Having no university education, Jack Sim started business at the age of 24 and built a total of 16 businesses before he retired to begin his social work at the age of 40. As a serial social entrepreneur, he founded the World Toilet Organization, World Toilet College, Restroom Association of Singapore, BOP HUB, and The School of Doing. He was named Time Magazine Hero of the Environment 2008, Schwab Fellow of the World Economic Forum, Ashoka Global Fellow, Clinton Global Initiative Member 2011, Asian Development Bank's Water Champion, and Channel News Asia's Asian of the Year 2009.
How to Break a Taboo?
Prior to 2001, the word toilet and sanitation was a taboo. Polite society avoided the embarrassment of mentioning it. Academia publications about the issues were viewed as too boring to engage mass media. But avoidance of this agenda manifested into neglect of 2.6 billion people without access to proper sanitation and the death of 1.5 million children through diarrhea annually. Jack Sim broke this taboo through the creation of the World Toilet Organization (WTO). With its unique blend of humor and facts, WTO called a spade a spade and took the global media by storm advocating for better toilets, sanitation and hygiene conditions for people all over the world. This article explains how he did it with a shoe-string budget and went on to mobilize everyone to change the world of sanitation and toilets.
Index termsTop of page
OutlineTop of page
1The human tragedy of the 2.6 billion people in the world who are still without access to proper sanitation is a gruesome one. Diarrhea kills more children under 5 than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined. Young girls are dropping out of school because of the lack of privacy when they menstruate. Females are often molested or raped while defecating in the open. Untreated human excreta contaminate the rivers and water sources, kill water life and spread diseases. Flies visit the open poop and transfer pathogens to food and make the poor sick. Poor women get infections when they wash dirty cloth in dirty water to use as sanitary napkins.
2These urgent and under-served needs must be addressed immediately in the fastest and widest possible manner. On close observation, the sanitation crisis was aggravated by several factors:
When water and sanitation were bundled together, all funding went to water and sanitation got little or no attention.
Even when toilets were donated, a large number of these toilets were not used as toilets. Instead, they are often used as storerooms.
Donations will never solve the sanitation crisis sustainably.
Sanitation is about habit change from open defecation to using toilets. To change long-standing habits, rational persuasion is futile. We need to reposition toilets as a status symbol and an object of desire. To be successful, sanitation must take center-stage.
3We cannot continue to see it as a problem. We must see the problem as a market opportunity. We must sell toilets to the poor the way they sell Louis Vuitton bags to the rich.
4Toilet and sanitation were neglected agendas in 2001. Because of its embarrassing nature, few in the humanitarian sector would engage in the topic.
5Furthermore, the Sanitation agenda has to compete for attention with other major agendas from climate change to health, disasters, food crisis, energy, terrorism … Each of these struggles for media space and air-time, to be heard and supported. Where could Sanitation therefore find its own space among the crowd? Sanitation is not a gentrified species like a Panda which makes good branding. It does not offer motivating photo opportunities like a forest or polar bears, or a river that corporations and donors can align their image with.
6Up against the odds, sanitation stayed in the shadow of a world more concerned about other pressing agendas. The end result was the Millenium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation did not show any improvement. In fact, it moved from 2.4 billion people with access to proper sanitation in 2002 to 2.6 billion by 2007.
7How can we address a taboo when people are not even willing to speak about it?
8The World Toilet Organization, established on 19 November 2001, places upon itself the responsibility to break the taboo, to engage the global media on this urgent agenda by calling a spade a spade. Its in-your-face approach attracted the support of the global media, and with its unique mix of humor and serious facts, the World Toilet Organization managed to push Sanitation onto center-stage and in turn the world responded.
9“Never be a politician when you grow up”, said my elder brother. “People might wipe their behind with the newspaper where your face is on it”. That was 1962, when newspapers were reused as toilet paper.
10The job image of a night-soil bucket collector was so low that parents scare their children to study hard, or else, they might end up with a job of emptying sewage buckets if you don’t get a better job. How was I to know that I’d one day become a toilet man.
