At 19, Swapnil Chaturvedi was studying electronics engineering at the Bhilai Institute of Technology in Durg, Chhattisgarh, when he fell in love with his classmate Tania Ganguly. Nineteen years on Chaturvedi is in love again.
“Poop Guy—I love shit”, reads Chaturvedi’s business card. In March 2013, along with his wife Tania, he founded Samagra Sanitation, a hybrid social enterprise entity that has both a for-profit (Samagra Waste Management Pvt. Ltd) and a non-profit (Samagra Empowerment Foundation) arm working at the intersection of design, technology and behavioural science, to tackle the issue of open defecation.
Samagra has partnered with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) to redesign and refurbish community toilets used by slum residents. They focused on ventilation and lighting, user experience and also made the latrines accessible to the elderly and the differently-abled. They reworked the plumbing so that water was available for flushing, cleaning and washing hands.
Samagra operates in three urban slums—Ramnagar in Warje Malwadi, Nehrunagar Vasahat and Shrawandhara—and looks after six communal toilet blocks. That’s 128 toilet seats and 4,300 daily users, of which 2,098 are young girls and women. To use Samagra’s toilets, slum-dwellers pay a monthly fee of Rs.75 per family. They receive an ID card which can be used at any Samagra toilet, any number of times. The toilets are managed as Samagra franchises by individuals from low-income communities, which also include three Samagra Sanyoginis (local women), who get 100% of the revenue collected, which they use for cleaning and maintenance of toilets through team of trained cleaners. “We are adding one new communal toilet block every month, that translates to 1,200 monthly users, with half of them being women and plan to influence the lives of at least 25,000 users in 25 toilet block locations by mid-2015,” says Chaturvedi.
The scourge of open defecation that Chaturvedi aims to tackle is multi-layered: Of the one billion people world over who defecate in the open, 600 million are in India, according to United Nations figures.
To build a toilet for all the 123 million households in India that lack one, would cost Rs.2.56 trillion (little more than the Rs.2.4 trillion India loses every year owing to poor sanitation, in terms of deaths and diseases; treating contaminated drinking water, welfare losses; loss in tourism; etc), which is approximately one-sixth of the government expenditure in 2012-13. But solving India’s public defecation problem is not going to be eliminated by just throwing money at the problem. A study conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (R.I.C.E) in five Indian states and published in June, found that 40% of households had at least one member who continued to defecate in the open in spite of having access to a working latrine at home. What is needed is an effort to change the way people use toilets, and the way they think about them—they need to see usage of toilets as being good for them.
Chaturvedi recognized this and structured Samagra as an agent of behavioural change with user-friendly toilet design and a unique “LooRewards” loyalty programme.
“We have stopped asking the question of why people don’t use toilets. Instead, we focus on why they should. And that is why we believe that behaviour change is key to open defecation,” explains Chaturvedi. The LooRewards platform uses community toilets as channels of user engagement to promote hygienic behaviour. It does this by rewarding the slum residents for using toilets regularly, on-time payment and performing tasks like washing of hands. For example one of the rewards is a 15% discount on low-cost sanitary napkins. To take forward this positive rub-off, Samagra has tied up with the State Bank of India to provide banking services at toilets, where users can open accounts.
Chaturvedi, who worked in the US from 2001 until 2009, left his cushy job as a software engineer and enrolled in a master’s in design and management course in Northwestern University, Illinois, to help him embark on a new career in social change. He researched sanitation issues affecting the urban poor in developing countries and began working on design and business models that could be applicable to India.
In August 2010, he travelled to India to test his concepts and discovered in the first few days that most of the ideas developed in the classroom were not sustainable on the ground. He dropped out of the university and began a series of experiments between 2011 and early 2013, including a small pilot constructing toilets that didn’t require plumbing, and had to be cleaned manually in Raipur (this project ended because it did not comply with the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2013), and a poop-to-power project in Bhubaneswar which too, wound up because it lacked financial sustainability. His operations in Delhi and Bangalore failed, as well. He was almost ready to give up when a friend invited him to Pune. These failed experiments eventually led to a more well-rounded business model, which involved the community and the government with Samagra.
“The previous experiments taught us that context is important while designing solutions. It is critical to understand the pain point. Previous experiments helped in developing the LooRewards model,” he says.
Samagra’s community toilets become self-sustainable in six months. In 2013-14, they clocked close to Rs.3 lakh in revenue.
When Chaturvedi started out in 2010, he wanted to sign on 3 million users by 2015. Now he is happy adding monthly users in the thousands. Over time he understood that others take time to accept things when you pursue something you love, in much the same way that it took his parents 10 years to accept Ganguly as his wife.