Podcast | The Low-How Ep3

The not-so-shitty business case for urban sanitation services

October 2022

Welcome to The Low-How, from Bopinc. Where we share our know-how about low-income markets. 

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In this episode: The business case for urban sanitation services in growing, low-income cities. 

Human shit: dealing with it is a fact of life for people living in growing cities in countries like Bangladesh and Kenya. Co-hosts Rose Nduta and Patrick Guyer get into the nitty-gritty of how businesses can provide needed sanitation services, and how business models can remain accessible to low-income consumers.

The Low-How visits Dhaka, Bangladesh to speak with Habibur Rahman, Sanitation Lead at Bopinc’s partner Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) as well as Muntasir Saqib Khan, Managing Director for Bopinc Bangladesh, about innovations and challenges in marketing sanitation as a business in cities across Bangladesh. We also hear from Rose about a similar project Bopinc supports in Kenya, and what we’re learning about how business can support universal access to sanitation in the world’s fast-growing cities. 


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About the podcast

The Low-How is a new series of podcasts, launched by Bopinc in October 2022. Each episode the Bopinc team will share our know-how about low-income markets. By harnessing the power of entrepreneurship across the value chain, we aim to improve the quality of life for consumers and entrepreneurs at the base of the economic pyramid.


Akoji John: You are listening to the low, how from Bopinc, where we share our knowhow about low income markets,

boing works with entrepreneurs and companies to make the best products and services available where the matter the most.

Beryl Oyier: We are all about using the power of entrepreneurship to fulfill aspirations and meet the needs of people at the best of the economic pyramid.

Bushra Sumaiya: Come along with us as we seek out the right innovations, right for low income markets.

Rose Nduta: Hi, I'm Rose Nduta, an Impact Officer at Bopinc .

Patrick Guyer: And I'm Patrick Guyer, Impact Measurement and Insights Lead for Bopinc. Rose, nice to see you today.

Rose Nduta: Good to meet you, Patrick.

Patrick Guyer: Hey, and so what are we talking about today on the show?

Rose Nduta: Today will be one of those interesting days where your organization allows you to talk shit on air. So yes, you'll, you'll get to understand what about shit when we get to the hang of the conversation.

Patrick Guyer: Okay. Okay. Sounds very interesting. Yes. So, so what, what is the angle on, uh, this very interesting topic for Bopinc?

Rose Nduta: So the focus will be on, uh, the business case around emptying pits, pits, and septic tanks. Um, projects that we do in different markets. So I'll be presenting about a project that we implemented in Kenya.

Patrick Guyer: Right, and that was the TRANSFORM project with Malindi Water and Sewerage Company, or MAWASCO for short, which was funded by TRANSFORM, a joint initiative between Unilever, the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and EY.

Rose Nduta: Yeah.

Patrick Guyer: Okay. And I think we also have a nice example from Bangladesh.

Rose Nduta: Oh yeah?

Patrick Guyer: Called SWEEP.

Rose Nduta: OK.

Patrick Guyer: Which was similar. This is gonna be a great episode, Rose.

Rose Nduta: Oh yes.

Patrick Guyer: In our project with SWEEP, we learned a lot about making urban sanitation services accessible to the BOP [LOUD BUZZER]. Okay. Let me explain BOP. B O P stands for base of the economic pyramid. And that's a phrase that we use to describe people who are not living in extreme poverty, but who are still making due as best they can on pretty low incomes. People living at the base of the pyramid might have a couple years of education. They might own at least some consumer goods, for example, a bicycle, a television, maybe a phone. But they still often experience social and economic exclusion and face difficulties to access a lot of very basic goods and services that they need. Now let's get back to our topic for today, about how we build a business case to offer sanitation services to urban base of the pyramid consumers.

The Low-How recently visited Dhaka, Bangladesh to learn more about a sanitation service that Bopinc has supported directly. SWEEP is a public private partnership that provides safe fecal sludge emptying services using vacuum trucks that can empty pit latrines and septic tanks from houses and other residential properties quickly and hygienically.

