Entrepreneurs + Toilets: A Matchup that Won’t Go Down the Drain

This week at the Case Foundation, we’ve been celebrating entrepreneurs — their role as innovators, job creators and the heart of economic growth — as part of National Entrepreneurship Month and Global Entrepreneurship Week.

It just so happens that within this busy week falls another day that is close to our heart — World Toilet Day — focused on raising awareness of the 2.4 billion people around the world who lack access to clean water and sanitation. Today’s efforts will also shine a spotlight on the incredible people and organizations working towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

For me, it’s a not just a happy coincidence that these two important world celebrations — entrepreneurs and toilets — fall in the same week. In fact, I see them as closely intertwined. Admittedly, it’s an odd couple at first glance… what do entrepreneurs and toilets have to do with each other? Actually, quite a lot.

We talk a lot at the Case Foundation about the role that entrepreneurs can — and must — play to solve some of our most intractable social challenges. And opportunities abound to bring entrepreneurial thinking and approaches to address the sanitation crisis.

One of the organizations living this idea is Sanergy, a social enterprise and a grantee of the Case Foundation. We’ve written about its groundbreaking work in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya and had the opportunity to spend time with the Sanergy team during our visit to Africa this summer. But what’s particularly worth highlighting about Sanergy on this year’s World Toilet Day is its unique approach to leveraging the power of entrepreneurship. Through its franchise model, Sanergy has created a community of 370 micro-entrepreneurs — known as Fresh Life Operators — who purchase and operate Fresh Life toilets, providing their communities with access to clean, safe and affordable hygienic sanitation.

The Sanergy team mentors and assists these entrepreneurs along the way: from providing training in basic business skills, to partnering with Kiva to provide access to interest-free loans, assisting in the set up of savings accounts and holding regular forums on best practices. Creating a community of successful Fresh Life Operators goes well beyond enabling these entrepreneurs to provide hygienic sanitation to their friends and neighbors (via the 764 Fresh Life Toilets deployed to date), but they are also helping them create jobs. To date, nearly 150 Fresh Life Operators have hired attendants to help run their toilets, creating new, steady jobs in an area with 40 percent unemployment.

Sanergy certainly isn’t alone in this endeavor to leverage entrepreneurship to address the sanitation crisis — our long time partner Water for People has piloted a “sanitation as a business” initiative, which it intends to build on in 2016. And WSUP (Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor) has been a leader in this space, incubating a number of new initiatives that leverage the power of business and entrepreneurship to provide sanitation solutions in places like Ghana, Bangladesh, Kenya and Zambia, through its innovative WSUP Enterprises effort. And companies like Sanivation (an alumni of the incubator program run by our friends at Halcyon House), Pivot, x-Runner Venture and many others are making an impact by providing toilets and removing waste from communities in places like Kigali, Naivasha and Lima. The list of innovative organizations leveraging entrepreneurship to address the range of challenges in the sanitation crisis goes on and on.

It is my hope that someday, we won’t need a World Toilet Day because each and every person will have access to safe, hygienic sanitation, forever. But until that day, let’s celebrate the unexpected and critical role that entrepreneurs and innovators can play in changing the status quo.

Show your support for World Toilet Day by tweeting: Celebrate the innovative entrepreneurs working to address the global sanitation crisis this #WorldToiletDay! http://bit.ly/1NEDuT4

Fearless Focus: Ned Breslin

In our journey to Be Fearless and champion a fearless approach to tackling social challenges, the Case Foundation team will spotlight leading changemakers across sectors that have embraced fearlessness. Our spotlights will provide personal accounts of why these changemakers adopted a fearless approach, how they overcame hurdles, and how taking risks, being bold, and failing forward led to quicker results and deeper impact.

We recently spoke with Ned Breslin, Chief Executive Officer of (Case Foundation grantee) Water for People. Ned strongly believes that conventional approaches to water supply and sanitation are not scalable or sustainable – helping some but not others and often failing shortly after implementation. Finding this unacceptable, he has led innovative programmatic efforts that demand greater accountability of water and sanitation programs so that the lives of “Everyone” are truly transformed, not temporarily but forever, and without continued dependence on charitable organizations.

Learn more about Ned Breslin here. Read more about Be Fearless campaign. Know someone that we should spotlight for Fearless Focus? Let us know here in the comments or tell us on twitter @casefoundation using #befearless.

The painful acknowledgment of coming up short

“So, what do we do next?” According to reports, that is the response Bill Gates offered upon learning that the Gates Foundation‘s $700 million polio effort had fallen short of stopping the disease from spreading throughout Africa. Indeed, instead of putting a once-and-for-all stop to the disease, an outbreak had struck and was spreading through some of the very countries targeted for eradication. At the moment I read his response, I felt his pain. Imagine putting up such a significant sum from the goodness of your heart, committing your time, the talent of people you admire and respect and putting yourself out there in a really big way to meet a really big challenge and then … learning it didn’t exactly work the way you’d planned for and the way you passionately hoped it would.

