top of page

Sanitation Innovation: Do we really need to reinvent the toilet?


If we accept the need to change, or to do ‘business as unusual’, then we need Innovation. Innovation is important for us, our planet, and the future of humanity. Let’s agree on that and now focus on how we nurture and finance innovation for the purpose of achieving SDG6.2, universal access to sanitation. This blog attempts that in 3 parts:

  1. From the top: Which donors are talking innovation, and prioritizing it?

  2. From the bottom: Which innovation ‘nurturers’ are seeking out and supporting local innovators?

  3. In the middle: How is the global WASH innovation ecosystem linking up decisions, actions, stakeholders, and funding, from the top to the bottom and vice versa?

Part 1 - From the top

Let’s pick four well-known WASH donors out of the hat; USAID; The UN; The World Bank; The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and hear their talk on innovation:

USAID & innovation

USAID have four guiding principles in their 2022-2027 Global Water Strategy, of which the third is to “leverage data, research, learning, and innovation”. Their strategy reveals a commonly-held perspective that innovation is largely the realm of the private sector which “ – at local, national, regional, and global levels – is an essential stakeholder in building functioning capital markets and financial systems, mobilizing commercial capital, and promoting market-based innovations that meet the needs of all segments of society and contribute to closing the global financing gap for water and sanitation.” Sounds about right, but I will qualify their ‘faith in the markets’ approach by stating that market-based innovations will NOT meet the needs of ALL segments of society UNLESS huge subsidies are available to reach the poorest of the poor. Indeed, the USAID strategy immediately exposes one of the key questions about innovation on the route to SDG6.2: What are the roles of the public and private sectors? Let’s discuss that question briefly by referring to a couple of excellent books on the subject.

Clayton M. Christensen’s ‘The Prosperity Paradox’ provides a compelling essay on how innovation can drive economic growth and create prosperity. Christensen argues that whilst the private sector is generally better at identifying and developing new technologies and business models that can create economic value, it relies upon the public sector to create the environment for innovation to flourish, especially in developing countries. Mariana Mazzucato’s ‘The Entrepreneurial State’ delves further into the public-private dynamic and demonstrates the role of the US government as the main investor, risk-taker, and innovation nurturer for innovations from the internet to biotech to the iphone. After reading these books, I conclude that innovation is for everyone with ideas, regardless of the sector they work in, and that innovation is not borne in isolation in the private sector. Logically therefore, collaborative Public-Private Partnerships will have a huge role in unlocking scalable sanitation innovation.

The UN & innovation

The UN recognizes that time is running out on SDG6 so they launched an acceleration framework in 2020 (I know, I missed it too) to “deliver fast results, at an increased scale, towards the goal of ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.” In the UN’s acceleration framework, innovation gets its own spot as one of five cross-cutting and interdependent ‘accelerators’ which are shown in the figure below. The UN’s innovation accelerator is important because “New, smart practices and technologies will improve water and sanitation resources management and service delivery.”

UNICEF’s 2016-2030 strategy suggests the same perspective as USAID, i.e. innovation belongs to the private sector: “The Strategy includes more extensive involvement with the private sector and other new partners to encourage innovation… UNICEF recognizes that the private sector can contribute talent, innovation, capacity, expertise and resources … Innovation relies on new partners, especially from within the private sector”. UNICEF does however highlight the importance of innovation nurturers (“Innovation does not emerge in a vacuum; it must be encouraged and nurtured”) but falls short of describing the nurturing role of the public sector, or of UNICEF itself.

The United Nations Conference on trade and development (UNCTAD) recently published a report on “Ensuring Safe Water and Sanitation for All: A Solution through Science, Technology and Innovation”. It highlights the importance of the public sector when it states “national governments, particularly from developing countries, are encouraged to cultivate and empower local innovation ecosystems”. The report also recognizes the wide spectrum of innovation, including technological innovation, process innovation, policy and governance innovation, and social innovation.

The World Bank & innovation

The World Bank’s GWSP (Global Water Security Partnership) is “an action-oriented global think tank focused entirely on the water sector” which lists two initiatives on its website:

The Utility of The Future (UoF) aims “to guide utilities in initiating and maintaining reform efforts.” Such a mission must surely embrace innovation, and indeed it does, as the first of the four dimensions from its success pyramid (see figure): “A UoF is (1) innovative, (2) inclusive, (3) market- and customer-oriented, and (4) resilient”. Innovation for a UoF uses a simple definition: “a change made in the nature or fashion of anything; something newly introduced; a novel practice, method, and so on”.

