The BBC recently reported on a Cambodian farmer from the rural village of
Sleng who has just been crowned as the person who produces the most excrement in his village.
Most of the people of this small south-east Asian country live in rural areas and very few villagers have access to a proper toilet. However, in Cambodia, if you are among the lucky few villagers to be flushed with success, it comes in the shape of a motorbike or mobile phone, and not a toilet. It is said that Cambodians are twice as likely to have a mobile phone as they are sanitation.
There is an outfit called International Development Enterprises (IDE) who became more than a little browned off with their efforts to educate Cambodians on the importance of sanitation and decided to use shock tactics in a presentation, hence the dubious honour given to one villager. The toilet habits of Cambodians are creating serious problems in the country and the gentle persuasion tactics adopted by IDE quite simply never made the impact – or splash – they had hoped for.In Cambodia, it has been reported that poor sanitation results in illnesses that kill more than ten thousand Cambodians yearly – and most of the victims are children.
Another consequence of poor sanitation is the knock-on effect it is having on the country’s economy. Cambodian industry is affected due to workers taking sick days and productivity is also reduced because of staff taking ages to return after going off in search of somewhere to go about their own business.
Down in the Dumps
The Asian Development Bank stated that 7% of the Cambodian GDP goes down the pan annually due to poor sanitation.
Organisations like IDE have even tried giving toilets free to good homes, but this initiative was doomed to failure. Upon returning some months later to see if the toilets were being used they found that most were – as animal shelters and storage rooms. The families had simply continued to contemplate their navels while squatting in the fields around their homes and villages.
It is not landmines you should be careful of treading on while strolling through the Cambodian countryside.
Undaunted, IDE – funded by donors including the World Bank – continued to believe that they could make a difference and developed a new approach in its marketing efforts to sell toilets to Cambodians. They used a concept of disgust and shame tactics hoping that facing up to the truth would make people buy toilets, and let rip with a two-pronged marketing attack.
Number one was to use a young female facilitator to front their presentation in Sleng and to have her present in a comical but serious, factual style – which she did very convincingly.
She had the audience laughing, squirming and grimacing as she graphically explained to the villagers that they were living in their own filth. On a whiteboard she jotted down her forecast of how many pooh-poohs were deposited in and around Sleng in a year and stunned the villagers with a staggering estimate of one hundred tonnes a year.
She went on to compare the pile of human filth to a mountain and asked the audience to imagine that if the mountain fell into the river because of heavy rains, the villagers would all be washing and bathing in their own excrement. And they would probably be boiling that same water for cooking purposes.
Before the presentation, only two houses out of more than 40 in the village had fully functional toilets. After the presentation there was a mad rush to buy the toilets.
Now for number two. IDE are a shrewd organisation. It commissioned designs for a cheap ‘easy latrine’ that could be installed and ready for use the same day, and one that local businesses and entrepreneurs could manufacture and sell. At a cost of around $30 per unit it is a cheap and hygienic way to spend a penny or two.
And the venture is working. IDE hoped to sell ten thousand latrines within 18 months which was a bold prediction based on earlier failures.
This figure was exceeded with months to spare, suggesting that Cambodians
are waking up to the fact that they cannot continue to soil the soil.
Today, many copycat latrine manufacturers have set up, hoping to squeeze in on the growing demand. IDE see this as a squat in the right direction for Cambodians, and the more latrines that come on the market, the better.
Other countries are reported to be showing an interest in the latrine industry also. A job well done, IDE.
If they push a bit harder, the toilet could become as much of a status symbol in Cambodia as the motorbike and mobile phone.