I spoke with Muntasir Saquib Khan, Managing Director for Bopinc Bangladesh about why these emptying services are so important in a city like Dhaka

Muntasir S. Khan: Bangladesh is, uh, a emerging market itself. So, uh, you know, the country's population is 170 million officially and, and the cities like Dhaka, it itself has 40 million people.

So you, you see like how dense we live within the cities. And if you also think about the secondary cities, they're also quite compact. And often these cities were not well planned. So some of them also don't have sewer systems in-built, even the second biggest city in Bangladesh, Chittagong. They also don't have it.

So they also, uh, rely on this storm surge drain kind of things still. So you will mostly see there are pit latrines. And also like huge apartment buildings with like huge, uh, mechanism. So that means those things regularly need to be emptied. So there is a huge demand, but this sector was always not professionally organized.

So you probably would ask, uh, we, we call them sweepers, who basically are from the informal sectors. They come and they basically clean it, but it is unhealthy for them. And it is very risky.

Patrick Guyer: We also caught up with Habibur Rahman, Sanitation Lead at Bopinc's partner, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor, or WSUP, on a stormy day in Dhaka. Fact, you'll hear some thunder booming in the background. I asked him how SWEEP makes its services available for low income consumers and what aspects of the service customers at different income levels appreciate the most.

Habibur Rahman: SWEEP offered the differential pricing strategy. So SWEEP charges, um, say 750 taka, uh, BDT 750 for higher income or institutional customers. Whereas they're surging near about 500 BDT per thousand liter of fecal sludge from low income customers, which is slightly, I mean, less than the manual pit emptiers. So they can compete with the pit emptiers as well. Actually, the institutional customers and higher income customers, they're more sensitive on environment. They're not that much price sensitive. But in case of the low income customers, they are more price sensitive.

Patrick Guyer: SWEEP partnered with Bopinc in a pilot project to design a marketing strategy for its rollout in the city of Chittagong. Through this pilot, SWEEP served over 160,000 individuals, more than 41,000 of them at the base of the pyramid.

SWEEP's reach has expanded considerably since then. Bopinc recently conducted a study to better understand the impacts of SWEEP's service for consumers in Bangladesh. Among the key findings were that half of the respondents had never used a vacuum truck service before. And in fact, the most common alternative were manual pit latrine emptiers.

However, almost one out of every three respondents felt that their quality of life had actually improved because of the service. And some of the main drivers of those positive impacts were things like having a more hygienic and clean home, enjoying better health and also a cleaner, natural environment.

Akoji John: Boom, boom. You are listening to the Low-How from Bopinc

Patrick Guyer: So Rose, we just heard a lot about the SWEEP project in Bangladesh. What about the Malindi Water project you've been working on in Kenya?

Rose Nduta: Malindi Water and, uh, sewerage company is the company that is mandated to provide the water utility for the people in Malindi. It also has a sanitation component in the next five year strategic plan. But they have not been implementing the mandate. So the population in Melinda has been using, uh, manual pit emptiers and, um, private companies to clean the, uh, spetic tanks and the pits. But, uh, it's time that, uh, Malindi felt that they need to take up that mandate and, uh, execute their role in the community.

And, uh, for them to come up with a clear marketing strategy that will work and build a business case for them, they contracted us through Unilever to support them, come up with the marketing strategy where we engage the manual pit emptiers, the landlords, the house agents, and, uh, the Malindi staff in collaboration with Sanivation and WASUP to also help with their business modeling.

Patrick Guyer: Okay. So our role was on the marketing, the marketing side, right?

Rose Nduta: Yes.

Patrick Guyer: So what kinds of things can Bopinc do to help a company in the sanitation business market? What are the, what are the challenges for marketing a service like that?

