Flush With Success: Improving Sanitation One Toilet at a Time

In a country where only 34 percent of households nationwide have a toilet, the idea of trying to sell latrines to villagers was laughed off as a marketing impossibility. But that might be about to change.

Thanks to a marketing campaign geared toward selling the population on the idea of toilet hygiene, the World Toilet Organi­zation and other NGOs are trying to promote bathroom ownership as a status symbol.

Built around the campaign slogan “Good Latrine, Beautiful Life” and promotional material showing happy Cambodian families living toilet-using lives, the WTO is chalking up early results.

“The need was there, but the consensus was that you couldn’t make a business of selling toilets because there was no market,” said Danielle Pedi, WTO’s country representative.

According to Ms Pedi, making toilet ownership an issue of pride has succeeded at creating demand where talking about the health benefits of using a toilet had failed.

“We got results when we started to concentrate on a question,” said Ms Pedi. “How do you make a toilet more attractive than a TV, a motorbike, a new cell phone or a karaoke machine?”

Ms Pedi said that the WTO sold 600 toilets within 10 weeks of opening its program in Kompong Speu province and that sales are still rising.

Jan Willem Rosenboom, country director for the World Bank’s Wa­ter and Sanitation Program, summed up the situation in a re­cent newspaper editorial: “Ac­cording to the 2008 Cambodia population census, only 34 percent of households nationwide have an improved toilet, but more than 37 percent of households have at least one cell phone. Furthermore, 44 percent of house­holds have at least one motorbike. In rural areas, the difference is even more pronounced with 29 percent of households owning at least one phone, but only 23 percent having their own toilet (67 percent report using the bush as a toilet, a practice referred to as ‘open defecation’).”

Still, selling toilets can be more difficult than selling products with inherent glitz.

Tamara Lee Baker, marketing ad­­viser for the US-based Interna­tional Development Enterprises, which has been encouraging villagers in Kandal and Svay Rieng provinces to buy toilets through its USAID-funded Sanitation Market­ing Pilot Program, said that to compete with glitzier products, toilets need to be sold the same way, with a focus on features: easy installation, a water flush or even a lovely tiled squat pan.

“Everyone wants something that they can identify with themselves,” said Ms Baker. “Cambodians want to be modern and toilets can help that.”

Chreay Pom, deputy director of the Ministry of Rural Develop­ment’s Rural Health Care de­partment, who is working to create a government committee to assess the market for toilets in Cambodia, said the committee would likely meet in the coming months.

“By concentrating on the toilet supply chain and making a community-based marketing approach, we can create tremendous demand,” Mr Pom said.

To encourage that demand, IDE went so far as to create its own brand, “Easy Latrine,” which can be installed on the day it is ordered.

Thanks to an efficient design by the US firm IDEO—most famous perhaps for designing the first laptop computer—“Easy Latrine” uses metal molds that allow in­stallers to quickly shape a mixture of ce­ment and cheap rice husk ash into a catchment box linked to a cement ring cistern by a length of PVC piping.

There is also a safety factor to a toilet beyond preventable diseases, said IDE’s water and sanitation manager, Cordell Jacks.

“The toilet helps protect mothers and daughters who no longer have to sneak out at night” to use the bathroom, Mr Jacks said.

The “Easy” design has brought down the price of the toilet as low as $30 and triggered a buying spree as villagers scramble to maintain face in front of their latrine-owning neighbors.

In Svay Rieng province’s Ro­meas Hek and Svay Chrum districts alone, IDE officials report that 2,371 Easy Latrines have been installed, enough to increase both districts’ toilet prevalence by roughly 5 percent.

One of the men responsible for the area’s toilet boom is Doung Sitha, an agricultural development worker, who has sold 1,500 latrines in Romeas Hek district since January.

“The people have pride when a latrine is built in their house,” Mr Sitha said.




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