City-wide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS) “looks to shift the urban sanitation paradigm, aiming to ensure everyone has access to safely managed sanitation by promoting a range of solutions.” CWIS focusses on service provision and its enabling environment, rather than on building infrastructure. Shifting the paradigm requires shifting mindsets, specifically to “rethink the way sanitation infrastructure is funded and challenge approaches that subsidize sewers but not onsite sanitation, that do not embrace innovation and do not consider running costs.” So, the World Bank embraces innovation, but it’s not clear how they nurture it.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation & innovation

You would expect a focus on innovation from the technology folk who brought us 90’s clippy, and indeed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) should be celebrated in their focus on sanitation: “Solving the sanitation challenge in the developing world will require breakthrough innovations in technologies as well as systems that are practical, cost-effective, and replicable on a large scale.” However, I have yet to learn how their flagship sanitation innovation initiative, The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, has broken through. It has certainly raised awareness, nurtured innovators, and put a dent in the ‘Poop taboo’, but perhaps the greatest lesson from The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is that the innovation journey for sanitation is not an easy one, and can take a long time, even if funded by a billionaire.

That’s the end of part 1, on innovation ‘from the top’. Using 4 donors (USAID; The UN; The World Bank; The Gates Foundation) as an indicator, we can conclude that there is:

  • a lot of talk on the importance of innovation by powerful WASH donors;

  • a widely held perception that the private sector is the home of innovation; and

  • less recognition that public sector involvement is also critical.

Now let’s explore innovation from the bottom up.

Part 2 - From the bottom

Which innovation ‘nurturers’ are seeking out and supporting local innovators? The key word here is local. Water and sanitation services cannot be copied & pasted globally (the ‘cookie cutter’ approach) and be expected to work the same in different contexts. Unlike top-down efforts to fund sanitation innovation, bottom-up nurturing of sanitation innovation must respect local nuance. Let’s use a well-known innovation, the wheel, to make the case for local nuance in innovation.

The wheel continues to be a useful global innovation which is adaptable to all countries and contexts, it is even used on the Moon and on Mars. In each context it is adapted so as to be fit for purpose according to the vehicle it carries, the paths and roads it uses, and the supply chain that keeps it spinning. The wheel, whilst being a global innovation, still requires local innovation to adapt to each specific context.

Like the wheel, defecation is also global (and when nature calls, also on the Moon and on Mars), but we know that the nuances of toilets and their systems are many. The flush toilet for example, is not an innovation fit for all contexts because it requires advanced operation and maintenance for it to be safely managed. A latrine is less advanced technologically and so perhaps more accessible, but it is broadly considered inappropriate for urban settings. Like the wheel, latrines and flush toilets have been around for ages, but getting them to function safely in a specific context, with a specific enabling environment, for a specific group of people, requires… you guessed it: Local innovation!

We know that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we also know that it performs better if adapted locally, by innovators. We know in general terms what a toilet is supposed to do for its users and their public and environmental health, but do we know how to adapt it for every single context to be safe along the entire sanitation service chain? No. We don’t, and that’s the part we’re still figuring out in most countries. Moreover, to borrow from the UNCTAD report, whereas technological innovation might be transferrable, it’s the realm of process innovation, policy and governance innovation, and social innovation, that needs most local adaptation. Moreover, technology-focused ‘hardware’ experts (e.g. Engineers) might not be the best cadre of professionals within the WASH sector to focus on those innovation dimensions.

If we accept that local innovators are essential in figuring out the local details, then we need to nurture them. How do we do that? We need to look locally at how sanitation innovators are nurtured, so this blog narrows its focus to provide examples from two contexts and draw conclusions from these. The two contexts are Lake Victoria in East Africa, and Haïti.

Lake Victoria

The Lake Victoria basin is home to over 40M people in five countries of East Africa. It is the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and it is badly polluted. Despite the millions of dollars of aid money which has poured into Lake Victoria for decades, water quality continues to deteriorate, and poor sanitation persists whether in rural or urban communities. In order to nurture local sanitation innovators as part of a Lakewide Inclusive Sanitation mission, The Lake Victoria Pooptank was launched in July 2021.

