Published in Partnership with Forbes.com
- Through collaboration, Unilever and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor are building a scalable solution to an enormous problem.
- Clean Team Ghana is a social business that is in high demand by urban consumers in Ghana.
- Each toilet installed helps creates jobs and revenues that help expand the business, taking us one step closer to a safer and more hygienic environment for the benefit of the entire community.
It’s often hard to believe that a small company can face a global problem head on and try to solve it.
At Clean Team, we are driven by that very belief and think we have found an answer to the global sanitation issue. We’re putting this it into practice as we begin rolling out a new service which is already delivering massive benefits to individuals and families. While we’re poised to tackle the issue at a local level, we’re preparing to scale our business way beyond our initial base in Kumasi, Ghana.
The concept has been some time in the making, but solutions to incredibly complex issues don’t just happen overnight. I’m an urban water and sanitation professional and social-minded entrepreneur. I began working for my father’s UK toilet business while at school and university and would often ponder why my father was able to make a good living in the UK from providing ‘conveniences’ for outdoor events while businesses around the world were failing to serve billions with no toilet at all.
Convenient sanitation is a basic human need and it seemed logical that someone would develop a viable business model to serve this enormous market. Years later, I joined Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) in Bangalore, India to support their slum sanitation programme, seeking to demonstrate viable models for government investment. Spending day after day in the slums, I saw mothers, fathers, grandparents and children nonchalantly walking over to some nearby waste land to defecate, being stripped of their dignity on a daily basis. Their needs were so obvious and again, I thought, why isn’t someone offering a convenient toilet that people would be willing to pay for, instead of their inconvenient visit each morning that costs them so much in health and economic terms? Fast forward to today, and I’m now part of a team that is answering that very same question.
The numbers associated with lack of sanitation access are breath-taking; 2.4 billion people worldwide don’t have adequate access to sanitation, meaning people resort to open defecation, polluting the environment and water sources. The impact on health is huge, 2 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases, and most of them are children under the age of 5. The estimated cost of poor sanitation in Ghana is $290 million, this sum is the equivalent of US$ 12 per person in Ghana per year or 1.6% of the national GDP.
The are many constraints in Ghana preventing wide deployment of good sanitation; lack of funding, education, water, proper planning, unwillingness of rural and urban communities to incur cost, (with the children being denied access to facilities) and lack of funds to pay for user systems are all contributory factors which have led to the continued spread of water borne diseases, such as bilharzia, schistosmomiasis, guinea worm, yaws and high incidence of diarrhoea affecting mainly children. Lack of home sanitation incurs further time costs for accessing sites of open defecation: valued at 30% of the Gross Domestic Product per capita for adults and for children over 5 years of age, at 15% of the GDP per capita² (i.e. half that of adults). This is not only a costly situation but especially harmful to women, children, the elderly and disabled, who risk their safety visiting public facilities at night. 4.8 million Ghanaians (approximately 1 in 5) have no latrine at all and defecate in the open, and that the poorest quintile is 22 times more likely to practice open defection than the richest.
This extreme situation may now be resolved to some degree by Clean Team Ghana, a collaborative project with its origins in the collective vision of the partners committed to the project; Unilever, WSUP and IDEO.org. The seed of the Clean Team concept was first planted by Neal Matheson, then Chief Technology Officer at Unilever, who commissioned a study out of which arose the idea of putting portable toilets into people’s homes. The next step was to find a partner with an understanding of the challenges of urban sanitation in the developing world, cue Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) joining the partnership. IDEO.org, the nonprofit organization focused solely on social innovation to make a positive impact on global poverty through Human-Centered Design projects, joined the partnership with a brief to create a toilet designed from start to finish with the end users in mind – the urban poor.
Ghana was chosen as the home for Clean Team because Unilever has a significant presence there and WSUP was already operating in Kumasi, the second city of Ghana. More importantly, the habit of paying for sanitation, by using public conveniences, was long established among its inhabitants. In addition, the urban sprawl meant a burgeoning low income population was desperately in need of an alternative to their current, unsatisfactory, sanitation facilities.
As the collaboration developed, the team constructed a new business model to overcome the lack of sanitation infrastructure and solve the issue of waste removal: the concept of a service-based system. The next phase was to understand the lack of demand, why there are people in Africa with two mobile phones, but not their own toilet. Using Unilever’s extensive analytic and marketing expertise, paired with IDEO.org to develop insight and then a solution, we transformed sanitation from the functional into the aspirational, and created a branded service.
In November 2010, the team visited Kumasi to gain a better understanding of the sanitation market and refine the business model, with incredibly encouraging results out of which the IDEO.org team came up with the “high touch service toilet” concept which was then piloted successfully in Kumasi households.
Clean Team, is working in partnership with the Waste Management Department of Kumasi to deploy an affordable and sustainable in-home urban sanitation service. It is a registered, profitable business in Ghana that provides families with a toilet in their home at a cost comparable with inconvenient public toilet options.
By the end of 2012, Clean Team had over 100 households as customers and 2,000 new Clean Team toilets in production. This January, the first container load of nearly 400 toilets arrived in Kumasi, extending our reach enormously. We aim to service 2,000 households, serving 25,000 people in 2013, increasing to 10,000 households in 2014. People of all ages who are using our service are experiencing a wide range of instantly tangible benefits which are improving their everyday lives.
“With the Clean Team service, I can go to the toilet at anytime. I used to use a plastic bag for fear of stepping out at night. Anything could be out there; people say you can be raped or robbed on your way to the toilet. Clean Team is hygienic, ensures privacy, safe and has provided me something to be boastful about as these days it is the only predictable and dependable service I get.” Said Kumasi resident and customer, Henrita Piramang Agyeman, 32 years.
It’s not just the product that is based around human centred design; the business model takes into account the circumstances of our customer in their locale. We know that many people are unable to save up enough money to build a toilet in their home, and even if they could, landlords would not permit them and there is no sewer network to connect to. For a monthly charge, we give our customers an attractive WC-style portable toilet which we return to empty and clean 2, 3 or 4 times a week. It’s a simple solution with no plumbing or upfront cost and our customers actually like the fragrance the toilet brings to their home and the relationship they build up with the company. Waste cartridges from the toilets are removed from homes by our uniformed service personnel who build a good rapport with the customers. They transfer the sealed waste cartridges to a local holding tank which then gets removed by vacuum truck once it builds up in volume. It’s currently taken to the municipal treatment site, but we’re working out ways to recover this valuable resource for use as a fertiliser or an energy source, adding an additional revenue stream to the business.
With the generous support of our benefactors, we’re creating a new market for sanitation that will add millions of dollars to national GDPs and bring dignity to millions of households. While governments figure out how to mobilise the billions of dollars of investment needed for public sanitation infrastructure, we believe our business model offers a viable solution that can serve hundreds of millions of people today. No more queuing at 4am for smelly toilets, we give somewhere fun for kids to go when they need to go, and we’re a business that can be up and running in a new city and serving thousands in next to no time. A business that my father would be proud to run.