11On one morning in 1996, I open up the morning papers and our Prime Minister was saying, "Let’s measure our graciousness through the cleanliness of our public toilets." I wondered why would people behave badly in public toilets but not at home? Why don’t we train and professionalize our toilet cleaners, pay them a fair wage and make them proud experts? Why are there long queues at the Ladies toilet but not at the Gents?
12I was a businessman at that time. Having attained financial independence at the age of 40, I was looking for something more meaningful to do than chasing dollars. After all, one lifetime is only 80 years and I’ve only 14,600 days (40x365) before expiry date. Toilets sound like a pretty good match for my audacious, and light-hearted nature.
13I founded the Restroom Association of Singapore and started designing the layout to facilitate better ergonomics, promote training of the toilet cleaners, and promote respectable restrooms that in turn begets respectable behavior of the users.
14The local media became very interested, and their good media coverage gave us the legitimacy to get support from business sponsorships. The public responded positively with people saying: “This ought to have happened long ago”.
15In 1999, the Japan Toilet Association invited me to the Asia-Pacific Toilet Symposium in Kitakyushu where I met representatives from 15 countries. We spoke about urban, rural, and environmental issues of toilets. With such common interest, we became friends very quickly. I was very surprised that toilets were not just a convenience and graciousness matter, they are related to tourism, diseases, student performance in school, handicap accessibility, architecture -- in short, it is related to an entire country's competitiveness.
16After the Japan trip, I felt I needed mentorship from someone with more experience than me since I was new to the social sector. I asked to meet a man called Mechai "Mr. Condom" in Bangkok. His work in promoting safe sex was phenomenal. As toilets and condoms are both taboo, I reckoned that I should learn from him.
17In that 2 hour meeting, Mechai taught me a very important lesson: "Don't take yourself too seriously. People will laugh at you. You must be able to laugh at yourself, make them laugh, and after that they’ll listen to your real message.” He added: “Condoms and Toilets are related causes, after all, we work in close proximity.”
18The subject of water and sanitation were bundled by the humanitarian sector into one agenda called WatSan. However, the issue of sanitation has overshadowed by the more prominent agenda of water and remained neglected while the world focused on the urgent water issues, which were equally important. At best, sanitation was called wastewater, black-water, grey-water and many other terms except sanitation. Words like toilets, feces, excreta, defecation, diarrhea, and shit were considered too embarrassing to even speak about. Politicians found it easier to be pictured with happy children drinking from a new stand-pipe than to be photographed next to a toilet. Water engineers are mostly familiar with sewer sanitation treatment while most of the poor are living in places without such technology. What they need are on-site low cost affordable latrines and simple sustainable treatment. Few engineers have knowledge of such technologies even though such knowledge existed.
19The first objective of World Toilet Organization was to make Sanitation a media darling and to bring it onto center-stage. Starting with no resources and running the organization as a one-man-show, I persuaded all 15 members to start a World Toilet Organization based in Singapore. They agreed, and I went ahead to plan the first World Toilet Summit in 2001 in Singapore.
20Having promised to the 15 members, I now needed to find a professional conference manager who was willing to work for free. After many rejections, I found one who agreed that if I could sell enough exhibition booths, we could barter sweat equity so the exhibitors would pay him instead. I found him 18 paying exhibitors and the deal was done. He also made some revenue from delegates’ conference tickets. With that, we opened the inaugural World Toilet Summit 2001 at Singapore Expo. Our Minister of Environment opened the Summit and he launched a S$4 million (US$3-4 million) budget to upgrade the physical conditions of 800 coffee-shop toilets. This was a great endorsement for our mission because coffee shops have the dirtiest and most horrifying toilets in Singapore and in fact represented the last wild toilet frontier we had to address in order to earn ourselves the complete right as the Cleanest City in The World. The Summit attracted 350 delegates from 22 countries.
21My idea was to use the acronym ‘WTO’ to provoke attention playing the pun on the World Trade Organization. I reckoned that if the World Trade Organization sued me, the Sanitation agenda would go to the top of the world news. If they did not sue me, the WTO acronym would forever create a first recall name in the memory of anyone exposed to its ‘sticky’ message and therefore generate conversations and attention on the agenda in any case. In fact, this guerilla marketing strategy had no downside because the only penalty would have been a to cease and desist order, with which I would comply if compelled to do so.
