A $62 billion business opportunity is hiding behind India’s toilet troubles

In need of some cleaning up.
In need of some cleaning up.
Image: AP Photo/Kevin Frayer
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Three years after rolling out the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign, which among other things aims to eradicate open defecation by 2019, India is far from solving its filth problem.

Over 70% of rural India still lacks adequate sanitation facilities, World Bank data shows. Over 56% of Indians—some 732.2 million of them—lack access to basic sanitation. Globally, these are the worst numbers, according to a 2017 report by the international charity WaterAid. The situation is so grim that girls drop out of school due to a dearth of functional toilets on campus.

Meanwhile, only around a quarter each of the 2.5 million household toilets and 100,000 public facilities that the Narendra Modi government had promised to build by March 2016 are ready. Where available, restrooms are often filthy and breeding grounds for deadly diseasesone in 10 deaths in the country occur due to poor hygiene. Faecal-sludge management remains subpar, with water bodies and municipal sewers often used to dispose of human waste. Clearly, the government’s efforts have so far been no match for the mammoth task at hand.

But the sordid state of affairs even offers a huge business opportunity—a $62 billion market by 2021—for global and homegrown companies in what is referred to as the sanitation economy by the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC). The three-year-old TBC, a global consortium of companies, social investors, sanitation experts and non-profits, aims to catalyse market-based solutions to fulfil the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of achieving adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and ending open defecation by 2030.

Toilets and more

The most obvious opportunity lies in the “toilet economy,” but sanitation is more than just building and operating restrooms. It includes diverse players, from toilet fittings and repairs to human waste management to smart tech and data-collection companies.

Here are the three sub-sectors of the sanitation economy as identified by the TBC:

“This is the biggest opportunity in a century to transform sanitation systems into a smart, sustainable, and revenue-generating economy,” Cheryl Hicks, executive director of the TBC, said in a statement.

For instance, each year, over 3.8 trillion litres of human waste is generated, which companies can use to produce treated water, renewable energy, organic fertilisers, protein products, and more. Similarly, smart technologies can help shape business and health decisions, besides policy-making.

Moreover, various other industries could also participate in the emerging sanitation economy.

Take fragrance and flavour company Firmenich, for instance. The Swiss firm is tackling the issue of malodour—a key reason for toilets going unused in the developing world. “The science of smell is our business,” said Satish Rao, chairman and managing director of Firmenich India, in a statement. “When we realised that smell played such a critical role in enabling more responsible hygiene habits, we decided to be part of the solution.” Last year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates backed the company’s efforts to provide stink-free toilets across India and Africa.

After all, basic sanitation remains out of grasp for over 2.3 billion people globally, which results in an estimated $260 billion of economic loss annually.

But things can turn around. “For every $1 invested in water and sanitation,” the TBC said, “$4.30 is generated in economic returns through increased productivity.”