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Basic Needs First: On Affordability and Accessibility

In January, I went off social media for a long time, as I planned to continue to enjoy the peace and sanity of the real world away from the toxicity and propaganda of humans determined to outdo each other. You may see automated blog updates on my timeline, but I am not active on those platforms. Some of the things I do while being off social media are plenty of hardcopy reading and watching biographies, and finding insights from the stories of real people.


This is why I ended up watching Inside Bill’s Brain (Decoding Bill Gates) on Netflix after scrolling past it so many times. In one episode, he talked about his fascination with improving hygiene in poor countries, hence trying to find the “perfect” toilet. There were different brilliant toilet designs presented but it all came down to affordability and accessibility. Some of those designs were as much as $50,000 and Bill Gates mentioned that was still too high for his target audience and somehow it had to come down to $500 (even though $500 is still on the high side for people in Nigeria now).



Hard Facts and figures on global sanitation from World Health Organization (WHO):

  • In 2017, 45% of the global population (3.4 billion people) used a safely managed sanitation service.

  • 31% of the global population (2.4 billion people) used private sanitation facilities connected to sewers from which wastewater was treated.

  • 14% of the global population (1.0 billion people) used toilets or latrines where excreta were disposed of in situ.

  • 74% of the world’s population (5.5 billion people) used at least a basic sanitation service.

  • 2.0 billion people still do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines.

  • Of these, 673 million still defecate in the open, for example in street gutters, behind bushes or into open bodies of water.

  • At least 10% of the world’s population is thought to consume food irrigated by wastewater.

  • Cropland in peri-urban areas irrigated by mostly untreated urban wastewater is estimated to be approximately 36 million hectares (equivalent to the size of Germany)

  • Poor sanitation is linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio and exacerbates stunting.

  • Poor sanitation reduces human well-being, and social and economic development due to impacts such as anxiety, risk of sexual assault, and lost educational opportunities.

  • Inadequate sanitation is estimated to cause 432,000 diarrhea deaths annually and is a major factor in several neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, and trachoma. Poor sanitation also contributes to malnutrition.


And when WHO says “some 827,000 people in low- and middle-income countries die as a result of inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene each year, representing 60% of total diarrheal deaths. Poor sanitation is believed to be the main cause in some 432 000 of these deaths”. It means a poop utilization system or simply put toilet peaking at $50,000 produced abroad will not do poor people any good. It will amount to a waste of resources when people in need of proper sanitation cannot access and afford it with ease. As with the issue of managing shit, so is the issue of other developmental challenges in poor regions across the world.



Grand designs but when it comes down to money, those who desperately need these interventions are left out. For example, imagine the untapped opportunity of solar-generated power in Africa, a continent blessed with enviable hours of sunlight throughout the year and rich in mineral deposits for manufacturing solar panels, yet accessibility and cost remain very complicated. There are companies all over Africa that have grand designs that one would imagine mass adoption to be hassle-free, yet many of those products are still not affordable to a large sector of the population. Testimony from someone who pays monthly to use MTN solar power system says how expensive it is and proves why solar energy is not for everyone.


Now and then you see adverts for cheap solar-powered gadgets but as flashy as they come, the quality is poor (many are knock-off fabrications). When the normal hydroelectric power source fails, a diesel- or petrol-powered generator is most reliable despite the dangers of noise and air pollution.“some 827 000 people in low- and middle-income countries die as a result of inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene each year, representing 60% of total diarrhoeal deaths. Poor sanitation is believed to be the main cause in some 432 000 of these deaths”. It means a poop utilization system or simply put toilet peaking at $50,000 produced abroad will not do poor people any good. It will amount to a waste of resources when people in need of proper sanitation cannot access and afford it with ease.


As with the issue of managing shit, so is the issue of other developmental challenges in poor regions across the world. Grand designs but when it comes down to money, those who desperately need these interventions are left out. For example, imagine the untapped opportunity of solar-generated power in Africa, a continent blessed with enviable hours of sunlight throughout the year and rich in mineral deposits for manufacturing solar panels, yet accessibility and cost remain very complicated.



There are companies all over Africa that have grand designs that one would imagine mass adoption to be hassle-free, yet many of those products are still not affordable to a large sector of the population. Testimony from someone who pays monthly to use MTN solar power system says how expensive it is and proves why solar energy is not for everyone. Often you see adverts for cheap solar-powered gadgets but as flashy as they come, the quality is poor (many are knock-off fabrications). When the normal hydroelectric power source fails-, a diesel- or petrol-powered generator is most reliable despite the dangers of noise and air pollution.


Ideas for “helping” the poor are never lacking, the issue lies in implementation. When we design great prototypes in our labs, industries or board meetings, or competitions, we must always consider affordability and accessibility in implementation. These two obstacles are the real test of any invention aiming for mass adoption in poor countries. These would be the real practical and feasibility tests even if the drive to profit at every venture (we cannot deny capitalism does not exist) screams. There have been too many failed, white elephant development projects in “poverty posterchild” slum communities like Makoko, Kiberia, Agbogbloshie, Khayelitsha, Dharavi, Orangi Town, Rocinha, or wherever.


Indeed, every invention is not meant to save the world but basic things like toilets, schools, hospitals, homes, vaccinations, food, good roads, power, running water, and even the internet should deliver affordability and accessibility to the last person in every society. Bill Gates's idea and money for better toilets eventually led to Caltech Ecoscan Solar Toilet, South Africa, Cranfield University Nano Membrane Toilet South Africa, sludge treat toilet in Dakar and collaboration with Lixil group for more Bill Toilets. But even though “the elimination of open defecation is recognized as a top priority for improving health, nutrition, and productivity of developing country populations and is explicitly mentioned in SDG target 6.2” 494 million people still poop outdoors. We need more than “Bill Toilets” to end open defecation.



Wash Data website site states that: “Open defecation rates have been decreasing steadily. From 2000-2020, the number of people practicing open defecation declined from 1,229 million to 494 million, an average decrease of 37 million people per year. All SDG regions saw a drop in the number of people practicing open defecation, except for Oceania, where open defecation increased from 1.1 to 1.8 million. In 2020, more than 5% of the population still practiced open defecation in 55 countries. Nine out of ten people practicing open defecation lived in two regions: Central and Southern Asia (233 million) and Sub-Saharan Africa (197 million).” See the image below from the Wash data website.



Toilets and open defecation are only a part of a complicated issue poor people face and this reiterates why more traction is needed with affordability and accessibility ventures for a more progressive world. Every year millions of dollars are earmarked for lifting people out of poverty and helping to develop countries but when the books close by the day of December, it would seem like even more people have become poorer and then we are looking for “results” of money spent. Too much is lost when good inventions and intervention programs meet the hard reality of accessibility and affordability. What is even worse is when such “good deeds” are tested with the fire of accountability.


Too many unsustainable grand ideas, awards, and individual accolades for “biggest this, biggest that” (mostly individual progress compared to group progress) in the poorest countries but it does not solve practical problems.

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