The Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing China is the most recent stage of the
Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, an initiative launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2011. The aim has been to prod the scientific community into tackling an underlying issue for many of the world’s gravest health problems: unsafely-managed sanitation.
4.5 billion people in the world without access to adequate sanitation systems,” says Doulaye Koné, deputy director of water, sanitation and health at the Gates Foundation. “We need new science and new engineering to solve the problem.”
The flush toilet hasn’t changed much since it was invented in 1596 by Sir John Harington. (Yes, the inventor of
"The John" was named John. See also: Thomas Crapper.) Sure, there have been other advancements—waste treatment plants, underground sewers, etcetera—but these complicated, expensive, and hard-to-manage technologies don’t do much good in developing countries where 950 million people still have to defecate outdoors.
Koné understands the problem first-hand. He grew up in Cote D’Ivoire, Africa, where pit latrines are the most common system of waste management.
“I didn’t know why I would get sick,” says Koné, who currently lives in Seattle, Washington. “But looking back, I know it was because of bad sanitation. Now, I have two toilets in my house so everyone can go to the bathroom in a safe and private space. It’s not like that where I was born in Cote D’Ivoire. My extended family members call me when they get sick. I have to remind them that I’m an engineer, not a medical doctor. But I’ve learned enough to tell them to go to the hospital and ask to get checked for things like rotavirus.”
With places like Cote D’Ivoire in mind, the foundation announced the first Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in 2011 to spark a renaissance in toilet technology. Research teams from around the world were invited to develop prototypes of new waste management systems. Their inventions had to meet some pretty tough parameters: operate off-the-grid, not require a connection to a sewer system or external water, cost just $.05 per flush, among others.
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“When I saw the call for projects,” says Michael Hoffmann, a professor and researcher of environmental engineering at the California Institute of Technology, “it seemed like an opportunity to try some of the treatment systems I’ve been researching for over 40 years. These were ideas I’d had for quite some time, but were waiting for the right application.”
In 2012, one of 28 teams to enter prototypes in the first-ever Reinvent the Toilet Fair, held at the foundation’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington. (Several dozen more research teams have since entered Reinvent the Toilet Fairs held in
China and India.) The event was like a hi-tech version of a high school science fair, with the best prototypes being awarded continued funding to improve their designs. Altogether, the foundation has made a $200 million investment to support the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.
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Still, a revolutionary toilet design wouldn’t do much good without customers willing to pay for, and use, them. But sanitation ranked low on the list of health priorities in most developing countries. Then, Senegal’s recently-appointed minister of water and sanitation called, offering to become a research partner.
“We wanted to build a business model that would prove to countries they can improve their sanitation services through private-sector engagement,” Koné says. “It worked in Senegal and they saw the next step in the collaboration was to bring innovation into the system.”
Senegal agreed to field test the Omni-Processor, one of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’s more promising designs. The machine converts sewage into electricity, fertilizer, and distilled water. The new technology has proven so efficient at creating a value chain out of waste management that the Senegalese company operating the plant is considering buying a second Omni-Processor.
In the backdrop to this week’s expo in Beijing, China has announced an initiative its calling the Toilet Revolution. Their goal is to install nearly 150,000 public toilets, servicing primarily low-income communities across the country. Meaning, there will surely be some interested buyers in the audience.
“At the Beijing expo, there will be 20 commercial partners with products ready products ready for commercial licensing,” Koné says. “The challenge we need to solve, now, is finding companies to take up these new technologies, further develop them to reduce the costs, and bring them to market. It takes a combination of opportunities, relationships and partnerships to make it happen.”
There is a term for this kind of work:
catalytic philanthropy. Through its Reinvent the Toilet Challenges, the Gates Foundation has played the role of venture capitalist to spark technological advancements in an industry where research and development wasn’t being directed at solving sanitation problems in the developing world. Caltech has now entered into joint-venture agreements with commercial manufacturers in China and India. And success stories like Senegal show that investing in next-generation sanitation can make good business sense.
“The last seven years,” Koné says, “we’ve been able to move these ideas from prototype in the lab, to field testing, to maturing the technology for use by real customers. Now, we are at a stage where companies are coming forward to license these products and develop them for commercial launch.”
When the toilets flush in Beijing this week, they’ll be auditioning in front of industry executives and government representatives who are poised to invest billions in next-generation sanitation systems for the developing world. To that, we at the foundation raise a glass of distilled toilet water and say: Cheers!