About a year or so ago, Bill of the Gates persuasion (the big honcho in charge of the Bill & Melinda Foundation) and former Microsoft CEO was all involved in judging the results of the "Reinvent the Toilet Fair" held in Seattle. Shit matters indeed!
In this fair many contenders competed for juicy prizes of 100K, 60K, and two 40K USD. The toilets had to function and fulfil a series of tough specifications. They had to work without water, sewers, electricity and sewage treatment systems. They had to be fully sustainable and reclaim water and nutrients where possible. Finally, they had to work on not more than 5 USD cents per person per day. In other words, they had to work in a low-to-no tech environment. And so Bill, the Gates, decided to do something about it to the tune of 3.2 million USD in grants because according to him 40% of the world population normal flushing toilets are a no-go and the substitutes they use end up killing about 1.5 million children per year through diarrheal diseases alone.
After frantically working for quite some time, the winners were:
- 1st Prize: solar-powered design using an electrochemical reactor to generate hydrogen gas which can be stored in fuel cells.
- 2rd Prize: sanitization design decomposing fecal sludge through anaerobic high temperature heating
- 3nd Price: sanitization design using mechanical dehydration, low-temp heat, sand filtering and ultraviolet light.
- 4rd Prize (sort of): for designing a toilet user interface.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, stupidity at its best.
What gives? Well, these toilets were designed by modern engineers, using modern engineering thinking, and modern tools and modern designs… for a low-to-no tech environment. Do you begin to see the "tiny" flaw in the process?
Can you imagine, for example, an electrochemical reactor or fuel cells or high temperature heating or mechanical stirring or ultraviolet light in… let's say… the middle of nowhere in South Africa?... Or Ethiopia? Which are two of the intended places to use this technology? Places where the cost of such toilets are more than what an adult earns in a year (even after these toilets are re-worked into consumable items through "consumer engineering")? Do you see this idea working? At all?
Sure, in the middle of Seattle under a sunny day with refreshments and other toilets at hand, it may seem workable. But only there. In the real places were needed they become nothing more than a technological marvel that nobody will be able to afford.
THE "REAL" SOLUTION
Yes, there is a real solution out there. What's worse, it's been in existence for about 150 or so years. It is the humble (albeit fully operational) composting toilet. If you want more info about this, go to Wikipedia and search for "Composting toilet".
In short, this is a toilet that does not require energy, water or anything like that, with the exception of perhaps a little bit of muscle every so often. This toilet takes fecal sludge on one end and after a few months of aerobic decomposition it generates humus also known as a highly desirable fertilizer. Sure, this toilet is not perfect as it does not sterilize for pathogens such as Ascaris eggs and others, which are a big problem precisely in the areas where these toilets are needed the most. Yet, there is yet another old technology that could easily (i.e. trivially) be applied to solve the problem: solar heating. No we are not talking about solar cells, but direct solar heating (you know, black plastic tubes containing water heated by the sun). All that is required is to elevate the temperature of the compost to anywhere between 55 to 60 Celsius for a few weeks and presto! problem solved. Something easily achievable with solar heating and anaerobic decomposition.
Yet, none of the high-tech, high-profile, user-interfaced toilets that were presented came even close to this simple, dirt-cheap and effective solution. Why? Because these solutions were not created by entrepreneurs but by academia. And academia teaches students to think inside the box, not outside the box. Entrepreneurs are typically the ones with legs firmly planted on the soil and thinking clearly.
THE MIGHTY FAILURE
We wanted to highlight this failure because it is quite common within private undertakings. Yes, we consider this to be a process that will go nowhere fast. Sure, a few students and universities will be recognized and Bill will feel great but, at the end of the day, all this effort will help nobody.
THE MIGHTY TRIUMPH
Triumph? How come? Sure! Look, Bill put his own money, not yours. He incentivized private citizens (not governments) to put their brains together and come up with a solution. His effort is costing you exactly ZERO. And, it produced results. Granted, the results were not ideal (we consider them a flop) but results nevertheless. Can you imagine if a government would to tackle this problem? It would have taken a "concerted national effort" with a massive "budgetary allocation" over "decades of efforts" to come up with a better crapper… only to fail miserably at the end when the government would have to have been bailed out by... the humble bucket. Couldn't happen? Sure… keep telling that to yourself.
Now consider this. African (and other vulnerable countries) have had this problem for at least 100 years. We know it. They knew it and did exactly ZERO to fix it. A private citizen (Bill) had to step up to the challenge and do something, even if (as we forecast) it will be a massive failure. It took Bill over one year to come up with at least three working prototypes at the ridiculous low, ultra-low, invisible cost (for a government) of 3.2 million USD. That's right, not Billions (which is what it would have taken governments) but millions. See the difference?
NEVER GIVE UP
The toilet issue is a sanitation issue. How many world-wide organizations we know that have been involved in Public or World Health Care (or just Health) and have solved almost nothing? Sure, we have vaccinations and "efforts" and "reliefs" and so on. But which one of them actually managed to solve the problem of one country? None! Why? Because they are bureaucrats and bureaucrats thinks like academics. Bureaucrats think in terms of budgets and allocations, in terms of organizations and coordinations, in terms of political correctness and timelines. And the people they are supposed to be helping? Needn't bother. We got you cover… in crap.
However, look at what private efforts achieved. Sure, Bill got it wrong… this time. Do you think that Bill will give up? Probably not, but he may. But that's not the point. Do you know who will never give up? The people. Yeah… those who are floating in crap and don't even have toilet paper. Those ones.
The problem is, they don't have enough "economic resources" (i.e. they are dirt-poor - literally) to do anything about it. And so we arrive at the key issue of the sanitation problem; where it becomes clear that sanitation is not a matter of technology or inventiveness, it is a matter of minimum financial means. Money.
But then we have to ask, why is that the people affected by these issue are so poor? Because of governments. They have been subjected to democracies, tyrannies, dictators, presidents, kings, tribal leaders and self-proclaimed big honchos who imposed on them "social justice" and "political correctness" instead of a free market. And where do they stand today? In the crap. Literally.
Yes, private efforts fail. There is no guarantee that they will get it right. As a matter of fact, the failure rate of startups (of any kind) is abysmal (some estimates put this rate at about 40%). Yet, we don't see people marching on the streets protesting the government to "do something about this terrible problem". Yet, all those failures subtract nothing from your pocket, taxes don't go up, debt doesn't increase and life goes on. Do you want to know why? Because all those startups started with their money, not yours.
Yet, even with this astronomical failure rate, private efforts manage to raise our standards of living time after time after time… unless governments intervene. And this is the root cause that explains why all those people, the ones without toilets and sanitation do not have… well… toilets and sanitation. Because their standards of living are so low that they are literally in the crap. Did we mention that this low level is literally literal? Thought so.
Failure of enterprises is nothing to fear about. It is the way people have to pick and choose what they want and what they don't want. It is the way the free market has to cut its capital loses short as soon as possible and re-distribute remaining capital throughout other enterprises which will hopefully be more successful. In entrepreneurship, failure is always an option.
Unless you have "government enterprises" where failure is never an option because there are "job" considerations and "voter's" points of view and "social responsibility" and so on. And this leads to throwing good money into bad enterprises. And taxes go up, and borrowing goes up and money printing goes up and our standards of living go down and then people find themselves literally living in the crap. And there you have it; the whole stinking affair in one article.
And now it is your choice. You can spray perfume over it and hold your nose until the putrefaction kills you or… you can tackle the problem and bury the dead (political) system and move on. Your choice. Just make sure you act quickly… this (political) body is quite ripe…
Note: please see the Glossary if you are unfamiliar with certain words.