Jack Sim: World Toilet Organisation and the BOP Hub

By Bhavani Prakash

JACK SIM  is well known for his initiatives to bring world attention to the need for recognising sanitation as a basic necessity for human beings. He is the Founder of World Toilet Organisation(WTO), and the globally celebrated World Toilet Day on 19th November.  At the International Singapore Compact CSR Summit in September 2013, he spoke with Bhavani Prakash of Green Collar Asia about the creation of a BOP Hub representing the opportunities to serve people at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) throughout the world.


Jack Sim

GCA: What’s the story behind World Toilet Organisation and World Toilet Day?

Jack Sim: We started the World Toilet Organization in 2001 on 19th of November. We named the day, World Toilet Day which then began to be celebrated day all over the world. It has been gaining a lot of traction. Over the last 13 years, last year, we reached a 3.3 billion potential viewership for the website which is very large indeed.

Then we had the audacity to ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore to table World Toilet Day on 19th November as a UN day. At first they were very sceptical about tabling such a resolution. I persuaded them to give me half an hour for a presentation and if they didn’t like it, they could choose not to do it. We went on for one and a half hours and then they said that it was so good. They wondered why they didn’t know about it before, and supported it. Once they started to support it, it took almost 10 months of intense lobbying in New York as well as to draft the resolution.

It was Monaco’s National Day on 19th November so they were a little bit skeptical at first but eventually we managed to tell them that they would be proud of it and then they endorsed it. India did not sponsor the resolution, but of course they did not object. The reason they didn’t support by sponsorship was due to the fact that 19th of November was Indira Gandhi’s birthday. There were 122 countries sponsoring that resolution.  We then worked with the likes of Unilever, UNICEF, WSSCE and WATER AID and Wash United.  We are trying to bring as many people as possible this year on 19th of November where we’re celebrating in a big way in New York with a few celebrities.

GCA: What was the key message that inspired the adoption of the resolution?

Jack Sim:. They had no idea what the World Toilet Organization was doing outside of Singapore,  because the Singapore local media only covered toilet cleanliness. It was an opportunity for them to understand that a Made-in-Singapore NGO has gone global and was able to touch the life of so many people, which was quite a revelation for them. They didn’t realise that Singaporean could do such a thing.

GCA: What is the key mission of WTO?

Jack Sim: The mission of WTO is to improve the state of sanitation and toilet conditions around the world and it straddles both the areas of poverty where people don’t have toilets or have untreated excreta. To the modern developed world where there are public toilets, they are still unpredictably dirty. So you could start from our country’s coffee shops and hawker centers where common toilets are very dirty. Next are toilets in MRT stations. Then you can go to China where toilets are very bad and then to India where people have no toilets at all. And then you go to Japan thinking that everything would be fine but they still have dirty toilet issues by their own expectations which are very high. So our mission is to straddle all world issues about toilets and that covers provision, standards, media, public education, behavior, architectural design, return on investment, tourism, pollution control and everything.

GCA: Why do you think we having sanitation issues and what are the effects?

Jack Sim: Toilet and sanitation are multifaceted problems. If you don’t have school toilets, then adolescent girls will drop out once they reach maturity because they miss school often and soon cannot follow the curriculum. Open defecation has caused 90% of all surface water in India to be polluted by feaces, as a result of which they cannot drink water or bathe or wash their clothes so other kinds of diseases arise because you didn’t stop the sanitation issue. There are many other issues like diarrhoea, death, the dignity problem, and rape due to the fact that girls and women have to use the bushes. In fact I am writing a Bollywood story about life as an adult to capture all this.

I think that the real reason why all this is not addressed is because we don’t talk about it. The humanitarian sector talks about water but very seldom talk about sanitation.

GCA: Tell us about how offering services to those at the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ (BOP) can solve social or environmental problems and how you are a part of it.

Jack Sim: The poor need all kinds of things –  they need clothing, food, water filters, cooking stoves, solar lamps, low cost housing, sanitation, education, healthcare, clothing, pharmaceuticals, vehicles, entertainment and sports. So actually the poverty market place is very similar to ours. The only difference is that the price point is lower because their affordability is much less.  Also because the number of dollars that is circulating is less, the multiplier effect is not strong because it is a cash economy. The cash economy also means that the government cannot tax them and they cannot recycle the money around. So I think that if we were to bring jobs, it has to be through entrepreneurships which generate jobs and teach people vocational skills. Then you will have a bigger BOP market place, and a more efficient market place. When you bring in competition, as the demand grows, people will compete and innovate to make everything cheaper, faster, better and easier.

