An offer you can’t refuse: Why toilet usage is growing as fast as Facebook likes in Pune slums

Social Enterprise Showcase: Samagra’s ‘Poop Guy’ is making toilets sexy for the urban poor through one simple thing: making it a “rewarding” experience.

By Tara Thomas

India currently has the world’s biggest population of open defecators. By the year 2020, our government plans to achieve a goal of total sanitation for all its citizens. However, at the current construction rate, there will only be enough toilets for everyone by the year 2044. Toilets are fast becoming the most critical need in the country:  for reasons from basic hygiene and prevention of diseases to higher school attendance and safety of women in Rural and Urban Areas.

But the construction of toilets alone doesn’t guarantee that a population that will use them. And this is where Swapnil Chaturvedi – the Poop Guy – comes in.

“My name is Swapnil and I clean toilets for a living.”

is his quirky introduction, and the organisation carries the same chutzpah with their effort to provide sanitation for all—by making it compelling to use a toilet. Chaturvedi’s organization Samagra is attempting to change by asking residents one simple question: “Why don’t you use toilets?” The answers reveal that a far deeper understanding of the Indian population’s psyche and beliefs are necessary before any behavioural change can be created, and that is exactly what Samagra is doing to make sanitation sexy.

Through upgrades and retrofits to existing municipality toilets, incentives to use them, a local entrepreneur method to maintain toilets and widespread awareness programs in schools and colleges, Samagra is tackling every reason that makes people shy away from using toilets.

'Samagra Sandaaz' - pic courtesy Manolim

‘Samagra Sandaaz’ – pic courtesy Manolim

Using ‘Nudge’ism

“Our initial plan was ‘Poop to Power’.” says Swapnil. “We wanted to use [excreta] to generate electricity. Soon, we realized that there was a big problem trying to do that, as it required the use of dry toilets or specifically designed urine diverting toilets, and that our target audience – the urban poor – were simply not okay with that. I always find a way to use water to wash, myself. So why should they have to compromise?”

The self-proclaimed Poop Guy and “Chief Toilet Cleaner” of Samagra then decided to change his approach. Samagra began to encourage the poor in certain areas of Pune to use the existing toilets that had been built by the Municipality, after giving them a proper makeover and ensuring that their maintenance was mechanized and efficient.

Watch a makeover of toilets in a Pune slum by Samagra:

Swapnil initially experimented with theories of emotional messaging, behavioural psychology and game theory in the United States while with a start-up working towards energy conservation. These methods, based around the ‘nudge’ theory (where positive reinforcement and non-forced compliance influence the decision making of groups), were employed to reach the toilet users and encourage them to contribute a monthly fee towards their maintenance and usage.

The Samagra team mission - make shit happen!

The Samagra team mission – make shit happen!

Incentives given to the residents of Kothrud and Warje municipalities in Pune included mobile and DTH top ups, discounts on provisions from certain shopkeepers, access to facilities such as tuition and dance classes for their children, and many more. What began with a demo where one family, one shopkeeper and one toilet were used slowly created a wave of ‘peer pressure’ as more families observed the benefits gained by toilet use and decided to invest in the same. Samagra has ensured that the payments they receive work as an investment and results in gains at various levels, going beyond just the use of clean, well maintained toilets.

Making poop a priority: A Facebook-like monetization strategy

Those who use Facebook as a business tool actively engage with others on Facebook and can form partnerships and create revenue. Simultaneously, Facebook themselves make money. This is how a Samagra toilet functions.

Samagra toilet users get various incentives - from movie tickets to discounts on essential produce.

Samagra toilet users get various incentives – from movie tickets to discounts on essential produce.

“The franchise who takes responsibility for the toilet makes money from the monthly user fee, and only those who pay for and use the toilets are entitled to avail special savings and incentives created by Samagra and their vendors. This motivates people to pay, although we never deny toilet use to those who do not pay,” says Swapnil. Users save money in the smallest of ways using these methods. During a regular purchase with your shopkeeper, there are often instances of him returning a chocolate or a matchbox to you instead of cash.

Samagra redirects that money into an individual user’s account. Saving even a few rupees a day results in enough money at the end of the month to avail toilet use, and save on other areas. The shopkeepers are able to stock up on fast-moving items using data generated by Samagra which can predict sales and demand, thus keeping their margins as well. In the process, Samagra makes a small cut too. “When we started three years ago, if you had asked me how much our reach would be, I would have said three million.” says Swapnil. “Over time, I have learnt that this is a slow process, and that it requires much patience. Currently, we reach around four thousand people.”

Poop guy visits schools where awareness sessions are held for children.

Swapnil visits schools where awareness sessions are held for children.

Toilets that pay back: The Sustainability Model

Samagra’s revenue model thus does not come from toilet usage fees, but from commissions through redemption of reward points. Samagra is currently achieving 40% rate of redemption, but with products that Chaturvedi says “are more aligned with users needs and wants”, Samagra hopes to accomplish redemption rates of over 80% in coming months.

In the area of sustainability, Samagra is looking at solar power as an option to operate their mechanized cleaning tools and for cleaning agents that are good for the environment. Swapnil hopes that one day they may be able to understand and be in sync with communities to the extent where ‘poop to power’ becomes a reality. He also hopes to strengthen his ties with various vendors to provide quality nutrition and amenities to the communities that use Samagra toilets.

A newly released comic on sanitation by Samagra

A newly released comic on sanitation by Samagra

To combat the purchase of Kurkure and Maggi as loo rewards using their savings, Samagra wishes to create fortified, healthy snacks as alternatives – eventually providing healthier nutritional options as well.

This is what is unique to Samagra’s model: the intense focus on understanding the needs and aspirations of the communities they work with, the patience to formulate a middle ground and the data, branding and marketing skills to promote the same until creating refuse in a Samagra toilet, is an offer no one can refuse!

Social Enterprise Showcase is a series of profiles on mission-driven profit-cum-impact enterprises that are working on social, environmental and cultural development challenges across India.

Tara is a writer based in Bangalore, interested in issues of social justice, environmental awareness, policy, travel, food, and adventures. more


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Tara is a writer based in Bangalore, interested in issues of social justice, environmental awareness, policy, travel, food, and adventures. more

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