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A new standard for sanitation

Partnering to design a better toilet for Bangladesh

For many people in Bangladesh, the only toilet they have is a simple latrine, which is just a hole above a pit. The shelter above it seems to capture the stink, attracting flies and other insects buzzing around as you do your business. It’s not very attractive or sanitary, yet that’s what too many people live with daily.

For years, companies making toilets ignored this market by only marketing toilets that poor people couldn’t afford and which didn’t work without water connections. This changed in 2012, when iDE partnered with American Standard to investigate the problem through human-centered design and discovered a simple solution that brought some needed fresh air to Bangladesh latrines.

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Television, neighbors, and family are the most trusted source of new information for rural households, which are sources typically found within the village. These information sources have influence on the purchase decisions and actions of a family. Illiteracy is very high so it makes sense that information is most commonly transmitted through audio/visual means.

It started over coffee

During a break in a water and sanitation conference in 2011, Cordell Jacks, the co-director of iDE’s Global WASH programs met over coffee with Jim McHale, the Vice President for Research, Development, & Engineering for one of the world’s biggest toilet manufacturers, American Standard. Jacks described the situation in Bangladesh, including the massive market—nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide—that the world’s toilet makers were ignoring simply because their products weren’t affordable for people who make less than $2 a day. But what if, Jacks suggested, American Standard could create a new design that met these people’s needs at a price they could afford?

The idea of a partnership emerged from their coffee break. The two organizations were very complementary. To the partnership, iDE would bring its local expertise in human-centered design, supply and distribution to “last mile” customers in Bangladesh, and its sanitation market development experience gained from its innovative programs in Vietnam and Cambodia, while American Standard would bring its 140 years of state-of-the-art product design as well as the global sourcing, manufacturing, and product testing that made it a leader in global sanitation.

Both organizations were able to bring separate, but complementary, donor funding to the team as well. American Standard had a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to address sanitation issues for the poor in Bangladesh. iDE had just started to implement the “SanMark Pilot project in Bangladesh” with a grant from the Embassy of Switzerland and the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank (WSP). 

The trapdoors of perception

iDE led a team in a “Deep Dive” into current latrine usage in Bangladesh. As part of the design process, the researchers in a deep dive visit, interview, and engage in walk-throughs in which the end-user not only shows how they currently use (or don’t) products, but also learn what they would like to be able to do. It was during this research that Daigo Ishiyama, a designer from American Standard, had a moment of “eureka!” As a fluid-dynamics engineer, Daigo noticed that Bangladeshis would only carry a very small amount of water into the latrine. This didn’t work with the existing latrine projects, which needed more water to create the “whirlpool effect” and flush the toilet.

One of the main reasons why households are choosing to install latrines without a hygienic water trap is because the water traps require too much water. The issue is not water scarcity during the dry season, which households are managing, but the fact that households do not store water in the latrines, often due to lack of space. 

This discovery led to a new toilet design, which was initially prototyped by American Standard in the U.S. and then tested by iDE in Bangladesh. Rather than relying on a typical P trap in which a large amount of water is needed to stay in the toilet bowl and sewage pipe following each use, the new toilet pan utilized an ingenious counterweight trapdoor that would “flush” with as little as a half-liter of water. The trapdoor was concave, which allowed it to retain a small amount of water after the flush, creating the necessary water seal to block smells. The door also blocked direct view of any underlying pit and excrement and prevented access to the pit by flies and other insects.

The future is plastic

Ceramic is the material of choice for most toilet products because of its durability and ease of manufacturing and cleaning. But ceramics are also costly, making a ceramic toilet so expensive that it was out of reach for poor customers. American Standard had produced a plastic model that could provide the majority of what the users needed at a fraction of the cost. 

iDE teamed up with a local plastic manufacturer, RFL Plastics Ltd., to create a new product for the market that was named the SaTo pan (pronounced SAH-toh, derived from “Safe Toilet”).

Powerful Plastic

“We suddenly saw plastic as a very interesting material for scalable, sustainable products for improved sanitation.”

Conor Riggs, Deputy Country Director – Programs, iDE Bangladesh.

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Read More

Building a business case for improved toilets

Private sector engagement in Bangladesh

In rural Bangladesh, about 40 million people live without access to adequate toilets. But RFL Plastics Ltd., a regional plastics manufacturer, hadn’t identified these households as a potential customer base until they formed a partnership with iDE.

Read more: Helping the private sector understand the business potential for serving the needs of the poor