DELHI -- Naveen Arora, who is in the business of finding platforms for advertisements, is trying out something new: convincing customers that it’s okay to paste promotions on a snazzy new toilet.
Arora recently installed six new “e. toilets” called Delight in Greater Noida, a suburb of Delhi, which are already showing off ads of construction companies, educational institutions and even a popular fast food joint.
“There are some religious institutions that did not advertise. But that can be expected,” he said, laughing. “There are many others who are going for it -- even one hotel. It’s all about the mindset.”
Arora, who now earns approximately 25,000 rupees or $416 a month, in ad revenues on each of his six units, expects to recover the 400,000 rupees or $6,140, he paid for the Delight in the next three years.
Not only could Delight be a good business for Arora, but its technology could address the lack of toilets in public spaces and homes, which is taking a massive health and economic toll on the country. A recent government survey found that less that 31 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population has access to sanitation facilities.
A study done by the World Bank-backed Water and Sanitation Program finds that the health-related economic impacts of inadequate sanitation in India is 1.75 trillion rupees, or $38.5 billion, and loss of productive time trying to access sanitation facilities -- shared or public toilets -- is 487 billion rupees, or $1 billion.
Private agencies are wary of investing in sanitation because of the high costs involved in maintenance and low returns. In recent years, public authorities in some cities tried to improve the standard of sanitation by contracting out cleaning and garbage collection work to private agencies. But using private contractors did not prove to be much more efficient or drastically change the appalling hygiene situation.
The makers of Delight, designed by the Kerala-based Eram Scientific Solutions Ltd., believe that this e.toilet is key to solving the lack of public toilets problem because its remote sensing and self-cleansing technology significantly reduces maintenance costs by half.
Additionally, owners of these toilets, which cost between 200,000 rupees to 400,000 rupees, can generate revenue by using it as an advertising space.
During the past decade, India has seen a spurt of "social business" or "social enterprise" that has involved making products for low-income markets and launching ventures to generate employment in economically disadvantaged communities. But increasingly Indian entrepreneurs are thinking about lucrative businesses that also benefit society. For instance, four college dropouts formed SMS Gyan, which makes information from the web available via texts to millions of Indians with mobile phones but still lack access to internet. The idea turned into a $2.5 million venture.
“Public toilets maintenance is the main problem. Many people no longer want to do low-profile jobs like cleaning. Those who are hired are reluctant to do it. So most of the toilets are unmanned,” said Ria John, a spokesperson for Eram.
The prevalent culture across India is for men to urinate in the open. With public toilets being so few and so dirty, an overwhelming number of people defecate in the open. While women in the countryside wait for the cover of darkness to go to the fields, females living in urban slums have few options but to use stinky and unhygienic toilets.
A study conducted by Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation, found that 70 percent of girls in Delhi slums experience “verbal harassment and grave physical assaults everyday,” while 24 percent of girls drop out of school because of lack of safe access to toilets.
“People in the city hardly have any place to go. These will provide relief,” said Shanti Joseph, Vice President of market at Eram, who is presently overseeing the installation of two toilets in a busy marketplace in Delhi’s cantonment area.
The remote-sensing technology allows its owners to check on several specifics of the toilets like the number of users, coins collected, flush counts and water level. The self-cleansing technology involves an automatic flush and floor-sweeping mechanism. These greatly reduce dependence on guards and cleaners. Arora, for instance, said that he spends 70 percent less on the maintenance of Delight than a regular toilet.
Arora also earns about 1,500 to 2,000 rupees a month on one unit from charging one rupee for its use. Eram allows buyers to charge one rupee to five rupees, which are popped into a coin collector.
“This way I can tell potential advertisers that their ads will be seen by at least these many people in a day,” he said.
Presently, Eram has installed 370 toilets in the country –- the majority have been commissioned by government agencies. Eram also offers an annual maintenance contracts to their client for 5,000 rupees, or $100 a month.
The e.toilet, developed by Gates Foundation-funded research, also saves water by coordinating the quantity used with the duration of the visit. A motion-sensor light and fan inside the toilet also allow for energy saving.
Additionally, the user has the option of listening to the radio while using the facility. The government agency or private corporation that owns the toilet can play its own messages on the USB drive available inside.
Eram is also continuing to innovate on the toilet. One goal is to create “transparent infrastructure” by strengthening its remote-sensing capabilities. Another is to conserve more water by developing an “atmospheric water generator” to tap the humidity from the air.
In March 2014, the Gates Foundation will host the “Reinvent the Toilet” fair in Delhi.
The next step, John said, is to make the Delight toilet a component of the corporate social responsibility as well as encourage its use as an advertising space to boost private buyers since it still seems like a odd choice to many.
“We hope to secure the sanitation market,” she said. “We could have these toilets every 20 to 30 kilometers on the national highway.”
Photos: Courtesy Naveen Arora and Eram Scientific Solutions Ltd.