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Social Start-ups: Eram Scientific

The flush toilet as we know it today has been in use since 1775, when a Scottish watchmaker called Alexander Cumming patented it. It has changed little in its 239-year existence, if you discount the frills. Can technology that ancient tackle India’s enormous toilet problem? The 2011 Census says nearly 12% of urban India does not have access to toilets, a number that rises to 22% for small cities with population less than 100,000. We are talking in the millions here, just in the big cities. How to give all these people access to a toilet without bankrupting the coffers, clogging the drainage system and emptying out the water supply of a city? How to have a public toilet set-up that can service hundreds and thousands of people and remain clean and usable? These are the questions Eram Scientific, an R&D social enterprise based in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, has set out to answer.

They have done well. Since their low-key start in 2008 as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) pet-project of Siddeek Ahmed, chairman of the Saudi Arabia-based $1 billion (around 6,100 crore) Eram Group, the company has established itself as the key player in India’s search for innovative sanitation solutions. At the core of this is their “eToilet"—a tiny steel cubicle that looks like an ordinary prefab public facility, but is in reality a fully souped-up tech dream. It still uses Cumming’s old idea, but has an army of electronics to aid it. The toilet flushes itself before and after every use, using a minimum amount of water, that is determined through sensors: On an average, each flush uses 1.5 litres of water, compared to the 8-10 litres used by a normal flush. Its floor is automatically washed after every tenth use. The lights turn on automatically and draw power from a built-in solar panel. Everything is monitored through GPRS telemetry: the frequency and volume of usage, and water and electricity consumption. Other facilities can be stacked on to the basic framework—the Kerala State Women’s Development Corp. Ltd wanted a coin-operated sanitary napkin vending machine inside the toilets they ordered, and got it.

Eram began working on their toilet in 2009 (after spending a year studying various issues, like water and waste management, that needed technological innovation), and made their first one in 2010. By 2011, they had a product ready for the market. There are now just over 600 eToilets in 11 states. In August, Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) awarded a project for 75 such toilet clusters in the city to Eram Scientific, after conducting a year-long trial that proved the cost-effectiveness and hardiness of the eToilets.

“One of the biggest advantages we have is that our toilets are very cost effective," says Anwar Sadath, CEO of Eram Scientific. “A toilet with similar technology will cost around 30 lakh in Europe. Ours cost 3 lakh. This may seem more than the cost of a public toilet as it is built now in India, but most of those toilets become defunct within months because of the lack of maintenance. The cost of maintaining them is also higher since you need a lot of manpower."

Last month, Eram Scientific launched an even cheaper version, one they claim is the cheapest solar-powered toilet unit in the world, priced at a rupee short of a lakh.

These are sold on zero-profit and can only be bought by schools. The idea for this came from Sadath’s own experience in developing the infrastructure of schools in Kerala. Sadath, before joining Eram Scientific in 2012, was the executive director of the government of Kerala’s IT@School project.

“While supplying schools with computers, we saw schools where there were more toilets than students," Sadath says. “These toilets were built under various government schemes, but none was usable. It was the same in public spaces. We started doing surveys and found an incredible number of toilets built by MP (MPLADS, or the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) Funds, etc., that were not operational. The government stopped funding toilet projects out of embarrassment."

Since public toilets are more or less a government prerogative, Eram Scientific’s biggest challenge has been navigating the slow and circuitous route of government contracts.

“The bureaucratic delays are a very serious problem," Sadath says. “Getting one contract can take a year. Getting paid for it can take another year. We are not comfortable or confident of doing business with government agencies."

Eram Scientific’s biggest breakthrough came last year, when they were picked as one of the winners of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The challenge is geared towards finding “next-generation" toilets which are super cheap, and can provide sustainable sanitation to the 2.5 billion people (according to the foundation) worldwide without access to toilets.

Apart from a $450,000 grant, the award also put Eram on the same platform as some of the most cutting-edge work on toilet innovation—the other winners of the challenge include the California Institute of Technology in the US, Loughborough University in the UK, University of Toronto in Canada, and Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology). This year, the US-based non-profit Ideo.org, which funds innovative design and tech to address health, sanitation, financial inclusion and agricultural issues, also put its might behind Eram Scientific. The Kerala company is now working with the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, and the University of Florida (all in the US) to take their toilets to the next level.

“We are using the eToilets as a platform to try various different things," says Sadath. “Treatment units that will generate power from the waste, a very affordable system where the water can be fully recycled, etc. Basically, the toilets will need no extra water, will generate more electricity than it can use, and will create no waste."

Now that’s a dream worth unrelenting pursuit.

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