Well-Functioning Sanitation Markets are Vital for Universal Sanitation

Infographic illustrating five things that must change in rural sanitation programming. Credit: Rural Sanitation Call to Action Group.

This blog is part of a series published by members of the group that led the 2019 Rural Sanitation Call to Action 

Accelerating progress in rural sanitation towards Sustainable Development Goal 6 is possible. India’s Swachh Bharat and Nepal's Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan are examples of how a politically prioritized and well-funded effort can make it happen. A significant body of research provides lessons on how to maximize the impact of rural sanitation programs. But are development partners embedding these lessons in new sanitation programs? Not yet. 

The Sanitation Learning Hub, SNV, UNICEF, USAID, WaterAid, and the World Bank, with the support of the USAID/WASHPaLS program, joined a workshop in November 2021 to start to address this. Building on the 2019 Rural Sanitation Call to Action principles, the group discussed the latest evidence and experiences of area-wide rural sanitation and related hygiene programming. The group captured key lessons that, if embedded in mainstream rural sanitation practice, would help accelerate progress. The lessons are structured around six themes, and presented in this blog series:

There were also five overarching messages (see image at top) on what needs to change in how rural sanitation is funded, designed, and implemented. 

The workshop participants agreed that strengthening markets for sanitation products and services is critical to making area-wide progress on sanitation. In most cases, achievement of universal sanitation requires a functioning local sanitation market, often as a precursor or developed in parallel, to implementing complementary interventions.

A functioning local sanitation market is one that provides access to sanitation products, such as toilets and pit lining materials, and services that are affordable and meet the needs of all. A key insight from the workshop is that a functioning sanitation market in a given geography requires multiple viable sanitation businesses to serve the various characteristics present in any population and the development programs should focus efforts on improving the viability of businesses.  

The evidence shows sanitation businesses are likely to be most viable when they: 

  • Hone in on a specific market segment(s) and design customer-centered durable toilet products to ensure they provide clear value propositions and sustainability.
  • Are a business line in an existing related business rather than as a standalone endeavor (e.g., hardware store adding squat pans or concrete product manufacturer producing toilet platforms).  

In addition to efforts to improve the viability of businesses, development programs should focus on sales and promotion (Read more about emerging evidence). This is often a missing element in a functioning market that most sanitation businesses neglect or can’t afford. The costs should be internalized by the businesses or can require external support. 

Other points raised in the discussion included:

  • Targeted subsidies can complement market based and other sanitation interventions, 
  • Development partners must also understand and help shape the broader business environment, and
  • Market development takes time, often longer than standard project timelines. 

Many of the lessons are relevant across USAID’s programs and were contributed directly by our Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Partnership and Learning for Sustainability (WASHPaLS) program. In 2020, USAID incorporated many of these MBS lessons in our guidance and practice in a technical brief on Rural Sanitation. These learnings will also inform the refresh of the USG Global Water Strategy and USAID Agency Plan in 2022.   

USAID bi-lateral missions have begun to demonstrate alignment with these learnings through new initiatives like the USAID/Liberia County Sanitation Program. In 2021, USAID launched WASHPaLS 2, a follow-on to the WASHPaLS program. WASHPaLS #2 and other programs demonstrate a fresh approach to research and learning at USAID. These programs have a strong focus on global and local level partnership through tailored engagement strategies that use co-created and co-implemented research approaches and aim to deliver policy and programming learning that is timely, relevant, and trustworthy for not only USAID but the sector at large. USAID/WASHPaLS 2 has a new and ambitious set of research priorities directly aligned with the six themes and five key messages of this blog series, with a particular focus on market based sanitation programming and systems strengthening to reach area-wide sanitation results and safeguard hygienic practices and environments.

By Jesse Shapiro, Environmental Health Team Lead, Senior WASH Advisor, and Sanitation Focal Point Bureau for Global Health, USAID’s Office of Maternal and Child Health and Nutrition (MCHN).

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