What Do Toilets Have to Do With Microfinance?

> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Senior Program Specialist, CFI

Biogas toilet made possible through WaterCredit

Biogas toilet made possible through WaterCredit

An estimated 2.6 billion people in the world lack access to basic sanitation. This reality is a root cause of much sickness and disease throughout the developing world. Like many things, water and sanitation problems disproportionately affect women and children. According to data from WHO/UNICEF, women globally spend an estimated 200 million hours each day collecting water, a child dies every 20 seconds from a water-related illness, and girls often do not attend school during menstruation, or drop out at puberty, due to the lack of clean and private sanitation facilities.

I had never thought much about how toilets might relate to microfinance but lately water, sanitation, and toilets seem to be all I read about.

I was vaguely aware of the efforts of WaterCredit.org to put microfinance tools to work in the water and sanitation sector by connecting MFIs with communities in need of clean water and toilets. I also knew a little bit about Peepoople, the makers of Peepoo, a personal, single-use, self-sanitizing, fully biodegradable toilet that after use, turns into fertilizer that can improve livelihoods and increase food security. This product is not only improving health and livelihood but has also created a series of work opportunities, both formal and informal.

The pace increased in February, when I heard toilets mentioned in the financial inclusion context three times – all in separate places. First, Jacqueline Novogratz, a keynote speaker at the recent Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, described an Acumen Fund investment in Ecotact, a Nairobi-based company that leads the Ikotoilet project, building and operating high-quality, public toilet and shower facilities, which customers pay five shillings (US$0.06) to use.

Through Ikotoilets, Ecotact is growing inclusive markets and positively impacting financial inclusion in two ways. One, by creating facilities known as “Toilet Malls” – kiosks with toilets that also serve as retail outlets for basics such as airtime, snacks, and shoe shine services. Ecotact hires physically challenged staff to operate and clean the units after each use. According to Wanjiru, a physically challenged Ikotoilet employee, “most people believe that disabled people are beggars. In cases where you are competent as a professional, you really have to prove yourself before you are employed. It was a struggle for me to put food on the table before I got a job as a cleaner in this toilet.”

Shortly after the Harvard conference, the Microfinance Gateway published a report called Savings, Loans…and Toilets about Grameen Koota in India and its efforts to meet customers’ needs that go beyond the boundaries of a typical financial institution. According to the article, “that’s why, when customers requested it, Grameen Koota focused on the water and sanitation needs of their clients, including…toilets.”

Finally, I read The Economist article “Bit Loans,” which describes how microfinance institutions are going mobile, including arming loan officers with tablet computers. Among other uses, these devices are taken into a slum in Nairobi to check with owners of portable toilets that charge per use and sell the waste to Sanergy, which converts it into fertilizer and electricity. Loan officers also use these tablets to estimate how many people live in a toilet’s vicinity – information that is then used to calculate future revenue for toilet providers.

Image Credit: WaterCredit

Have you read?

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