Put the Poo in the New Loos

Project Samman, over the past 3 years, has been putting in immeasurable effort towards a single, immense goal: building great new community toilets. At some point in the not-too-distant future, 57 brand new, gleaming toilet blocks will come into existence, and it will be a major accomplishment for the project.

But then what?

What happens next? Just because the new toilets exist, will people use them?

This is not as easy of a question to consider as it might seem at first glance. We might think, “Why wouldn’t I use a toilet?” But some community members might think, “Why would I?”

There are lots of parts in play here that affect a community member’s decision to use a new toilet facility. Take pricing for example. We will be asking community members to pay a user fee to use the new toilets. Will that be acceptable to them? If it is, at what price threshold will people no longer want to pay?

This is something we’ve been thinking about a lot on our end. On the one hand, users have to feel that they can afford the price that we’re asking them to pay, and on the other hand, user fees have to be able to entirely cover the costs of running the sanitation operation (operational costs will not be subsidized in any way, but the project will fully cover the costs of construction). There’s more to consider about setting prices too, which is that they have to adhere to government guideline rates for community toilets.

We’ve been developing a couple of different pricing models that incorporate these points. One model is a break-even model, the goal of which is to arrive at a price that will fully recover operations and maintenance costs, but no more.  The other is a profit-maximizing the model, which is designed to arrive at a price that will generate some amount of profit. Both of these are tricky though, because for the time being we can only estimate certain inputs for the model, such as user demand. If we end up charging too much, we could end up hurting user demand; if the price is too low, the facility won’t be able to sustain itself.

Another very important aspect that figures into the work of bringing new toilets is community engagement and behavior change communication.  There are very good reasons why India has struggled with sanitation for so long. Lack of functioning toilets aside, we know from asking people that there is an ingrained belief that there are positive benefits to defecating in the great outdoors. The wind ruffling one’s hair, the sounds of birds chirping merrily in the trees, the scent of incense on the wind as one takes care of Nature’s call. Okay, well maybe that’s the Bollywood version, but nevertheless, open defecation is still appealing to many. It means you can do your business efficiently and walk away; no lines to wait in, nothing to pay, no one waiting for you to hurry up and finish, no foul smells (except for your own of course). So, just because some toilets appear in the neighborhood to be used, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be, because the alternative – open defecation – is still an easy and familiar practice. It is therefore our job to convey to people the benefits of improved sanitation, and to motivate them to put their poo in the new loos, instead of leaving feces in the open near where people live, work, and play.

Let’s consider a last element here which could greatly affect toilet take-up – the user experience.  We are putting in a great deal of effort to ensure that user experience is very positive, and this has come into consideration from everything from the facility design and layout, to ensuring women and girls’ safety and security, to high standards of operations and maintenance.  But negative reactions from users may come from unexpected places. For example, we are planning to introduce digital technology for payments, meaning that we will ask users to swipe a card or have their fingerprint scanned when they come to use the toilet. It is possible that users perceive this as a burdensome hassle, and it may deter them from coming. Or, perhaps if lines build up at the facilities and users perceive that they will have to wait for a long time, they may skip the toilet and continue to open defecate instead.

When we start to shift our thinking on this project from an exercise in building toilets to an exercise in building up enthusiasm for improved sanitation, we’re playing a whole new game.

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