilet, and is now addressing sanitation access from the perspective of demand to create a moonshot sanitation model. And I’m happy to be here in Haiti working with them!