SINGAPORE (Dec 31): Bill Gates knows a lot about human waste. The software billionaire turned philanthropist showcased this — along with a jar of poop to draw attention to the problem of unsafe sanitation — at the Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing in November. “Our team of engineers was very impressed with the amount of research he had done and the detail he went into on human waste,” says Bijoy Mohan, CEO of LIXIL Asia Pacific. LIXIL, the world’s largest sanitaryware company, is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to bring what could be the world’s first reinvented toilet for household use to market. “[Gates] was very hands on and engaged. To see that level of commitment to a project was very encouraging,” he adds.

Talking about toilets has long been taboo. In the developed world, there is little reflection about poor sanitation: Flush toilets connected to sewer systems are a fact of urban life and access to drinkable tap water is taken for granted. However, a staggering 2.3 billion people worldwide — one in three persons — lack access to safe sanitation. Every day, nearly 800 children die from diarrhoea caused by dirty water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. Gates witnessed this firsthand a decade ago when he and his wife visited a slum in South Africa. Children were playing in lanes filled with human waste and families drank water contaminated by faecal matter.

He is now trying to tackle this insidious problem with off-grid and smart toilet solutions. These include toilets that do not need to be linked to a sewer system, can treat human waste and are powered by solar panels. This is where the toilet technology and research prowess of LIXIL, a Japanese company that owns leading bathroom brands such as INAX, GROHE and American Standard, comes in. Japan, where standard commodes come with heated seats and bidet options, is by far “the most advanced in the world in terms of bathroom culture”, says Mohan. “As the largest bathroom company in the world, we felt an obligation to solve sanitation problems,” he adds.

Social business

Four years ago, with support from the Gates Foundation, the company began working on a low-cost toilet solution that did not require a sewage system. The result has been SATO, a range of off-grid sanitation products that runs from basic toilet pans for pit latrines to self-sealing toilet systems for multiple latrines. Costing just US$5 ($6.90) to US$10 for the simplest versions, about two million of these SATO toilets have since been sold in 14 countries, from Bangladesh to Uganda. The units have innovations such as self-sealing trap doors to eliminate odours, are easy to clean and can be rinsed with minimal amounts of water.

What started out as an altruistic venture has evolved into a social business for LIXIL with benefits that go beyond the bottom line. Compared with the overall revenue pie of US$16 billion for the company, which also has a large housing technology arm and a building technology business, the SATO line is admittedly a sliver of the pie. The goal essentially is to cover costs. “We’re not looking for profits from it,” Mohan says.

However, the far-reaching impact these affordable toilets have made in pockets of the world where people still have to relieve themselves in the open and where water is in critical supply has become a badge of honour for the company and its staff. A simple and appropriately designed toilet can transform lives and public health — boosting child survival rates, making communities healthier and even improving children’s chances of attending school.

“We do sell shower toilets that cost US$5,000,” Mohan says referring to the company’s top of the line toilets, which come equipped with luxury frills such as a warm water shower spray and air dryer function. “But these US$5 toilets give us a lot of satisfaction.” Searching for ways to tackle the sanitation problem has also spurred LIXIL to flex new muscles, which in turn has helped the company in its core business, Mohan adds. On top of that, it has extended the company’s footprint, taking it to remote villages it had never reached before.

The company is now all revved up about the Gates Foundation’s mission to commercialise a reinvented toilet. LIXIL is working hand in hand with the foundation and its partners to look into all the prototypes that have been created in the last seven years, since the foundation began pumping money into sanitation solutions, and to gauge which ones could work.

The reinvented toilet must firstly be independent of a sewer system. It must also be easy to clean or be able to selfclean and it must be budget-friendly. Mohan expects there to eventually be four to five different reinvented toilet solutions available to suit the different needs in different markets. And, one of the first markets it is likely to debut in will be India, where there is still a lot of open defecation.

Make a Splash

Aside from this, LIXIL has a collaboration with Unicef. Called Make a Splash, its objective is similar to the Gates Foundation’s effort to ensure universal access to basic sanitation. However, it has a more ambitious arc to ensure access to clean water for everyone. This is one of the 17 sustainable development goals that the United Nations hopes to achieve by 2030. As things stand, basic water scarcity affects a sizeable 40% of the global population. Climate change and rapid urbanisation are making the situation worse and water shortages are becoming a challenge not just for poor communities but also for First World cities.

Dirty water, meanwhile, is the cause of recurring diarrhoea-related illnesses. Half of malnutrition and a quarter of stunted growth in children have been associated with diarrhoea and intestinal worm infections, often impacting them physically and mentally later in life.

Moreover, schools in disadvantaged areas that lack proper hygiene and sanitation can especially affect girls during their period, causing many of them to drop out of school.

A 2016 study by LIXIL and Oxford Economics, with the support of Water- Aid, found that poor sanitation can cost countries such as India as much as 5% of its annual GDP.

As a first step, the LIXIL-Unicef partnership is hoping to reach 2.6 million people across three countries — Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania — with its SATO toilet systems. On Dec 15, LIXIL rolled out a Shower for Good benefit sale in relation to its American Standard GENIE power booster hand showers in four countries: India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. All proceeds from the sales of these units will go towards the Make a Splash programme.

In India, proceeds will go towards the Unicef India WASH programme, which supports the national and state governments in developing and implementing a range of replicable intervention models for sanitation, hygiene and water supply.

As a company, LIXIL is also encouraging people to donate towards the LIXIL-Unicef cause. A US$20 contribution, for example, would help one child access a toilet at home for a year. That has resonated particularly among staff in its home base, Japan. “We have employees donating SATO toilets to countries that need it,” says Mohan. “They’re really proud of it.”

Sunita Sue Leng was formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore