There’s a saying in the north of England: “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.”
If I thought this’d mean anything to anyone outside the UK, I’d love to have made it the title of this new EY study, produced in collaboration with the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC). Roughly translated, it means that dirty work can be lucrative, which seems apt in the context of a piece that starts with the premise that there’s a multibillion-dollar economic bounty to be derived from human poo.
Yes, you heard me right!
As if it wasn’t scandalous enough that 4.2b of our fellow human beings still lack access to safely managed sanitation – and 830,000 people die each year due to poor water, sanitation and hygiene – we’re compounding this by missing out on a massive opportunity.
As the global population continues to rise, human waste is one of the few natural resources that will increase. Right now, trillions of liters of these valuable “toilet resources” (the TBC’s preferred term for poo!) go lost and untreated every year, when their capture, treatment and productive use could create a transformational sanitation economy worth an estimated US$62b a year in India alone.
Looking to shift the debate from why creating said economy is a good idea to how to make it happen faster, the TBC engaged EY to write this report, which shares insights into the practical and replicable steps that impact enterprises in their Sanitation Economy Accelerator program have taken to achieve scale and sustainability (several of those enterprises, incidentally, having benefitted from not-for-profit EY projects to help build their capacity to scale).
I hope you’ll find it as fascinating to read as I did to write. As ever, I found myself marveling at the ingenuity of some of these models – my personal favorite probably being Sanergy in Kenya who, alongside their Fresh Life toilets business, have built a facility housing a colony of black soldier flies that feed on the waste collected and upcycle it into high-quality animal feed and organic fertilizer.
As well as being a great example of circular economy principles in action (turning the waste from one process into food for another), it’s also a brilliant illustration of how social business model innovations can address multiple Sustainable Development Goals – in this case not only SDG6 (clean water and sanitation), but also SDG1 (no poverty) and SDG2 (zero hunger) by virtue of creating markets for affordable, quality agricultural inputs that smallholder farmers can use to increase their yields and incomes.
This and other examples in the report show that better answers to the global sanitation crisis already exist – they just need to be scaled. And in sharing how Sanitation Economy Accelerator enterprises are doing it, EY and the TBC aim to encourage others like them to follow suit, and to stimulate the kind of investment that can help make that happen.
As the report concludes:
We sit at a critical inflection point in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development
Goal of access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030.
With the UN suggesting that achieving universal access to even basic sanitation
by 2030 would require doubling the current rate of change, we need to go
further, faster. In particular, we need to go further, faster in scaling the impact
enterprises whose innovative business models are reaching the parts that
conventional sewerage, waste treatment and processing can’t.
The business case has already been made — powerfully. And better answers to the
global sanitation crisis already exist in the shape of past and present participants in
the TBC’s Sanitation Economy Accelerator program. But unless and until the
debate meaningfully shifts from why a transformational sanitation economy is a
good idea toward how to rapidly scale and replicate the success of these enterprises,
the prize is likely to remain elusive.
That prize — estimated to be worth US$62 billion a year by 2021 in India alone — deserves greater attention and commitment to act. It deserves greater attention and commitment from governments and municipal authorities who can reduce the unaffordable public costs of sewered sanitation, while reaping huge cost avoidance advantages in improving community health. And it demands greater attention and
commitment from entrepreneurs and impact investors who can unearth huge
value, not only from serving the 4.2 billion people still lacking access to safelymanaged forms of sanitation today, but also helping to tackle adjacent goals for
sustainable development, such as safe water, food security, renewable energy, and good health and well-being.
Building a profitable, sustainable sanitation business serving low-income customers
is hard, but as the examples in this report show, it can be done. From bundling
sanitation with other services to create a better, broader user experience, to
creating demand for transformed toilet resources, to becoming asset light to make
invested capital stretch further, Sanitation Economy Accelerator enterprises are
illuminating multiple pathways to greater efficiency, profitability and scale. And in so doing, they’ve already brought dignity and a better quality of life to millions of people.
With the right support — particularly innovative forms of finance — EY and the
TBC believe that they, and others like them, can bring affordable, sustainable
and safely managed sanitation to hundreds of millions more of the people who so
desperately need it.