by Charles Fisher-Post


How many people in the world do you think own a cell phone, but don’t have access to a toilet?

Not that having a toilet is a prerequisite for Nokia ownership, but it seems strange that someone could have a long-distance communication device but no place to safely defecate.

Well a recent study by the UN reports that there are over a billion people struggling with unsanitary living conditions who nevertheless have access to a cell phone.

The World Bank took note of this fact in organizing the Sanitation Hackathon App Challenge 2013 in March. More than 1000 app developers simultaneously gathered for two days in 40 cities worldwide to program virtual tools in response to 134 identified sanitation problems. Among the event’s sponsors is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, because no one can muster an international regiment of the socially-conscious ones-and-zeroes literate like Mr. Windows.

Unfortunately, there will never be an app which can conjure a safe and functional latrine. Instead, one finalist app uses games to teach children sanitary behavior, while another monitors the state of sanitation facilities in schools, and one helps users find nearby toilets, even allowing them to vote for a “Toilet of the Week.” The winning app will be announced ahead of the World Bank’s conference in mid-April.

There’s no doubt that apps which teach best practices or turn anyone with a cellphone into a data collector can contribute to improved health in communities. But it’s also clear that in the field of sanitation, before improvements can be made on (or “in”) the ground, people’s hands need to get dirty–infrastructure must be built.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes this fact. Their Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in the summer of 2012 awarded grants to several teams who designed innovative lavatories, including Eram Scientific, a technology research and development company from Kerala, India.

Over 60% of the people in the world who do not use a toilet reside in India. Eram is the company behind the Delight, an electronic public toilet launched first in Kerala, although units have subsequently been installed in Delhi and the company claims 10,000 units will be installed in the next year. Models are designed to be self-sufficient, while costs can be defrayed by placing advertising on the unit’s exterior.  Doulaye Koné, Senior Programme Officer of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene wing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes that with advances being made by companies like Eram and others, the 5-cents per-user benchmark will be achieved for a sustainable toilet design within the next couple years.

Hopefully some of these units will make it outside of urban centers as well. While it’s amazing that many impoverished people in rural India have the luxury of playing solitaire while they defecate, it is hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t trade that opportunity for a clean latrine and safe source of water.

Charles Fisher-Post graduated with a degree in History from Harvard University.