The Pooptank is an online sanitation gameshow which rewards early-stage innovators with grant funding (money) and technical assistance (mentoring) which is inclusive, agile, non-bureaucratic and FUN! The first Lake Victoria Pooptank ran for 8 months from July 2022 to March 2023 under the auspices of The Sanitation Innovation Fund (a US-based non-profit organization) with OPERO Services as the local host. OPERO Services are pioneers in supporting local WASH innovators in Kenya and East Africa. OPERO’s philosophy of nurturing innovators uses a four-phase business development ‘pipeline’:

  • Educate:  E.g. A sanitation hackathon; A short, fun activity involving students.

  • Innovate:  E.g. The Lake Victoria Pooptank. An innovation challenge over several months, with money & mentoring, for early-stage innovators invited to solve a specific problem.

  • Incubate:  An incubator over several months to a year, with more money & mentoring, for existing organizations to bring their ideas to market.

  • Accelerate:  An accelerator over several months to a year, with even more money & advanced mentoring, for existing organizations to raise investment and scale their impact.

Each of these developmental phases require different financial and technical resources and different methods of procurement to cultivate and empower local innovation ecosystems and involve as many innovators as possible.

The procurement method for the Lake Victoria Pooptank was a competition, launched in May 2022. It attracted 20 applicants from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, and rewarded three finalists with money and mentoring. The Pooptank pitches, lessons, and results were livestreamed on the Pooptank show, along with innovator’s videos, panelist questions, and an interactive discussion. The winning ideas included local action on regulation of pit emptiers in Mwanza (Tanzania), a schools behavior change program ‘Niko Na Role’ in Kisumu (Kenya), and a new anthem for Lake Victoria performed by schoolchildren in Kampala (Uganda).

The 2022-23 Pooptank showed the potential for a bootstrapped sanitation innovation challenge to galvanize stakeholders around local innovators who were all addressing a real issue in their lives; water quality in Lake Victoria. The Pooptank was able to mobilize ideas from within the local innovation ecosystem, provide just enough funding for innovators to launch their innovation, and provide mentor support to each innovator.

The Pooptank was unable to sustain the funding throughout the innovation cycle but was able to generate enough interest and encouragement for a future Pooptank 2.0, led by OPERO Services with support from the Sanitation Innovation Fund.

Lessons learned from the first Pooptank experience were:

  • Fundraising for sanitation innovation challenges is hard work and requires time and commitment. However, it is possible to get going with a few good people who share the same vision.

  • Fundraising for early-stage innovation is particularly difficult because these innovations are high risk and usually not ‘bankable’. It is difficult to pitch these innovations to funders who – understandably - always want impact and value for money.

  • Mobilizing volunteer resources to work as mentors and panelists is possible but demands a significant networking commitment which is difficult to sustain and grow if led by volunteers.

  • Depending on the nature of the innovation, small cash prizes (the Pooptank rewarded $3000US for Gold, $2000US for Silver, $1000US for Bronze) can make a huge difference to an innovator’s journey and catalyze other activities in their system.

  • A fun online platform can raise awareness and disrupt entrenched barriers to inclusivity by giving local innovators visibility to national, regional, and international stakeholders operating within the same system (e.g. the Lake Victoria basin) and allow them to connect.

To borrow the slogan from 2022’s World Toilet Day on groundwater protection for a pithy summation of The Lake Victoria Pooptank: ‘The Pooptank: Making the invisible visible’.


Amongst the many donor programs which come & go in Haïti’s WASH sector, USAID’s Haiti Water & Sanitation project (WATSAN) was a $42M USAID activity running from 2018 to 2022. Its main activity in terms of nurturing innovation was through an enterprise acceleration fund of $1.5M, or 3% of the total program budget. The fund awarded 7 grants; 3 for water and 4 for sanitation. The final evaluation report has useful lessons for large WASH programs which support innovation:

  • Search... for strategic alignment between innovation activities, institutional capacity building and infrastructure, so that innovation can be leveraged to benefit these larger and better financed activities.

  • Simplify... or streamline the traditional bureaucracy of large programs for the benefit of innovators so that they can concentrate on their work and are not distracted by cumbersome administration and communications.

  • Take effort... to discuss sustainability of operations. Talk OPEX.

  • Co-create!... It is essential for ownership and empowerment of local stakeholders. Innovation stems from ideas, so frame the innovation support around the idea, with the innovator, or risk falling into the ‘top-down’ implementation paradigm.

