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"Sanitation marketing": selling toilets to Cambodian villagers

September 3, 2010

Improving rural sanitation is never an easy task, but an NGO working in Cambodia – where around 80 percent of the rural majority lacks proper sanitation – reckons it might have the answer: Selling unsubsidized latrines.

"Easy Latrines" have become popular in Cambodia
"Easy Latrines" have become popular in CambodiaImage: DW

It sounds counter-intuitive: selling latrines to Cambodia’s rural masses. After all, most people in the countryside are either on the poverty line or close to it. For that reason the standard – even logical – approach through NGOs and organizations like the Asian Development Bank has been to provide subsidized toilets.

But Cordell Jacks, a Canadian who runs the water and sanitation program at an NGO called IDE Cambodia, says IDE prefers to use what he calls "sanitation marketing".

Cordell Jacks from IDE Cambodia
Cordell Jacks from IDE CambodiaImage: DW

"With sanitation marketing there is absolutely zero subsidy," he explains. "The problem with subsidy is that it creates a toxic cycle of dependency. Once one family has a subsidized latrine, then every family in the village wants a subsidized latrine. That doesn’t create a very good business opportunity for an entrepreneur."

Cambodia desperately needs to improve sanitation and hygiene in rural areas. Most people use a piece of ground near to where they live – a method known as "open defecation", which brings disease and is one reason the country’s under-five mortality rate is among the highest in Asia.

The numbers are stark: Five years ago just 16 percent of the population in rural areas had access to a latrine.

Jacks says the team at IDE started by redesigning the standard toilet – which is made up of three concrete rings that are dropped into a six-foot hole to act as a reservoir; a concrete slab on that; and a pan. The redesign made it easier to install and much cheaper to make.

Most Cambodian village homes don't have latrines yet
Most Cambodian village homes don't have latrines yetImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

A simple calculation

The clever bit – and where the "marketing" term comes in – was to train local cement manufacturers in six districts to make the new toilet, dubbed the Easy Latrine, and get them to take the entire toilet set by truck to villages.

Previously, villagers interested in building a toilet would need to go to the nearest town with a list of supplies, bring them back and get a mason to install it.

It was complicated and expensive – costing up to $200 each time. Many people simply didn’t bother. Jacks explains how the new method works: "Latrine producers will load up their trucks with these latrines, go into villages, market and educate about proper sanitation and hygiene, and will sell latrines door to door or at village meetings."

The Easy Latrine was launched in December and has sold almost 6,000 units. Jacks says the key to marketing is letting people know how much poor hygiene and sanitation cost them each year in medicines and lost work days. A World Bank report from 2008 calculated that cost at $150 per family.

The Easy Latrine costs just $35, making that a relatively easy sell. The entrepreneur pockets a profit of between $5-10 per latrine, and the family enjoys better health.

Dr Chea Samnang
Dr Chea SamnangImage: DW

Government wants toilets for all by 2025

Dr Chea Samnang, who heads the department of rural healthcare at the Ministry of Rural Development, explains that the government’s hygiene education effort is focused on three areas: The first is encouraging people to use their own resources to buy a toilet – by explaining how much poor practices cost them. "The second one is hand-washing with soap after defecation and before eating. And the third message is that we talk about safe drinking water and the safe storage of drinking water at home."

The goal for 2025 is 100 percent coverage. The government supports IDE’s self-sufficiency approach, but Dr Chea Samnang points out that another two million households will need toilets by then, and not all can afford to pay.

The very poorest, who will not be able to afford even the $35 the Easy Latrine costs, will get assistance to build dry-pit latrines, which cost around three dollars.

Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein