How to Sell Toilets in Africa

On my morning walk to the bus stop, I pass by a stone wall with large red graffiti letters written on it: “Don’t urinate here, you fool!” Yesterday, a taxi cab driver stood a few yards from the sign and defiantly urinated directly into the roadside gutter. He looked at me, noticed my awkward expression once we made eye contact, chuckled, and hopped back in his cab. So much for graffiti-shaming.

During my time in Accra, Ghana, I have grown accustomed to men (and occasionally women) urinating openly in the streets. Accra is one of many African cities that lacks access to improved sanitation. Most people rely on pay-per-use public toilets, which are often unhygienic and unmaintained. Those with limited access or inadequate funds resort to open defecation in drains or dumps, contributing to the spread of water-borne diseases. Last year, while the world’s attention was fixated on Ebola ravaging through Ghana’s neighboring countries, Accra was hit by a record-breaking cholera outbreak with 17,000 cases and over 150 deaths.

Luckily organizations like Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), where I have been interning for the summer, are working hard to address this issue one toilet at a time. While strengthening the capacity of the local municipality and its ability to enforce sanitation regulations, WSUP is also encouraging the private sector to extend its reach to low-income communities. My interest and focus has largely been on the latter.

During my days, I do what many people in the US would hate me for doing: establish and hire a team of door-to-door salesman. Granted, at home, door-to-door salesmen come armed with cutlery sets and cleaning supplies (or Girl Scout cookies, but who hates that?!). But here, men come selling toilets. Brand awareness for toilets in peri-urban areas is currently non-existent yet highly important. By profiling the wants and needs of homeowners, tenants, and landlords, we are able to manipulate marketing strategies for each target segment. This will allow the salesmen to tailor their sales pitches to the specific customer, marketing toilets more effectively, and educating the customer on various brands in the process.

I’ll be returning to Bren before I personally get to see the salesmen knock-knocking on doors; however, I am confident that they will be able to improve the health and sanitation facilities in underserved communities by selling toilets. With hard work and just a little luck, next time I return, I will have a little less awkward eye contact with taxi cab drivers.

Stephanie Karba is a 2016 MESM student specializing in Corporate Environmental Management, with a focus in Eco-Entrepreneurship. This summer she is interning with Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor in their Accra, Ghana office.

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