When I say I get this, I really get this. On a dramatically smaller scale, at the Case Foundation we’ve had to face our own hard moments when reality has set in and you realize that the big opportunity you were chasing is looking more like a really big challenge that is hard to overcome. Things don’t materialize as envisioned, and you fall short of your mark. It’s easy to feel discouraged or even embarrassed. You can’t help but worry about what people will think, or the price you might pay in the court of public opinion.

We experienced this recently, as we had to re-think our involvement in the PlayPumps initiative, which brings clean drinking water to rural African villages. When we were first introduced to the technology, we believed both the technology and the business model for its deployment had enormous potential and jumped in with both feet to help create PlayPumps International-U.S. as a US-based fundraising and marketing organization to support the initiative. As we’ve noted in the past, we’re proud of the successes the initiative has had – PlayPumps are now bringing play opportunities and improved access to safe water in hundreds of communities and schools in Africa. In addition, these efforts have helped spark a number of new play-related technologies now being offered by various organizations and the initiative has highlighted the important role that social entrepreneurship can play in global development. However, we also acknowledge that the organization has fallen short of the aggressive goals that were developed at the outset, and all involved have learned many lessons.

As I noted last fall, we learned that doing work on the ground in Africa is hard and humbling work, even more so than anticipated. We learned that PlayPumps perform best in certain community settings, such as at large primary schools, but they are not necessarily the right solution for other communities. And more broadly, we learned that however creative PlayPumps might be, they really are just one element in a larger portfolio of possible solutions that can be tailored to meet the safe water needs of specific rural communities. In addition, while there have been successes in implementing the PlayPumps technology, and we believe in the entrepreneurial approach of the PlayPumps model, a combination of factors made execution of the original model we envisioned when creating PlayPumps International-U.S. a significant challenge.

Of course, there really is only one appropriate response when things aren’t humming along as planned, and it is the same response Bill Gates offered, “So, what do we do next?” Because just like in business ventures, personal undertakings and public sector initiatives, things often go wrong. The unexpected happens. Reality doesn’t always play out like the business plan calls for. Look at any great business today and chances are their road to success was fraught with potholes – low moments that required fresh, new thinking and important course corrections. As a nation, I think we’ve learned that progress comes through trial and error, and much of what we enjoy today is because somebody somewhere was willing to blaze new ground.

In the case of PlayPumps, there were essentially three options. One was to stay the course, ignore the emerging realities, and stubbornly continue on a path that the growing evidence was suggesting was unwise. A second would be to pull the plug on the effort, and conclude that the time and capital was better invested elsewhere. And the third was to take a step back and regroup, and undertake efforts to go forward in a new and more effective way. For PlayPumps International-U.S., the third path was the right one. The belief that clean water was one of the great issues of our time hadn’t changed – but there were likely better ways to advance the initiative. In May 2009, the board of PlayPumps International-U.S. brought in a new CEO to identify a new path forward. Under his leadership, in October of last year, the organization announced a grant of funds and technology to Water For People, which now offers PlayPumps as part of a larger portfolio of solutions from which rural African communities can choose. At the same time, we announced an investment by the Case Foundation in Water For People to help the organization accelerate and expand its efforts in Africa. For nearly 20 years, Water For People has pioneered innovative approaches to safe water supply, empowering communities and utilizing local entrepreneurs for sustainable operations and maintenance, and we truly believe that their approach represents a step forward for the PlayPumps technology.

It sometimes feels like philanthropic efforts are held to a different standard than in the private or public sectors. All too often there is less tolerance for mistakes, which leads many organizations to become risk-adverse. And when mistakes are made, the tendency is to sweep them under the carpet – thus depriving the sector of important lessons learned. But in reality, the very nature of innovation requires that we try new things and take risks. Sometimes they will work, other times they won’t – but in all cases, we should learn from our experiences and strive to do even better in the future. Of course we would have liked PlayPumps to have achieved the reach and impact to date that we originally envisioned – it’s much more fun to talk about successes than disappointments. The bottom line is that hundreds of African communities now have greater access to clean water and the revised efforts working with Water for People will further improve its availability. Together with other sector efforts and replication of the concept, we do believe African communities will be better served and the interventions more sustainable because of the important course corrections we’ve put in place. Might we have to revisit the strategy again and adapt along the way? Maybe. Turns out innovating is hard work anywhere and anytime. In the developing world even more so. But if the philanthropic sector is transparent about mistakes and lessons along the way, and adapts as the situation calls for, hopefully we’ll all end up a little wiser and a little closer to solutions that can more effectively address the daunting challenges of our day.