The Business of World Toilet Day

In case you're backed up on your international news, today is World Toilet Day. It is a day on which adults the world over devolve into puerility, reveling openly in potty jokes. Beyond the gush of humor, though, lies the deadly serious issue of the appalling state of sanitation across much of this planet, and the fundamental implications this has for basic health and human dignity. The situation presents monumental challenges to and opportunities for the business community.

Source: World Toilet Day

All hail the porcelain god
Chances are that you're a middle-class American reading this from the relative comfort of a building that features running water and decent facilities. You probably don't give a second thought to using the john, beyond checking for feet under the stall doors. Understand, though, that for large swathes of the world, I just described an unthinkable privilege. Consider these startling facts. They are unpleasant, but they're a harsh reality.

  • Right now, more people in this world have mobile phones than toilets.
  • Around the globe, 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation, and more than a billion are forced to resort to open defecation.
  • Children suffer the most. When your kids get the runs, you dose them with Pepto and move on. But diarrheal diseases are the second leading cause of death among kiddos in developing countries: 2,000 children die each day from poor sanitation and contaminated water supplies.

Private sector snakes the drain
While this situation is tragic, it's also a simple case of an untapped market. The private sector is getting involved in many ways, some small, some big.

Starting with the whimsical, Cintas (NASDAQ: CTAS) has launched the Where to Wee app, which helps users find a clean loo wherever they are in the world. Between now and the end of the year, Cintas will donate $1 to the World Toilet Organization -- the other WTO -- for every time someone downloads the app. Cintas also supplies us with several fun facts about the best seat in the house.

  • The average person spends a cumulative 3 years of his or her life on the throne.
  • The first toilet in a public washroom is typically the cleanest.
  • More toilets are flushed in the U.S. during the Super Bowl halftime show than at any other half hour of the year. 

And then there's the Peepoo. That's right, the Peepoo. The Peepoo is a disposable toilet, developed by a private, for-profit Swedish firm. The Peepoo has been in use in a Nairobi slum for years, and the company just sent a million Peepoos to the Philippines to help alleviate the terrible sanitation crisis in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. The Peepoo is extremely cheap, super low-tech, and ends its lifecycle in hygienic composting facilities that convert waste to fertilizer. It's a great example of how innovation can address even the most intractable sanitation problems.

Unilever (NYSE: UN) has launched a robust campaign to address the lack of toilet facilities around the world. One aspect of the company's social responsibility platform is to use its brands to spread knowledge about sanitation issues and to get toilets to regions where people desperately need them . One example of this effort is Unilever's Domestos brand's "Toilet Academies" in Vietnam, in which the company trains locals on how to start businesses that supply and maintain toilets.

Unilever has also partnered with NGO WaterAid and the UN partnership organization, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, to produce a report on sanitation and hygiene for women and girls, "We Can't Wait." Despite the amusing name, the report highlights another solemn aspect of this issue: women have a higher exposure to rape where sanitation is poor, and girls' school attendance drops off when their schools don't have adequate facilities.

You see, when women have to venture far from home and family to go to the bathroom, they are alone and vulnerable to sexual predation. Similarly, when girls cannot adequately manage their monthly sanitation needs at school, they often just stay home. This is so significant that Amnesty International has framed it as a human rights issue. Their World Water Day campaign is called "Give a Crap About Human Rights."

Source: Amnesty International

Business is flushing away potential profits
This August, the World Bank published a report, "Tapping the Markets: Opportunities for Domestic Investments in Water and Sanitation for the Poor," that highlights enormous potential for businesses to provide solutions that these consumers will actually want. The report identifies the prevailing attitude among many management teams that serving the world's poor is too costly or difficult. Tell that to Unilever, which has made an entire business model out of serving the so-called "bottom of the pyramid."

The study also confronts the myth that the bottom-of-the-pyramid market is small and dominated by micro-firms. The authors' analysis of just four countries found a market potential of $2.6 billion among people without access to improved sanitation.

Significant barriers remain to the scaled delivery of sanitation services around the world. Among them are a fragmented supply chain, an unreliable power supply that disrupts water service, and capital cost difficulties beyond the control of small entrepreneurs. For example, cement and steel compose 65% of latrine production costs in Tanzania, so cutting costs compromises durability and safety because of reduced material use.

Business is brilliant at solving these problems. There is so much potential there. So on this, World Toilet Day, let's hope that sanitation companies, utilities, and others heed the world's desperate, cross-legged cry: We can't wait.

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Sara Murphy has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow her on Twitter @SMurphSmiles. The Motley Fool recommends Cintas. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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