Reinventing the toilet: India rises to the challenge

Six Indian innovators have won grants to reinvent the toilet, in a bid to tackle the scourge of poor sanitation that affects 2.5 billion people worldwide

The winners, who were challenged to develop and test new toilet prototypes for use in the developing world, netted a share of the $2m prize, jointly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and India’s Department of Biotechnology.

Kerala-based Eram Scientific Solutions won a grant to carry out field tests in a suburban slum of its e-toilet system. The other grantees – Amrita School of Biotechnology, Pradin Technologies, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, Mumbai’s Institute of Chemical Technology and BITS PILANI – received grants to develop initial designs and prove the science behind them.

The results were announced on Saturday at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair hosted in New Delhi.

“By applying creative thinking and new approaches to sanitation challenges, we can improve people’s lives,” said Brian Arbogast, director of the Gates Foundation’s water, sanitation and hygiene team. “We believe that with governmental leadership, new business models and innovation, we can dramatically increase the progress made in tackling this global sanitation crisis.”

Poor sanitation has been linked to the spread of infectious diseases, diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition and stunted growth. A child dies every 21 seconds from a water-related illness, according to Matt Damon-backed global charity Water.org.

Lack of access to adequate sanitation particularly affects India, China and sub-Saharan Africa where existing infrastructure does not reach poorer or rural populations. More than 50 per cent of India’s population still does not have access to a toilet and is forced to defecate in the open, according to Jan Willem Rosenboom, senior programme officer at the Gates Foundation.

The Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India, co-hosted by the Gates Foundation and India’s Department of Biotechnology, tasked researchers with creating a toilet that can operate without access to water, mains electricity or a sewer system, and which costs $0.05 per person, per day.

“Our vision is to make a complete, sustainable toilet,” said Midhu SV, research and development project manager at Eram Scientific Solutions, one of the grant winners whose e-toilet uses bio-digestion technology to treat waste. Eram currently has 400 toilets already in use around India.

“There were some behavioural inhibitions at first, people were afraid [of the e-toilet]. Now the situation has improved and they are welcome. Schools especially need lots of toilets, so there is a good opportunity," he said.

More than 100 Indian research organisations entered designs in the competition. Some 15 short-listed innovators were given just six weeks to develop their projects ahead of the 3-day event.