22The gamble went smoothly and the World Trade Organization did not react. Probably, we were seen as a short-term joke that does not merit any rebuttal.
23But the global media’s response was a very pleasant shock for us, and coverage was unbelievably wide. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to reach countries that don't even speak English, and it did that and beyond. Within a single day, the name of World Toilet Organization was known all over the world. The media coverage was so overwhelming that the delegates attending the event all received messages from their families and colleagues back home that they saw the news in their home countries. Immediately, the delegates offered to host the next series of summits. The Korean Mayor of Suwon City was the first to ask to host the next summit. Hosting rights were given to Seoul for 2002, Taipei 2003, Beijing 2004, Belfast 2005 and Moscow 2006.
24I was truly amazed by the magnitude of acceptance of this agenda, and we were doing everything right without even a plan. The event at the Singapore Expo was a great kick-off success for WTO attracting global media attention and catapulting WTO onto the global center-stage as a truly respectable world body. Edward was so happy with the profit that he gave a $8,000 donation to WTO after the event.
25With a unique mix of humor and serious facts, WTO eventually broke the taboo on toilets and sanitation issues, leveraging the global media, bringing it to center-stage discussion at all levels of society non-stop for the last 10 years.
26As the media attracted politicians, both media and leaders gave legitimacy to the otherwise unspoken agenda. Soon, the academia joined is since this was a wonderful opportunity to publish their studies. The brand-power of WTO also lent credence to all our members, numbering 235 now, as they can speak to their local community and government with a more assertive voice than before.
27Since the inaugural World Toilet Summit was held on 19 November 2001, we named it World Toilet Day. As the media writes about it widely, World Toilet Day became a de facto official toilet day celebrated by people and organizations all over the world each year. Governments were adopting the day to mobilize mass cleaning up of public toilets. Sanitation markets were sprouting out as far as Peru, where people could buy toilets on that day at a special discount. Supermarkets offered special prices for toilet papers, and in Washington, they made a mass rally lobbying for the Millennium Development Goals for Sanitation to be accelerated.
28By 2009, the visibility was attractive enough that Unilever gave us a handsome sum of money and became the official sponsor for that day.
29As of September, 2011, World Toilet Day had 42.8 million mentions on Google, which is a good level compared to Mother’s Day at 58 million level, World Water Day at 76 million and Valentine Day at 111 million.
30We need to increase commercial interest to support World Toilet Day. We’re looking for more companies to join in the celebration.
31One important point to note is that World Toilet Day was created and sustained without WTO having to spend a cent. In 2010, the blockbuster film Harry Porter and the Deathly Hallow were launched globally on 19 November. It was listed in 4th position on Twitter that day, while World Toilet Day ranked 5th. But Harry Porter invested multi-million dollars in publicity while we did it at zero cost.
32The 2004 Beijing’s World Toilet Summit was a very grand affair hosted by the Beijing Tourism Bureau. This was done in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and 4000 public toilet blocks renovated or newly-built in Beijing were used as an effort to spruce up China’s image of having bad toilets. On the opening day of the summit, I was asked to comment on the general impression of China’s toilet condition. My response was that we all know China was undergoing rapid development. Past unfavorable sanitation conditions are also improving rapidly. As people’s quality of life improved, they would demand better sanitation conditions. The 4000 public toilet block represented the first step of a very promising journey, and eventually, all toilets in China would look like the 4000 units we saw that day in Beijing.
33The Chief of Beijing Tourism Bureau told me later that World Toilet Summit 2004 was the most effective advertising campaign he had ever made on an international scale. The global media reports were all positive, and this contributed to give confidence to the Western economies that Beijing was ready to host their most glamorous coming of age party: The Olympics 2008.
34They say when you do good things, good things happen. The British Toilet Association wanted to host World Toilet Summit 2005 but we had no money. Fortunately the Lord Mayor was able to raise funds from the Ireland International Fund, a small grant given by USA to help normalize Northern Ireland, and together with other corporate sponsorships, we opened the event one day after the disarmament of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This was the first time that the World Toilet Summit went to the Western hemisphere.