Rose Nduta: So our entry point was with their marketers who were identified by Malindi Water, from their pool of, uh, people they work with in other projects. We trained them on, uh, how to generate leads, how to nurture the leads and how to close a case and, uh, how to ensure that, uh, the relationship lasts post the service. Because it's important that, uh, when a client has a complaint, they can reach you. And it does doesn't end at, we have need and now we are gone so whatever happens after this is not my responsibility. So the after -sales is also an important aspect of, uh, successful marketing strategy. So we engage with Malindi Water um, with the help of the manual pit emptiers, because in any case, they're the ones who've been doing this, so they know the landscape better.

And they're actually the ones who are going to help Malindi Water have a successful, um, implementation of the service because they now onboarded five. Uh, who we now call sanitation champions.

Patrick Guyer: So these are five manual pit latrine emptiers who are now working with the company.

Rose Nduta: Yes. They have stopped being manual pit emptiers. Now they're sanitation champions because they're now using, um, protective gear. They're using a machine. They stopped working at night. They stopped being intoxicated for the job, because those are, were the previous practices so that you are in the right set of mind to handle that because it also involved you getting into the pits, actually emptying using a bucket. So it was a very undignifying job. However, because of, uh, the lack of jobs, it, it was almost the only option they had. And for most of them, it was the only job they've ever done.

Patrick Guyer: Wow.

Rose Nduta: Yeah. So when they had that, they are actually going to be working under the MAWASCO brand, they were happy with it and, uh, they've abandoned most of the practices they used to do. This I learned from a survey that post the pilot, uh, the marketing pilot was conducted and it was [00:10:00] successful, we would say. But, uh, we still hope that, uh, Malindi Water is going to get the right, uh, business model out of this after the marketing strategy insights.

Patrick Guyer: Okay. And so you mentioned that part of the difference that a project like this makes for the people who do this work. So, so through this model, they have a, a better quality of life at work. They have more support, protective equipment, those kinds of things. Yes. What about, what difference does this make for the consumer? What's the difference for them of work of having a service like Malindi come compared to having a, a, a manual pit latrine emptier?

Rose Nduta: So initially it could only be done at night because of the smell, but now with the introduction of, uh, Malindi Water and the use of the chemicals and the machines it's even done, uh, at midday. One nice example is, uh, there was a pit that was being emptied and, uh, the landlord of that, uh, plot was busy frying fish on the side because there's no interaction, there's no smell. There's nothing, it's just a pipe dipped into the hole and the service is offered. They feel like, uh, it is not a job that interferes with their daily life. And also the fact that Malindi is a known brand because of the water utility in as much as it has in it, in its ad, it's in adequacy. They still know where they can find them in case of anything.

There's a tall number. If you can't treat them on their phone number, you can go there physically and talk to them. Mm-hmm which they like, because the manual pit emptiers, once they're done with their job, they are gone. You don't know where to find them. The also offer reliability because for Malindi Water, you call them, they come for an assessment first. They just don't come and say, okay, let's empty this because it's ready for emptying. Sometimes if it's something that is going to collapse, they advise you that even if we empty this one, you cannot continue using it. So it also comes with a professionalism and a safety issue attached to it, which is a plus for the consumers in the end. And also the affordability in terms of, uh, clarity on prices. There are no hidden charges. It is upfront. This is a much you're going to pay because of ABC D so it's a clear cut pricing strategy.

Patrick Guyer: Okay. So the waste, when it's taken away, what happens to the waste? When the manual pit latrine emptiers take it? What happens to the waste when Malindi takes it?

Rose Nduta: So the distinction is that when the manual pit emptiers empty the pits, they go dispose the waste in an open area somewhere, they call Tim Boni, which is very unhygienic because it's open. And sometimes it, it finds its way in the Indian Ocean, which then has a ripple effect because it comes back to human consumption.

But now for Malindi Water, the plan is to have a transfer station where they'll be disposing the waste, and then they'll be generating briquettes out of the sludge. Okay. So that is the end game and the briquettes can be used for, can be burnt. Yeah. For fuel. Yeah. So it creates job for people. It creates a source of, uh, fuel that is cheap and, uh, environmental friendly. So there are many perks that come with this, uh, new sanitation service. Okay.

Patrick Guyer: I asked Muntasir and Hibibur to reflect on what they think we're learning from our work on urban sanitation and what challenges are facing the sector.

