Partners for sustainable sanitation

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working to reinvent toilets and save the lives of 4.5 billion people who lack, or live without, safely managed sanitation solutions. In this interview, Doulaye Koné, Deputy Director on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at the Gates Foundation, explains why they reached out to ISO for help.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together,” says Doulaye Koné, quoting a popular African proverb. He speaks calmly but confidently about his mission to save people’s lives through engineering. A native of Côte d’Ivoire, Doulaye is the Chair of ISO/PC 305, a project committee that exemplifies like no other why standards and innovation go hand in hand.

The committee is working to establish requirements for the next generation of sustainable sanitation systems. They want to reinvent the toilet. “We have been to the moon, and we carry super computers in our pockets, but we haven’t changed our toilets in two hundred years,” explains Doulaye. This ambitious goal to drive innovation through standards came at the request of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where Doulaye has his day job. So how did this story begin? And why did the Gates Foundation turn to ISO?

ISOfocus: Why is the Gates Foundation interested in toilets?
Photo: Doulaye Koné 
Doulaye Koné
Doulaye Koné, Deputy Director on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Gates Foundation, and Chair of ISO/PC 305.

Doulaye Koné: The Gates Foundation is a philanthropic organization. Our objective is to reduce poverty in the world and ensure that children have equal opportunities to thrive. One way to do this is to eradicate deadly diseases.

Many of the people reading this interview will have trouble believing that poor sanitation is still a major source of illness. We take our flush toilets for granted, yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 800 000 people, many of them young children, die every year because of inadequate sanitation. This is tragic on its own, but the consequences are far-reaching. The World Bank has estimated that poor sanitation costs billions to some countries, amounting to a significant impact on economic growth. As an example, poor sanitation costs the equivalent of 6.3 % of GDP in Bangladesh, 6.4 % of GDP in India, 7.2 % of GDP in Cambodia, 2.4 % of GDP in Niger, and 3.9 % of GDP in Pakistan – annually.

What solutions are there?

The traditional flush toilet and sewer system as you know it was invented two hundred years ago. It has helped save lives and increase life expectancy in industrialized countries, as acknowledged by the results of an international poll run by the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in 2007. However, in the last two hundred years, toilet and sewer technology has not changed. These systems aren’t enough anymore, being impractical and too expensive for many developing regions to use as a long-term sanitation solution. First, because water is scarce. Second, because you need energy to collect and treat water, and send it to people’s homes. Both these resources are expensive: flushing six litres of water every time you go to the toilet is a luxury. And that’s only part of the problem. Processing waste is crucial to protect the environment, but it’s also a tremendous energy cost. It’s time to rethink the system.

This is what we are working on at the Gates Foundation. We think there is an opportunity to come up with a new service model, a new industry, that can operate off-grid, outside the sewer system. We are working with partners to develop and test a suite of technologies, business and service models. But these solutions will only work with new entrepreneurship, and the right policies and regulations at the national and local levels.

Public restrooms at the top of Mount Sinai.
Why did the Gates Foundation reach out to ISO?

Before we came to ISO, I spent almost five years at the Gates Foundation, working with partners to develop new waste treatment technologies that could work off-grid. We weren’t just looking for an alternative, we wanted something better – a toilet that would be safe, environmentally sound and just as comfortable as existing ones. We even partnered up with one of the largest fragrance manufacturers to investigate the possibility of making them odour-proof.

The result? We have found out that it’s possible to create these next-generation toilets. The response has been positive and now we are working on ways to get these toilets used on a large scale. But we don’t represent the global community and we don’t make the rules that can ensure these new technologies are safe and provide consistent quality for users. That’s why we need to work with ISO.

Simply put, to take our project further, we need partners that can bring stakeholders together to define the rules for this new industry. With a network and expertise that spans the world, ISO is a well-structured organization and one of the best places to do just that. I really like how the standards development process achieves agreement. It’s consensus-driven and demo­cratic, and every opinion counts. We can’t achieve our goal alone, we need others to join us, so that we can make a much bigger impact by working together.

You are now the Chair of ISO/PC 305. What is your story? What led you here?

When I was a kid growing up in Côte d’Ivoire, my dream wasn’t to work on sanitation. I thought I would become an astronaut, or at the very least an airline pilot. I focused all my energy on maths, physics and chemistry and did great at university. But that’s where things changed. Most of my friends were at medical school and, through them, I learned that people in my community were dying of preventable diseases like diarrhoea, malaria and typhoid.

Think of how many bathrooms you have at home. Can you drink the tap water? Our toilets get through five, six… ten litres of water every time we flush. In my country, most people don’t have the resources to afford that luxury. It’s a tragedy that lives are lost because we can’t manage human waste.
NASA became a faraway dream as I decided to shift my focus to sanitary and environmental engineering, so that I could save lives doing something I was good at. Soon, I was leading research teams and started work at the Gates Foundation, which later brought me to ISO.

How is the committee working to address this issue?

On-site/off-grid sanitation is a new industry. In order for it to develop, we need guidelines so that innovators can invest their resources smartly. What are we looking for? The same performance and quality of service as conventional solutions, hopefully at a cheaper price. We want products that can serve anyone – a product that can be used just as well in the USA as it can in Nepal or Burkina Faso.

The solutions available today are expensive, so we need economies of scale to bring down the costs. That’s also where International Standards can help by setting specifications for products that meet the needs of a large population. Once standards are adopted in countries, they allow the industry to flourish and compete for delivering the best innovations and services at the most affordable price. A billion people in industrialized countries use toilets that consume a large amount of water and (indirectly) energy, and I am one of these people. Some cities have already started to question the sustainability of such engineering choices and are looking into alternative and innovative approaches. In developing countries, there is an opportunity to serve a large share of the 4.5 billion people with non-sewered solutions that operate as defined in the standard our committee is currently developing.

Interest is growing fast. Ten years ago, a conference or workshop on this subject would draw barely a hundred people ; today, we can convene a thousand plus. We need to build on this will and its momentum. Governments from countries like Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, China, India, Nepal, Senegal or South Africa are coming forward to champion new solutions.

Japanese toilet remote control

I am lucky to be chairing this committee. Before we joined ISO, we were not sure that we would have the right representation to solve this global challenge. Today, we have 46 countries represented in the committee, whose secretariat is co-led by ANSI, ISO’s member for the USA, and ASN, the Senegalese ISO member.

I’m really glad to see the active commitment and energetic participation of African and Asian countries. National standards bodies are contributing a lot. Our experts come from all fields, not just sanitation engineering. There are microbiologists, who can talk about the concentration of pathogens and the different solutions available to ensure safety. Industries and academia are also represented, including manufacturers and universities working on new technologies. Finally, there are networks like the African Water Association, which contributes expertise from water utilities and service providers, or The Toilet Board Coalition, which brings together businesses interested in non-sewered sanitation. As you can see, it’s a very diverse group and the conversation is always rich and engaging. We are hoping to have this innovative standard ready in 2018, so that it can help ensure better health for millions – if not billions – of people around the world. 

Maria Lazarte
Maria Lazarte

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Editor-in-Chief of ISOfocus