35Interestingly, this fact has been belabored by Rick Perry, governor of Texas, as a waste of money by the Democrats during the election for governor (http://www.texastribune.org/texas-politics/2010-texas-governors-race/rick-perrys-newest-ad-called-the-queen/ ) and again recently as he joined the primary for the 2012 Presidential election. Such publicity actually increases the awareness of the sanitation crisis. As far as WTO is concerned, all publicity is good publicity.
36In 2006, our fellow member, the Russian Toilet Association, also managed to persuade the Moscow Mayor to host World Toilet Summit 2006, allowing us the use of their State Duma (parliament house) and also a visit to Star City to understand the cosmonauts’ toilets in the space station Mir as well as how they pee inside their space-suits. This summit reached out to so many East bloc countries, which we had never met before.
37Sulabh International hosted the summit in 2007, and the President of India Abdul Kalam opened the event. Six Indian ministers came together with member of the Gandhi family. The Prince of Orange also attended the event. This raised the profile and legitimacy of our sanitation work to the highest level.
38The Prince of Orange (Crown Prince of Holland) again opened the 2008 summit in Macau. This time it was funded by the Asian Development Bank, as success breed success.
39The annual World Toilet Summit series continued in Singapore, and Philadelphia, and Hainan (China) this year, and next year is planned for South Africa.
40There were also 2 World Toilet Forums in Shanghai and Bangkok during 2005 and 2006. Both the Minister of Public Health and the deposed former Minister supported the 2006 forum. It was amazing to see the event continue without a glitch despite the military coup in between.
41Thanks to the late former Prime Minister Hashimoto’s effort, a Compendium of Action for Sanitation was drafted and approved to make 2008 the UN International Year of Sanitation. As more efforts by international players joined in, the sanitation became more familiar than before.
42In 2007, the German technical assistance agency GTZ called for a core group to prepare to celebrate 2008 UN International Year of Sanitation. We formed this informal information sharing group Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA), and it grew to become a very large think tank of about 200 expert members now.
43The years1998 to 2002 were recessionary years. While the business environment was not conducive, the social work was getting more and more exciting. Eventually, I counted the money and decided that I could afford to retire from active business operation and still get a reasonable income from dividends, director fees and rental of 5 houses I owned. I sold or closed down all the businesses except for my first one, for which I handed over management to my General Manager.
44In 2005, I retired and since then devote myself full-time to pro bono social work. While I was exhausted from the economic recession, I now found new energy, and this spiritual transformation was quite amazing. It brought a new sense of freedom and youthfulness not possible in the business rat-race.
45National Geographic Channel had a contest each year for good documentary films. Together with a film-maker, we submitted a short hilarious video clip showing people’s views of the condition of current toilets. A few months later, we won the bid. There were 300 contestants and 6 winners. Our script became a full-45 minute documentary shot in Singapore, India, Beijing and Tokyo. Ours was called “The Toiletmen”. The film gave WTO great legitimacy after screening 3 years worldwide.
46This was the first of many more documentary films to follow on BBC, Discovery Channel, Current TV, Participation Film, Channel News Asia, NHK, TV5 Monde, etc.
47Although our media hype for sanitation was catching much attention, most of the money offered by major donor countries for improving Water and Sanitation (Watsan) in poor countries often ended up in water projects.
48At the same time, each donor’s dollar easily becomes 50 cents before it leaves the donor’s country because it has to be handled by intermediaries to redistribute the money, do monitor and evaluation, and generate mountains of paper work to show heavy due diligence. I began to see that the donor model does not have much significant impact for improving sanitation coverage on a global scale.
49If we see 2.6 billion people as potential customers willing to buy toilets and sanitation systems, this is one of the largest untapped marketplaces in the world. These 2.6 billion divided by 5 per family means there is a potential demand for more than 500 million domestic toilets. Add to that the need for away-from-home toilets in all the schools, workplaces, religious buildings, fish markets, transport points, recreational areas … These easily double the demand of domestic toilets to 1 billion units.
50As the poor become healthier, they also become wealthier as man-days lost to illness of themselves and their families decrease. With more earnings, the market for up-grades emerges eventually.
51The contents of the toilets are actually not waste but nutrients that can be recycled into fertilizers and sold for profit. Add to that the endless market for supply of soap, pails, slippers, etc; plus the potential of disaster replacement markets and the military markets – the numbers are very attractive. In addition, another layer of financing services adds to the market potential.
