It's okay to be a bit more progressive

Doulaye Kone - Deputy Director Sanition & Hygiene at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Since 2011 I am working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is committed to eliminate inequalities between people around the world. Every year, 800,000 children under five die due to a lack of good and clean sanitation. This is a poignant example of the existing inequalities. We therefore strive for access to clean water and good and safe sanitation for everyone. My main task is to encourage the development of new innovative toilet systems for developing countries.

Reinvent the Toilet

Toilets in developing countries are often nothing more than a hole in the ground or a simple flush toilet with a connection to a septic tank. A connection to sewer systems as we are accustomed to in the Western world, is too expensive and requires a lot of effort in maintenance. For two centuries there has hardly been any innovation of these toilets. With our project Reinvent the Toilet, we want to contribute to resolving this situation. We have specified the requirements that a toilet should meet to match with local conditions. For example, the toilet must kill pathogens and reclaim water, energy and other reusable materials from the urine and faeces. Moreover, it should be a stand-alone system without connection to water, sewage or electricity. The new toilet must be affordable and applicable in all countries. So to promote this standard that will make toilet safe and operate work for everyone,  it is important that all the parties work together to develop new sanitation technologies.

Sharing knowledge is essential for innovation

Within the water sector, there are several platforms, meetings and training programs where experts exchange knowledge about developments in their field of work. Nevertheless, this doesn't appear to lead to uniform documentation or a common international approach. In previous attempts to apply innovative techniques, companies experienced difficulties in finding their way to the market. Clients did not know what they were buying, because the product did not comply with national standards. This is one of the main reasons why developing countries still choose to build expensive conventional toilets. For upscaling innovation, robust standards are absolute necessity. If we can agree on the fact that toilets should be able to kill pathogens and reclaim water, energy and other reusable materials, then this can be captured in a standard. This will be clarifying for all parties concerned. Research results from experts and experience from within the field can be included as 'common practices' in these uniform standards. Newcomers on the market and product developers can use this. Standardization is by far the best way to share knowledge, unfortunately this is still not being used to its full potential.

A clean toilet just as common as a cellphone

From my perspective, the water sector still is very conservative and should take the telecom sector as an example. Twenty years ago, only very few in Africa heard of cell phones or internet. Today, almost everyone – even in the most remote areas – has access to a cell phone, social media, internet banking and online shopping. In this industry, standards are strongly developed and that obviously is very fruitful. I am convinced that if the water sector puts effort in standardization, a comparable impact is possible.

View here the projects and standardization initiatives related to water.