MOBILE SOLUTIONS FOR SANITATION: REMOVING BARRIERS TO SHARING OF PUBLIC TOILETS
Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Peer-to-peer (P2P) business models such as these have achieved scale globally, and relatively quickly. These P2P business models provide an organised way for us to collectively share certain resources. Could similar solutions reduce the barriers to sharing of the limited existing sanitation facilities in low income countries?
During 2016 and 2017 Inclusive Business Sweden and Aqua for All, supported by Unilever and funded by Transform, carried out a project named ‘Peer-to-peer Business Models to Meet Sanitation Needs’ to explore this possibility. The project explored the potential of utilising P2P technologies or models to improve sharing of existing sanitation services in developing markets where access to sanitation is low, while mobile and smartphone penetration is increasing. We looked at common themes of P2P business models (e.g. use of a GPS enabled mapping system, use of a transparent mobile payment system and a digital review system) and how they could help address this challenge.
The project focused on Nairobi, Kenya’s capital where 48% of the city’s population rely on shared or public toilet facilities. Shared toilets are a primary means of access to sanitation for many people in densely populated urban areas in Kenya, as well as in other developing countries. If well operated, clean, convenient and safe, public toilets can provide a reasonable medium-term solution for those who would otherwise have no access at all.
In many circumstances however, public toilets do not meet basic levels of cleanliness. When this is the case, potential users often opt for facilities which do not ensure hygienic separation of human excreta from human contact (unimproved facilities), or open defecation.
Most public toilet facilities in Nairobi operate a pay-as-you-go model, with users typically paying an average fee of 5 to 10 Kenya Shillings to use a public toilet. During interviews and focus group discussions carried out across the city, toilet users cited uncleanliness of public toilet facilities as the main driver for choosing not to use them.
One of the problems cited by the business owners who run public toilets was the lack of unaccountability and pilferage of revenue by staff. The majority of public toilet fee transactions are currently made in cash. The lack of transparency of revenues was due to business owners relying on the reports of their toilet managers who collected payments in cash, which owners believed were often underreported.
With this in mind, we hypothesised that if users could access information about where to find clean toilets near them, they were less likely to resort to open defecation or to use unimproved facilities. Further, we hypothesised that a more transparent payment system would help in making sanitation models more profitable and in turn may facilitate more adequate investments and maintenance of toilet facilities.
Some characteristics of P2P business models are adaptable to a sanitation setting like Nairobi’s, such as the digital toilet rating system. According to the 2015 Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising report, people generally trust their peers’ reviews or recommendations of products and services more than they trust business driven assertions of quality or advertising. Users often influence other users’ decisions through reviews, with positive reviews acting as a form of advertising for businesses, and the opposite being the case with negative reviews. For public toilet businesses, this could result in the cleanest rated public toilets attracting more users, thus generating more revenue for public toilet businesses. These reviews or comparative feedback are expected to bring healthy competition amongst toilet businesses, i.e. a strong motivator for toilet owners to improve the quality of service to their clients.
P2P models also typically include a cashless payment system embedded into the solution, a feature which could potentially give business owners more control over their businesses. While mobile money service M-PESA is a commonly used method of payments in Kenya, this is not the case for toilet fee transactions. This was due to some logistical concerns by users and owners relating to the small amounts charged. It is nonetheless valuable to further explore the possibility of addressing stakeholders’ mobile money concerns or looking into other cashless payment methods.
Based on the insights of our research, Inclusive Business Sweden and Catino AB developed a prototype mobile app embodying these P2P characteristics, through which toilet users in Nairobi can find and rate public toilets and owners have the option of their users paying cashlessly via the app.
On the mobile app, users would be able to:
i. Find and select a public toilet near them based on its rating of cleanliness
ii. View further details of the selected public toilet such as: fee, directions and additional features or services available
iii. Pay the toilet fee for the selected toilet
iv. Rate the public toilet used, and to access incentives after a certain number of ratings.
We developed the prototype through an iterative process over a period of several months which involved testing both the concept and prototype with toilet users and owners. We developed this prototype based on user-centric feedback which included:
1. Affordability: The app is built to ensure light data consumption, where users have control over when to receive updated information of nearby toilets by using a refresh button.
2. Ease of use: The app includes information which the majority users deemed important when looking for a toilet, thus ensuring the minimum number of screens, and a simple rating process.
3. Multiple payment options: We included the possibility for toilet fee transactions to be carried out in both cash and mobile money payments. While mobile payments are not commonly made to settle toilet fees, we see a need for a cashless solution that is acceptable to all stakeholders.
4. Incentives for rating: To increase acceptance, we included the possibility of incentivising users to rate public toilets, for example, through earning free toilet visits after a number of reviews.
The implementation of such a solution shows potential for stimulating the motivations for keeping public toilets clean, hence promoting consistency of use of public sanitation facilities in Nairobi and could benefit both toilet users and owners in Kenya, and beyond.
The next step of the project is the pilot testing of the fully functional mobile app and a conceptual business model with key local stakeholders to lay the ground work for establishing this as a sustainable business solution. Going forward, we are looking to collaborate with other actors in the WASH sector to bring this type of solution to market.
For more information please contact Lorah Njagi Holmstedt, a Project Manager with Inclusive Business Sweden on firstname.lastname@example.org
If you use any insights from this research, please let us know so we can track the potential impact on access to sanitation.
The project was funded by TRANSFORM, a joint initiative between Unilever and the UK’s Department for International Development to support market-solutions for low-income household needs. Find out more at www.transform.global
Read the full report here