That’s the end of part 2, on innovation ‘from the bottom’. Two examples, a bootstrapped low-budget innovation challenge around Lake Victoria, and a multi-million-dollar program by an institutional donor in Haïti, have highlighted some lessons on how to nurture local innovators.

Part 3 asks how we can join the dots of our global WASH innovation ecosystem.

Part 3 – In the middle

In this blog, we have learned that there are major WASH donors who value and prioritize (and therefore fund) sanitation innovation, and there are innovation nurturers like OPERO Services who directly reward and empower local innovators. These are promising signs to be sure, but there remains a huge amount of work to build an innovation ecosystem befitting the challenge of achieving universal sanitation. The problem as I have come to understand it, is not the amount of money coming from the top or the presence of passionate changemakers operating at the bottom, but it is the missing middle; the absence of efficient and inclusive collaboration mechanisms which link top to bottom, bottom to top, and squeeze the creative juices out of all members of a system.

Whichsoever of the many labels you give your system (e.g. a CWIS system; a WASH system; an IWRM system; etc.) it is in essence always the same; a jumble of cause and effect which defies clear definition, and a broad range of people across a broad range of sectors with wildly diverse values and motivations. Some of these people will be teachers, some will be policy makers, some will be community health workers and others will be engineers. All of them may all be innovators if innovative thinking is nurtured across all sectors of their system. Their ideas may even affect great change if they are rallied around a common vision.

Vision is essential when nurturing innovators because it provides a ‘North Star’ which guides their journey. An innovator’s journey is usually not in a straight line and often suffers from being blown backwards as much as enjoys being propelled forwards. Innovators are passionate obsessives, for whom a guiding North Star lights the darkness even when their heads are buried in the details of their problem. To articulate vision with clarity is a task which may not come naturally to all innovators, but it is an important first step if they are to attract people, opportunities, and capital. An innovator’s vision should also connect intuitively to the broader vision for the system. If it does not, then connecting the dots between the local innovator and other system stakeholders (like a sanitation donor or investor) will be much harder.

If a clear and powerful vision is important for all stakeholders in a system, then identifying the lead and supporting roles is another vital step. The proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” could be adapted to “It takes a village to raise an inclusive system of equitable water and sanitation services”. This ‘village’, to be effective on local, national, and regional levels, requires an inclusive society of local, national, and regional government, utilities, businesses, donors, and households. The global village, working on an international level through different kinds of aid, is there to distribute the available global wealth and knowledge, for the benefit of these local systems. But does it? Concomitant with its holistic approach, the rhetoric (pawòl) of systems-thinking can often become complicated and ‘noisy’, such that the ‘collaborative middle’ that we seek, becomes muddled. The result is that the mechanisms of collaboration are neither inclusive nor efficient, and we do not take the necessary care to nurture our greatest resource, our own creative minds.

The Sanitation Innovation Fund was established to meet this challenge; to offer an alternative means of collaboration and procurement to facilitate a more inclusive and efficient transfer of money and technical support to local innovators, and act as a catalyst for other activities and changes within the system. The Sanitation Innovation Fund also raises awareness through a fun and accessible front-facing instrument ‘The Pooptank show’. The Sanitation Innovation Fund and OPERO Services are demonstrating the kind of inclusive collaboration mechanism that our global village needs to innovate, educate, and connect. Many more are needed, especially in countries struggling towards the objectives of SDG6. Each one should be tailored to the local context they support, but they can all relate to a common vision with radical collaboration at its heart.

Part 4 - At the End

At the end, we are left with the innovator, and the innovator’s spirit. Like a sanitation system being designed around its users, the support to innovator’s must be centered upon them and their needs. The lake Victoria Pooptank 2022-23 cohort have left us in no doubt about the role of the innovator; through the rallying cry of Carolyne Odero from Kenya; “Niko Na Role!”, we all have a role!; the positivity of Saul Mwandosya from Tanzania “there is always something you can do in sanitation. You can always talk to people.”; and the soulful vocals of Juliet Mukunde from Uganda as she sings “Lake Victoria, the source of all our waters, you give life to the region, you are our pride!”

This blog is dedicated to the passion of the Lake Victoria Pooptank innovators: Carolyne Odero, Saul Mwandosya, and Juliet Mukunde; you are our pride!

180 views0 comments


bottom of page