A Note about Toilets (and Social Entrepreneurship)

Amy Sample Ward
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I can think of no better introduction to the topic of sanitation than the words of a former professor of mine: "I know its seems mundane and a little gross," she said to our class, "but what a society chooses to do with its poop and pee is one of the most important public health decisions it can make."  Despite the importance of sanitation reform in the developing world, it has to be one of the least glamorous fields out there.  Until recently, that is.

I can think of no better introduction to the topic of sanitation than the words of a former professor of mine: "I know its seems mundane and a little gross," she said to our class, "but what a society chooses to do with its poop and pee is one of the most important public health decisions it can make."   Despite the importance of sanitation reform in the developing world, it has to be one of the least glamorous fields out there.   Until recently, that is.

David Kuria and Jack Sim are both pioneers in the sanitation sectors within Africa and Asia, respectively, and they have been earning the accolades and respect that their work deserves.   Both men have been awarded Ashoka-Lemelson Fellowships, distinguishing them as leading social entrepreneurs with groundbreaking ideas for social change.   Over the past three years, both they have also received the coveted Schwab Foundation's Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award for their work. For both of these outstanding individuals, their work has focused around transforming the way their communities see toilets.

ashoka lemelson fellowship sanitation kiberaLeft: Sanitation problems in a Kibera slum. Below: Example of one of David Kuria's IKO Toilets. Special thanks to flickr/John Sauer for letting us use these pictures.

David's organization, IKO Toilets, transforms run-down toilet stations in Kenya into mini shopping malls where customers can even get their shoes shined. David offers customers the ability to pay for using these toilets through mobile phone technology.

ashoka lemelson fellowship nairobi toiletJack, through his World Toilet Organization (not to be mistaken with the other WTO) is revamping the field of sanitation worldwide by bringing technical, financial, organizational, and market-related strategies to citizen organizations working on sanitation.   For all of you inventors out there: while you are visiting his website make sure to check out Jack's timeline of toilet inventors.

Another Ashoka-Lemelson Fellow working in the toilet business, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, who was awarded the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize.   The press release states that, "Since he established the Sulabh Sanitation Movement in 1970, Dr. Pathak has worked to change social attitudes toward traditional unsanitary latrine practices in slums, rural villages, and dense urban districts, and developed cost effective toilet systems that have improved daily life and health for millions of people."   The article goes on that, "He has also waged an ongoing campaign to abolish the traditional practice of manual "scavenging" of human waste from bucket latrines in India while championing the rights of former scavengers and their families to economic opportunity, decent standards of living, and social dignity."

Clean or dirty, this is the type of innovative work that the Ashoka - Lemelson partnership is trying to support with its cohort of Social Entrepreneurs in Technology and Innovation.   The Fellows, selected via a rigorous application process, represent top-tier change makers involved in the production of technological innovation, the creation of markets and an enabling environment for the dissemination of socially driven technologies, as well as those helping cultivate the next generation of inventors around the world.   You can meet the current star-studded class of inventor-entrepreneurs here, as well as nominate candidates to the Fellowship (yes, we're looking for more) here.

About Ashoka-Lemelson Fellowships

ashoka techAshoka and the Lemelson Foundation believe that invention and social entrepreneurship can align in powerful ways to improve the world and enable people to be changemakers and problem-solvers. Visit our cohort of Ashoka-Lemelson Fellows, top-tier changemakers involved in the creation of technological innovation, markets, and enabling environments for the dissemination of socially driven technologies, as well as the cultivation of the next generation of inventors around the world. Check us out. Consider signing up for our newsletter, checking out our blog, and nominating yourself or a friend who meets our selection criteria.

This guest post is from Ryan Richards, a Summer Associate at Ashoka.