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A Passion for Toilets

Singaporean Jack Sim doesn’t believe in euphemisms.

“S*** business,” he declares without a hint of embarrassment, “is big business.”

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The man should know. He spends the bulk of his time obsessing over something most of us would rather not discuss - human waste. Sim has made it his life’s mission to bust a few taboos surrounding an essential human function. And in doing so, he’s hoping to introduce the world to a host of new business opportunities.

Sim’s idea is stunningly simple. The United Nations estimates that some 2.6 billion people across the globe do not have access to clean loos. It’s a huge market that’s been overlooked for far too long. While other entrepreneurs kept a wide berth, Sim smelled opportunity. He founded the cheekily named ‘World Toilet Organization’ in 2001.

“I realized that toilets are grossly neglected on a global scale,” Sim explains. “I felt this was my calling.”

Sim is perhaps what you’d call a ‘toilet evangelist’. He’s elevated the global discussion on sanitation to a whole new level. His version of the WTO now boasts some 235 member organizations from 58 countries. Many are NGOs. But there are also plenty of businesses exploring money-making opportunities.

“We believe people are willing to pay for proper sanitation,” Sim explains. “2.6 billion people. 500 million home toilets."

That’s not all. Thousands of schools, religious buildings and other public facilities across the world are sorely lacking in proper washroom facilities.

“That’s another 500 million,” Sim says.

Researchers and designers at the WTO have developed a cheap toilet that’s being tested out in Cambodia. Each costs just $32 and Sim estimates they’ve sold ‘several thousand’ over the past two years. The next step he says, is to develop a franchise model that can be easily replicated.

Toilet entrepreneur Jack Sim perched on a bridge that was someone's "toilet" before they invested in a low-cost toilet through a sanitation marketing program in Indonesia.
Lisa Biagiotti
Toilet entrepreneur Jack Sim perched on a bridge that was someone's "toilet" before they invested in a low-cost toilet through a sanitation marketing program in Indonesia.

There are also other possibilities waiting to be explored. WTO members will gather at the 9th World Toilet Summit in Philadelphia at the end of this month. On the agenda are topics ranging from ‘Ecological Toilet Design’, to ‘Toilet Economics’. Mike Kerlin from management consulting firm, McKinsey and Co. will be co-presenting with Sim. Their focus - “Sanitation and Creative Capitalism”.

“The business opportunity comes from the new sanitation customers.” Kerlin explains. “These include shared community toilet blocks that charge residents for clean and safe facilities; markets for masons to dig, line and cover pit latrines; markets for entrepreneurs to empty those pits; secondary markets for biogas and fertilizer.”

Big business, as Sim puts it. But the intrepid toilet entrepreneur can expect plenty of challenges. Clean washrooms are rarely a priority among the poor, and convincing them to spend money on good sanitation can be an uphill battle.

The issue of land ownership in shantytowns and other urban slums can also prove problematic. It is difficult to invest in sewer connections in areas where land titles are in dispute.

For Sim though, these are small obstacles in his bigger quest to change the way billions of people carry out their most intimate business.

“The fun is in overcoming the challenges,” he says. “If it is too easy, it's boring.”