How to sell toilets: a new approach to sanitation marketing in South East Asia

In Cambodia, an organisation named WaterSHED has developed a successful approach to marketing sanitation to remote communities which has reached 40% of Cambodians and is spreading fast across the Mekong region. Girish Menon, WaterAid’s Director of International Programmes and Deputy Chief Executive, went to see their programme in action to find out how it works.


22 Apr 2015

Established in 2010, WaterSHED – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Enterprise Development – is a business development services provider working to bring effective and affordable water and sanitation products to the market, focusing on Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Only 28% of people in Cambodia are estimated to have access to sanitation – less in rural areas – and communities and businesses are not always interested in improving this or able to make change happen.

Although several organisations in the country were working on sanitation when WaterSHED was established, there was little coherence in their approaches, which Geoff Revell, Regional Programme Manager for WaterSHED, found frustrating. “While on one hand, there is space to try out new things, on the other, there are various approaches, some of which are subsidy driven, that are not very effective.”

A ‘hands-off’ approach

WaterSHED takes a ‘hands-off’ approach, using community leaders to generate demand for sanitation, working with the supply chain to offer appropriate and affordable products and identifying incentives to increase take-up. The organisation encourages businesses to consider adopting sanitation-related products that would complement other aspects of their wider business and thus enable them to diversify. It believes its role as a ‘market facilitator’ is finite, and that exit strategies need to be in place to enable private and public sector players to take over.

The sanitation marketing approach has six key components:

  • Identify community leaders to make the pitch for sanitation.
  • Generate demand for toilets using a combination of pride and disgust messages.
  • Link communities to supply chains and vice versa, focusing on home delivery, affordability and promotional models.
  • Enable suppliers to be reliable and trustworthy, offering good-quality products, information and advice.
  • Make links to micro-financing where appropriate.
  • Help identify appropriate and adaptable incentives.

To see this approach in action, I travelled with WaterAid colleagues to the Cambodian community of Antaung Breng in the Krang Leav commune of Kampong Chhnang province, a two hour drive from the capital Phnom Penh. When we visited only 10% of the 162 families in Antaung Breng had toilets.

WaterSHED’s approach typically begins with a ‘sales event’ in a local community, organised and led by the community leader. At Antaung Breng the event began with a talk by WaterSHED highlighting Cambodia’s progress in access to sanitation compared with other South East Asian countries. This was followed by a discussion within the community group of the advantages of having a toilet.

Sanitation marketing in Cambodia
'Sales event' in a local community. Photo: WaterAid/ Erik Harvey.

We were soon joined by a local supplier of building materials, who arrived with samples of components for two toilets. Suppliers play a key role in ensuring communities can access affordable and reliable products. The core cost of constructing a toilet in Antaung Breng is US$50 – not a small amount, but reasonably within reach of communities. However, some families in the community spend $300–500 on a toilet. “We are too poor to afford poor-quality facilities,” a member of a low-income family told Geoff Revell, when he asked how some low-income families spend so much on a toilet.

Supplying incentives

The suppliers have a vested interest in sales, so they work alongside the community leaders to create demand. “We pay $2.5 to the community leader for each toilet ordered,” said Roth Chan Thun, a successful entrepreneur. “I used to deal in various construction-related materials like pillars, but WaterSHED encouraged me to invest in toilet construction as well.” Business has boomed and she now earns $500 a month from the sanitation business by selling 50–60 toilets each month, employing ten to 20 people. “We adapt our incentives depending on the situation,” she said.

Financing is integral to the model, but discussions on financing are not held upfront. The expectation is that people can afford to pay for the basic cost of a toilet, which is $50 (although many people would invest much more on the super-structure). If financing is a problem, WaterSHED connects communities to micro-finance institutions. These institutions had not previously considered lending for toilet construction, so to encourage them, suppliers pay them $1 when they lend for toilet construction.

Marketing sanitation in remote communities
Local supplier with samples of toilet components. Photo: WaterAid/ Erik Harvey.

Expanding the network

WaterSHED has taken its very successful approach to sanitation marketing to 60 districts of eight provinces in Cambodia, covering 40% of the country’s population and 28% of its geographical area. It has a network of 160 suppliers and is supported by about 100 staff, most of whom are in their twenties. “This programme needs lot of energy, enthusiasm and innovation, and with the young team, that is very much possible,” said Geoff. WaterSHED has developed a national, open-source social marketing platform that has been adopted by over 30 organisations in eight countries.

During the sales event we attended, the supplier received orders for seven toilets, five of which were placed on the spot. Some of the organisation’s outcomes are very encouraging – e.g. 90% of new customers have never owned a toilet, and there is a trend of uptake by female-headed, less educated and more vulnerable households.

As with any business model, identification of costs is important. WaterSHED has calculated that promotional efforts cost $18—20 per toilet installed, which accounts for much of its $1.8 million annual turnover.

Leadership is important, said Lyn McLennan, Programme Manager, explaining their ‘Civic Champion’ initiative. She has data to prove that, where there has been targeted investment in building leadership capacities from within the local community, sanitation adoption by families has increased by four times.

WaterSHED is considering the issues that still exist around equity and reaching the poorest and most marginalised people. Roth Chan Thun said there are times when it is evident that some families cannot make repayments; in such cases, loans are written off. Many people are provided with materials on an instalment basis with no down-payment. However, Ke Rin, the Commune Chief of Kraing Lev, said “I don’t believe that people cannot afford a toilet. It is about making them understand the value of a latrine. I believe a toilet is essential for health and human resource. I am confident that, in four years’ time, all the 1,060 families will have a toilet and use them, up from about 50% now.”

Pushing forward

WaterSHED is continuing to invest in greater market penetration, focusing on the following key components of its strategy:

  • Research and design of new products – including sanitation for infants and young children, promoting handwashing through its ‘Happy Tap’ handwashing stations.
  • More integrated consumer financing – working with existing microfinance institutions and expanding their geographical coverage.
  • Business intelligence units – to identify, collect and analyse data to hone its strategies.
  • Women’s empowerment – to support and mentor female entrepreneurs.
  • Civic leadership – tapping into the potential of local leaders to promote sanitation.

WaterSHED’s approach is an interesting combination of addressing the economic and social factors that have an impact on the adoption of sanitation. To me, the three defining principles that make its approach effective are linkages, incentives and leadership. Its foundations are on core principles which can be adapted, replicated and scaled up.

Girish Menon is WaterAid’s Director of International Programmes and Deputy Chief Executive. He tweets as @GirishMenonWA and you can read more of his blogs here.

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