Toilets are serious business

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A talk with Jack Sim, the "Toilet King"

Jack Sim is the founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO), whose mission is to increase awareness of and accessibility to sanitation throughout the world.

Jack accomplishes this mission by organizing social activities and helping entrepreneurs begin their own toilet businesses. According to him, sanitation and toilets represent a serious business field with an incredibly large and growing market. Vietnam represents a virtually untapped marketplace, he says, where Vietnamese entrepreneurs can benefit from the WTO's willingness to help affiliate companies expand and succeed.

Why did you, as an entrepreneur, choose to enter the toilet business?

I have cultivated a variety of businesses since I first began my entrepreneurial career in 1984.

But in 1997, when the Singapore economy entered a recession as a result of the economic crisis in East Asia, I became unable to expand my businesses any further. I was 40 years old, and I'd already earned enough money to quit business and enjoy life. Then I looked back and I thought: what gives me a sense of purpose in my life, what makes it fulfilling? Should I continue with my existing businesses, which could no longer be expanded, or should I find a more meaningful pursuit to fill my time?

ABOUT JACK SIM

Jack Sim founded the World Toilet Organization (WTO) in 2001 with 15 members. Now WTO has 215 member organizations from 57 countries, most of which are non-government organizations. In 2005, he started the world's first World Toilet College (WTC) providing training in toilet design, maintenance, School of Sanitation and Disaster Sanitation and implementation of Sustainable Sanitation systems. Previously in 1998, he had successfully called for the foundation of the Restroom Association of Singapore.

In 2004, he was awarded the prize "For a green Singapore" by Singapore National Department of Environment. He also was named "Hero of the Environment" for 2008 by Time Magazine.

I searched for the answer, and found that there was much work to be done to improve accessibility to public toilets and sanitation systems for the poor. And I thought, this is something that I can do to make a difference. And that's how the story began.

Can toilets really be a successful large-scale business?

There is a huge market for low-cost sanitation systems for the poor. According to statistics from the United Nations, there are approximately 2.5 billion people without access to toilets in their homes, or healthy sanitation systems. If you make the simple assumption that for every five people, we need one toilet, the potential of the market becomes clear: 500 million household toilets are needed to service the total population of those in need in their homes.

Now, take that number and double it to include public toilets â€" in the workplace, in schools, traffic centers, marketplaces, disaster zones, refugee camps, and religious centers. The need for toilets is literally everywhere.

Besides toilets, there is also a need for capital, for soap, for detergent… and don't forget the high-end market of the wealthy, where the need for products to increase the pleasure of these experiences is almost unlimited.

We calculate that the sanitation market is worth roughly 1 trillion Singapore dollar (US$718.7 billion) per year, a large enough market for anyone interested in pursuing this business.

How can one create a successful toilets and sanitation business?

There is room for everyone in this business, from small and medium-sized enterprises to multinational corporations. It is essential that you know how to work with the poor, understand their needs, and design and distribute products to meet them. Of course, you also need to know about general business practices: price fixing, promotional sales, and payment methods. At WTO, we have already compiled and integrated many successful business models, and we're willing to share them with entrepreneurs who are interested in entering this profitable industry.

What new projects and initiatives are in the works at the WTO?

Our organization has developed successful techniques to deal will many types of sanitation problems. We are trying our best to organize other entrepreneurs that care about the field, and work with them to solve the problem of sanitation for the poor. We are also cooperating with small credit providers, social organizations, and communities to spread the word and educate in order to create a vibrant marketplace for toilets, and sanitation in general.

Can you talk about new sustainable technologies, such as self-cleaning toilets and solar-powered commodes that run without water?

The technological approach we take depends on the living standards and cultural norms of each country. Depending on these factors, we can supply those in need with flushing toilets, no-flush toilets, or toilets that use a biological gas system. Nowadays, there are many sustainable technologies that have been scientifically shown to be of benefit when applied to the sanitation industry. We are, once again, willing to share our knowledge and technology with entrepreneurs.

How could a Vietnamese entrepreneur or company go about becoming a WTO partner?

Contact me at jacksim@worldtoilet.org. But remember, that while the WTO provides technological and business plan support, we do not provide capital.

How can Vietnam, and Southeast Asia in general, work to promote social entrepreneurship?

Firstly, you should approach social entrepreneurs that are already building steam and working towards social goals. Maybe a company or individual doesn't realize that his business qualifies as social entrepreneurship, even though it’s being operated in a similar way and towards the same goals. When you find existing social entrepreneurs, whether they go by that name or not, you should introduce them to the public to raise awareness of the issues.

Competitions should also be organized in order to discover more unknown social entrepreneurs. Finally, social entrepreneurship should be integrated into the official curriculum in economic and business schools. In my opinion, social entrepreneurs already exist in Vietnam; we just need to discover them.

What do you see as the three most important traits for a successful social entrepreneur, and an entrepreneur in general?

You have to throw yourself into your work and be willing to tirelessly pursue your mission. It's essential that you have the ability to call others to action in order to further your goals. Finally, you must have the courage to pass your leadership to another when it will improve the development and strength of your organization. The enterprise can never be completely dependent upon any one person, because if it is and that person leaves, the enterprise could collapse.

Reported by Ngoc Tran

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