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Bill Gates once said that there are not enough smart people working in toilets, and let’s face it, it’s probably not the first career choice of a Harvard or Caltech student. Yet, when you realise that 2.4 billion people –a third of the world’s population – have no access to proper sanitation, the picture becomes a lot more compelling. The result is an extremely high infant and child mortality rate, diarrheal diseases and other dangers, all of which are preventable.

Lixil, a global leader in sanitary ware, is applying all the expertise it has gained in developed markets to address the global sanitation crisis. Each country has unique challenges and they adapt their approach to suit the specific needs of each area.

Mukuru, a slum in Kenya, is home to 13-year old Teresia Soykau John . Sixty percent of Kenya’s population lives in the informal housing sector, of which thirty percent is made up of slum dwellings. Teresia’s house has no running water and no toilet; her family is forced to use public toilets for a fee. With public toilets closed at night, they have no choice but to go in the open – exposing them to the possibility of assault and contributing to the possibility of disease.

At school, Teresia and her teenage friends also have no private space in which to change and dispose of their sanitary towels. There are no bathrooms at their informal private school, and many opt to stay at home when they menstruate. Instead of competing with boys on an even footing, they miss about a week of school every month. Some girls even drop out around middle school, exacerbating the cruel cycle of lack of education and poverty.

Due to the lack of running water in places like Mukuru, Lixil has partnered with various international partners, local NGO’s and government stakeholders, to develop and test the Green Toilet System. They designed a composting toilet system with two significant features: firstly, it requires no access to existing water supply and sewerage infrastructure, and secondly, it re-uses the nutrition found in the waste as a safe and affordable crop fertiliser. The benefits are impressive: a reduction in the need for water, no contamination of ground water, job creation and a cheaper waste treatment system.

The toilets Lixil have built at slum schools like Teresia’s have increased the morale of the girls. They now have a clean and safe bathroom space, which even has a mirror – something which is a considerably more appropriate recipient of a teenage girl’s attention than the need for finding a safe and private toilet.

In Uganda, just outside Kampala, the situation is a bit different. Here, small-scale subsistence farmers like Aki and Joyce Kiwanuka mainly use open-pit latrines since there are no sewer systems. Preventable diseases are easily spread by flies, again resulting in a high child mortality rate.

When the Gates Foundation called for innovative solutions to the global sanitation crisis, Jim McHale and his team at Lixil rose to the challenge. Harnessing Jim’s passion for product development and sustainable solutions, the original SaTo pan was born. It is placed over an open pit latrine, transforming it into something that resembles a modern toilet. It has an airtight counter-weighted trap door which opens up at a steep angle, thereby requiring less than half a litre of water to flush it.

In partnership with UNICEF and Water for People, Lixil is conducting field trials to test new versions of the SaTo product which use smaller amounts of water than the original design (less than 200ml). Following a  model of completely understanding consumer needs and then designing something that’s affordable, easy to implement and sustainable, they are confident that soon they will be able to scale this business and help make a meaningful difference.

Lixil’s target is to enable improved access to sanitation and hygiene for 100 million people by the year 2020, and it is heart lifting to already see an increase in people’s health and sense of dignity.