52The World Health Organization calculated the Economic Benefit Analysis shows that for every $1 dollar invested in sanitation returns $9 (Guy Hutton WSP Report). The World Toilet Organization thus estimates a US$ 1 trillion sanitation marketplace for the poor.
53There were plenty of appropriate technologies proven and piloted by many universities’ researches and the NGOs who had success implementing them on a small scale. But the method of disseminating this knowledge and experience was expensive. This included organizations of the developed countries flying their staff or expensive consultants in and out of third world countries. It included endless series of conferences in hotels where awareness was promoted among the converted helpers but without the presence of the poor in the room. Investment financing seemed available at least in moderate amount, but there was a lack of proposals that were scalable and replicable cheaply and quickly in a self-sustaining way. Most donors were demanding that NGOs build toilets so that they could count their impact. No focus was given to building strong local self-help capacity for the poor to continue the work after the consultants leave. Each project was a one-off project.
54However, instead of giving toilets, it would be much more self-sustaining if we could train the poor to become sanitation entrepreneurs who learn how to manufacture, promote and distribute small on-site sanitation treatment systems at an extremely affordable price.
55The answer was a SaniShop franchise of 1-stop solutions that included training for the poor to operate the business and giving her a loan to make it happen. My past experience as a building materials businessman now turned out to be very useful. WTO joined a team funded by USAID and started working on sanitation marketing in the province of Kampung Speu. After 18 months of learning on the ground and to which were added the lessons from other operations in other countries, I convinced Rockefeller to fund staffing for one year to get WTO organized for the next phase of work – beyond advocacy and into implementing mass distribution units by the entrepreneurial poor, employing the poor to serve the poor. Over the last 4 years, the momentum of turning sanitation into a business has gained traction with many organizations seeing this as a fast scaling model.
56We train the poor to start a micro-factory with an investment of US$ 1,000. This immediately generates 4 production jobs. The design we first adopted was from IDEO and very similar to the Twin-pits latrine popularized by Sulabh International of India. Next, we train a group of village ladies to become Sales Agents. They earn US$ 2 from the producer for each toilet they sell. This need not be a full-time job so they can still operate their households, cook, look after the kids, and sell toilets in between. The supplementary income not only helps the household, it also empowers the women.
57The profit motivation drives the entire supply chain to continuously grow to serve more of those without access to proper sanitation, teaching them to fish themselves. The program was successful and we sold 5,000 units within the first year.
58To replicate the SaniShop rapidly, we found a pro bono franchise consultant to help us to develop franchise documents and training manuals from our experience. We also got pro bono help from a Branding consultant to design the SaniShop branding.
59We have now extended the program to India and next year to Nigeria.
60As the readers may have noticed, WTO operates on a leverage model, which taps the resources of partners through designing win-win collaborations. I see a world united by a common mission, and energized by a fuel called Passion. With this philosophy, WTO requires very little money to operate globally. We constantly seek out people and organizations with all kinds of interest and align them in the same direction for maximum synergy. In this way, we free ourselves from the time allocated for fund-raising. By working through other collaborators, we are also able to scale up WTO’s impact without proportionately scaling up our organizational structure and cost.
61While starting the micro-factory, I was appalled at the level of knowledge and expertise on toilet and sanitation in the general population. Toilet cleaners were untrained and unskilled, with extremely low pay that the trade could not attract enough people willing to work in this job. Architects were still designing public toilets wrongly since they had never been trained on how to design a restroom well. Ecological Sanitation as a study had reached very few universities as most engineers still concentrated on the traditional sewerage pipe system.
62Seeing the world so ill-educated about sanitation issues, I decided to start a World Toilet College to address the training required to supply sufficient capacities for the needs of society. World Toilet College is another example of the leverage model, on how we created a educational institution without spending money.
63Without money, there is no school, no curriculum, no teacher, no students and no school license. So I registered the World Toilet College and persuaded Singapore Polytechnic to become our training partner. Director Lim Peng Hun consulted the principal and the response was positive. We would use their school classrooms and teachers, as long as we developed the course contents and funded the development ourselves.
