Navigating Public Toilets in the City
April 25, 2012
By Ned Breslin, CEO at Water For People
Sometimes, all it takes is a little outside-the-box thinking to make a difference, as Ned Breslin describes of a recent trip to Rwanda’s capitol.
Regardless of what city in the world you are in, finding a clean public facility to take a crap is no easy task.
One of the greatest sanitation challenges is that people’s experiences with sanitation are abysmal: toilets are smelly; toilets are dirty; toilets are clogged. Public toilets are worse — they are needed, but it’s an adventure navigating urine spills and the crap on the floor that is being moved around on everyone’s shoes. And school facilities — wow. Let’s not even go there, pun intended.*
My friend Valentin addresses these issues head-on in Kigali, the capital and largest city of Rwanda, home to nearly 1 million people. Though Kigali is super clean — I mean, it’s so clean here that I am tempted to throw a wrapper on the street, because I am fairly convinced that people wait in the bushes for any sign of litter, then jump out quickly and put it properly in the solid waste bin — just like most cities around the globe, one of Kigali’s greatest challenges is access to clean and hygienic public restrooms.
Which is where Valentin, a sanitation entrepreneur who is developing a pay-for-use public latrine network in the city, comes in. He is transforming the negative perceptions of public latrines: his latrines are clean; his latrines are well lit; his latrines offer a range of services, from laundry and shoe shining to showers and cell phone services.
Furthermore, Valentin’s latrines are well used, probably because he redesigns his systems based on customer feedback: pit depths change; new compartments to manage urine and feces are added; entrances are beautified to be more inviting. Valentin listens to people and is a keen observer of customer behavior. He is gifted that way.
He has all kinds of actionable ideas that add another management and logistical step to his business model — for example, he has installed urine-diverting toilets, and he is selling urine and composted feces to farmers — yet, every time I see Valentin, he has a new idea. And he always has made dramatic improvements since I last saw him.
Since I saw him at the end of February, I’ve been anxious to see Valentin’s latest adaptation. I had heard rumors that his newest latrine block is going to include an exterior wall where movies and adverts could be shown — forward thinking and business savvy!
But Valentin had another surprise in store for me.
In the early morning, as I pulled up to the site — which was still under construction — Valentin rushed to the car, gave me a big hug, and pulled me into the women’s latrines that were still being finished. We walked in the big entrance, and I immediately noticed something different.
Yes, the sinks and faucets were there, as were the line of stalls with squatting pans. But, as we entered the facility, I could see there was a huge room near the back that was completely new and unlike the typical Rwandan facilities. There was a big entrance to the room, with a large door guarding the entrance. Inside the latrine stall was a wide-open space and porcelain-tiled “bench,” where the urine diverting toilet seat settled nicely. This is what was strange, as Rwandans squat to defecate. They do not sit down.
“Do you get it?” Valentin asked me, smiling.
I smiled back and said, “Tell me.”
Valentin replied with an even bigger grin. “This is my EVERYONE room.”
I applauded without hesitation, smiling ear to ear.
What do you think?