Muntasir S. Khan: One, uh, huge challenges when SWEEP was introduced as a commercial business that we have seen not only in SWEEP, but also in other social businesses. Like when we mostly see these businesses are born out of a development sector initiative. So what happens there is a lot of overlap of key HR peoples and mindsets. So it start with a noble mindset. But when you basically operationalize it, you basically forget like you are trying to do something commercial.

So I remember a fun thing. Like my colleague and I were traveling to Chittagong and trying to support these SWEEP entrepreneurs. And when we see, because the tracks were basically rented to those entrepreneurs and those were provided from the, uh, development sector money and the government, they have huge logos saying Chittagong City Corporation, or like WSUP.

Uh, so those kind of things actually confuse your customers when those truck is basically in my neighborhood? Hey, this is a city corporation truck, or is it an NGO truck? Should I really pay for my services?

Patrick Guyer: I wanted to take Muntasir's point a bit further. Isn't urban sanitation the responsibility of local governments? Why should individual households or building managers pay for this service? Habibur shared an important observation on this point.

Habibur Rahman: Problem is that municipalities or the city corporation. They don't have, I mean dedicated you need for fecal slash management, or they don't have even the workforce to provide this kind of service.

And considering that challenge, actually to address that challenge to we from the WSUP and, uh, I mean, in a series of consultations with the sector partners, we developed the SWEEP model that the SWEEP model offers a kind of service that will ensure the universal coverage.

Patrick Guyer: Muntasir picked up the point about how business can step into fill gaps in service provision the governments sometimes struggle to provide.

Muntasir S. Khan: So there is still a huge opportunity to do business around it. And the reason I focus on business, when you basically make it a business, someone is owning it. So someone is responsible. But government is a huge thing. So they might come with the service, but probably they won't be able to retain it.

So there is a sustainability issue. So I ideally see, there are a lot of opportunity, like doing a pit emptying service, maybe providing a clean water service, maybe doing a pipeline water in a village. So this opportunity lies because demand is there.

Patrick Guyer: So Rose, what are some of your conclusions from hearing about these two projects?

Rose Nduta: People want dignity and anytime dignity is involved, people are ready to board the train because pricing is always an issue. However, when you talk about dignity, then they're willing to compromise on many other things to ensure they can afford a dignifying solution. So yes, we are living up to our mission as Bopinc.

Patrick Guyer: Yeah. And I really liked what Habibur told us about differential pricing. That strikes me as an important part of good practice here. Setting the price point for the service a little higher for people who can pay and then a little lower for households with more limited budgets to make sure that that's an attractive and affordable option for them too.

It sounds also like it's critical for services like Malindi Water and SWEEP to make sure that they invest enough in marketing and thorough customer outreach to be successful too. And also it sounds like ensuring that services are consistently available when and where people need them is a pretty important element of success here too.

And lastly, Rose, I really appreciated the point that brought up in your story about Malindi Water, about how the company employs former informal pit latrine emptiers as employees for the new service. And not only does that provide them with better working conditions, but it also eases the social cost of this shake -up in the sanitation market, because that means that informal pit emptiers have a positive and continued role in the sanitation sector as employees for a company like Malindi Water, instead of being displaced completely.

Thanks a lot for joining me on this episode of the Low-How, Rose.

Rose Nduta: Thanks a lot, Patrick, for this opportunity.

Patrick Guyer: And thank you for joining us for this episode of the Low-How. Look out for more episodes coming soon. You can learn more about the Bopinc projects we discussed on the podcast today by checking out the links in the episode notes. Many thanks also to Muntasir Saqib Khan, Habibur Rahman and Shihab Uzzaman. Talk to you next time!

Akoji John: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Low-How. If you like what you heard, leave us a comment and give us a review, wherever you get your podcasts.

Bushra Sumaiya: The Low-How is brought to you by Bopinc. Learn more about us by visiting Bopinc.org and be sure to check out extra info and links about what you heard today in the episode notes.

Thanks for listening!