64I wanted to bring in the best trainers in toilet cleaning from Japan. So I approached the Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, who was the Head of National Trade Union Congress. I persuaded him that cleaners’ salaries were too low due to their unskilled status, and by bringing in the Japanese trainers, we could get knowledge transferred to local trainers at the World Toilet College and upgrade the skills, wages and quality of life of our cleaners.
65Through the Work Redesign Scheme, World Toilet College was granted $80,000 for the Japanese know-how transfer. The Skill Development Fund also allowed a 90% subsidy for the training course fees, so that employers only had to pay 10% of the fees. To date, we have trained about 600 professional restroom specialists.
66While I spend a large amount of my time on sanitation, I do not see my agenda in isolation. Sanitation is a cause of poor health, low productivity, and poverty. The same can also be said for education, food, water, energy, micro-financing, jobs, telecommunication, digital access, and a host of agendas that affect the poor. Four billon people in the world live on less than US$ 3,000 a year and are largely kept outside of our formal economy. This represents a massive market opportunity for the world to tap. But global organizations, policy makers, local governments, community leaders, technology researchers, banks, and supply chain members are still operating in silos.
67I need to weave each of these stakeholders into an integrated marketplace.
68For this, I have to create a common platform to develop market eco-system so as to achieve:
Co-buying lower unit costs, economies of scale
Volume, lower transaction costs
Scale up existing success models
Create new jobs & micro-enterprises
Fill gaps, facilitate financing
Link supply to demand, inspire innovation & competition
69The recent economic crisis has made us realize that consumption by the rich and middle class could suddenly stop because their consumption growth may have reached a saturation point. Governments are worried about the high level of unemployment. Companies with massive spare capacities are looking for new customers. The poor are obviously now new customers and very attractive ones at that. Since no country in the world has seized leadership in becoming a Base of Pyramid Business Hub, I felt Singapore would be the best placed to take that leadership role. We have transformed our young nation from third world to first world status in a short 25 years, and we do have a story to tell and a model to offer the world.
70The Singapore Economic Development Board has now granted me US$ 600,000 co-funding for the founding and growth of the BOP HUB, a Global Trade Center for the Poor. I am also fortunate to be invited to make a commitment with President Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiatives 2012 in New York to raise another US$ 600,000 for the BOP HUB.
71By weaving multiple stakeholders into synergistic bundled collaborations, we can break down silos and replicate successful models of technologies, distribution and market inclusion of the poor to improve their quality of life in a sustainable and equitable way. Women entrepreneurs will thrive under this market-based environment, and the BOP HUB will not just bring equity through the marketplace, it will also bring gender equity in the process.
Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education
Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
Goal 4: Reduce Child Mortality
Goal 5: Improve Maternal Health
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability
Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development
72Each of the MDGs are affected by sanitation:
73Goal 1: We cannot eradicate poverty if people continue to be sick. Proper sanitation and hygiene are the best preventive medicine. When we avoid diseases like diarrhea, worm infections, cholera, typhoid fever, etc, we create able-bodied people who can work and make a living. Health is an engine for economic growth. Sanitation is an important driver for health.
74Goal 2: We cannot achieve universal primary education when adolescent girls have to drop out of school when they begin to menstruate. Without the privacy of the toilets, they suffer shame and embarrassment changing sanitary napkins in the open.
75Goal 3: Women and girls suffer the most from the lack of proper sanitation. Many are molested or raped while going into the bushes to defecate. When family members are ill from diseases spread by poor hygiene, they have an even larger burden to take care of them and it also drains their financial resources.
76Goal 4: 1.5 million children die of diarrhea alone per year, mostly due to poor sanitation and hygiene. We can certainly reduce this number through proper sanitation.
77Goal 7: 85% of India’s surface water is contaminated by human excreta. Proper sanitation protects our water bodies and our environment.
78Goal 8: The sanitation crisis is an excellent challenge for Global Partnership for Development. We must get out of our silos and move forward in an integrated manner to find synergies together.
List of illustrations
Jack Sim, « How to Break a Taboo? », Field Actions Science Reports [Online], Commentaries, Online since 19 December 2011, connection on 21 October 2016. URL : http://factsreports.revues.org/1175Top of page
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 LicenseTop of page