World Toilet Summit - S'pore firm eyes profit from cheap US$30 toilet

  • Business
  • Thursday, 03 Dec 2009

SINGAPORE: Christopher Ng has a dream: Help alleviate a major global health problem by bringing toilets to the world's poor - at a tidy profit.

Ng, managing director at Singapore-based Rigel Technology, hopes to sell his state-of-the-art portable, fertilizer-making, toilets for as low as US$30 beginning next year, tapping into a multibillion dollar market for proper sanitation in developing countries.

It is among the exhibits at the annual World Toilet Summit in Singapore, which brings together industry players to generate awareness of the world's sanitation problems.

Experts estimate about 2.5 billion people lack functioning, hygienic toilets and instead excrete in the open, a habit that can contaminate water supplies and spread diseases such as E. coli bacteria and other viruses.

Ng said his company's toilets separate liquid and solid waste, a feature that should reduce unpleasant smells and create fertilizer.

"A farmer could sell this recycled fertilizer," Ng said while pulling out a compartment on the bottom of a prototype.

"It's good to sell something that's useful and make a minimum profit."

Jack Sim, who founded in 2001 the nonprofit World Toilet Organization, one of the organizers of the three-day conference, estimated the market for sanitation in developing countries is worth $1 trillion.

Health advocates have sought to entice companies like Rigel to invest in affordable, portable toilets after efforts by international aid organizations and donations by rich countries fell short, he said.

Donated portable toilets would sometimes end up in storage, as the units were poorly distributed and villagers were not taught how to use and maintain them, Sim said.

"We've seen that the donor model doesn't work," Sim said.

"Now people are taking the marketplace as the solution, because it works fastest when you have a profit motive."

"Selling to the poor need not be exploitative," he said.

Sim said the World Toilet Organization will help advertise Rigel's toilets through its contacts with non-governmental organizations and humanitarian groups.

K.E. Seetharam, director of the Institute of Water Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, estimated that just 22 percent of India's rural population and 29 percent of China's have access to working toilets.

"People aren't aware of the cost of open defecation in terms of lost work and school days from disease," Seetharam said.

He said many children in poor areas are malnourished "not because of a lack of food but because of worms in their intestines that they got from unsanitary conditions."

Rigel's Ng, who estimates poor countries need 500 million toilets, said he expects to sell 10,000 units per month beginning in February in countries such as China, India and Sri Lanka.

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