All this thought process needs to be built as a market infrastructure to bring in more efficiency, which is why I created the BOP Hub as I want to turn poverty into a vibrant market place. Now there are a lot of centres around the world talking about BOP, but they are mostly from educational centres. What is needed now is commercial centres for BOP.  I think that companies going into the BOP is good; and the more they go in, the more competitive they become, and this will benefit customers in the long run.

GCA: Is there some concern about how corporates are entering the BOP market, viewing it as yet another market opportunity, without necessarily  bearing in mind the environmental, the social, the cultural impact of their entry?

Jack Sim: I think there are stages in the learning curve. In the beginning companies go in thinking that if everything is in a smaller package and cheaper, we will be able to sell to the poor. The answer is yes, you can sell to them because I have visited provision shops in the BOP market, where they sell a plastic cube of oil, or soya sauce. Shampoos are better packed but oil and soya sauce and salt, they are packed by the shop keeper herself, and this proves that people are only able to have cash in very small amounts. The number of dollars out there to buy all this stuff will remain the same unless you create jobs and income. So you have to think holistically as if you are running a government. You are going to bring entrepreneurs, bring investment, train the locals to have some skill to do the job and then the economy will start to turn. And if the people are trading amongt themselves, that is good.

A company’s learning curve is that if they start to think in a cut and paste manner, soon they will realise that things may not work. They start to rearrange and adjust and adapt so that they can increase their business penetration. But several companies have a long-term view. For example with Unilever, the idea was to work with them to train people to build toilets and then when people have more toilets, then they will buy detergents in the future. They may not all buy detergents from Unilever but the fact that Unilever is a market leader they might take 25% of the market. So every toilet is a one quarter toilet market for them. So I think these are very wise and long term views. Of course internally the Unilever staff and employee love the fact that their company is doing this, so there is a lot of communication internally as well.

GCA: The concern we have is, say with detergents for example, what are the environmental impacts in terms of the quality of detergents and how does that affect the local water bodies and so on?  Some companies may just use the space to push their products while not considering holistically the impact on the community, environmentally or culturally.

Jack Sim: I think that if they do things that are culturally not acceptable, it will not work. If it is economically not affordable it will not work. However, the environmental angle sometimes does go unnoticed. Even I really don’t know what chemicals are in the shampoo I used in the morning. I think that it is a very big agenda perhaps another NGO or platform can address. I was told that every day I consume tens of thousands of chemical particles that might not be able to be treated by the water filtration system and eventually I was just thinking, what if all these chemicals became incompatible with us and one day all of us are impotent or we face serious illnesses because of these chemicals?  This year in the Davos World Economic forum, there was a big report about vaccines and immunology problems when doctors keep on prescribing these antibiotics. If you consume antibiotics now, it may not have any effect anymore,  in fact it reduces your immunology against other diseases. So we have to research and figure that out.

GCA: What are you looking at to organise the BOP hub event next year in 2014? Who are the players you are looking to attract, what would success look like to you?

Jack Sim: Success would be a big exhibition and conference where people can come and trade and implement solutions and show people that these products are available and this market place is available. When supply and demand meet, people understand new techniques and technologies, meet new vendors, find funders, and buy the supplies and run the business.

I think that BOP is the next big blue ocean, it is the biggest opportunity ever presented for the last 100 years because the world used to be BOP. Then it became 3 billion of us on top of the pyramid and now the bottom 4 billion will become the next wave. By converging business and social objectives together, I think we will be able to largely end poverty and have a much more equitable and fair society and deliver social justice while running the business. And this is the philosophy that we need to propagate to all companies through the social media so that the consumers themselves would demand it.


About the Interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the founder of Green Collar Asia, a thought-leadership portal on developments in the green jobs sector and sustainability, where macro-level trends, as well as insights from green professionals, entrepreneurs and experts are brought together. Green Collar Asia is the media division of Worthy Earth, a media, recruitment and training firm.
Bhavani is a speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector. She has an MBA (PGDM) from Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an M.Sc in Financial Economics from University of London. She is also a certified EQ Coach with Six Seconds.org
Connect with Green Collar Asia on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Bhavani Prakash may be contacted via bp[at]greencollarasia.com or through LinkedIn

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