There is a toilet…which is changing the world

David Kuria, founder of Ikotoilet

In general going to the toilet whilst you’re travelling in Africa is not an experience you look forward to. To be totally frank, it’s so bad that invariably it makes you gag. But in Kenya, ask anyone for the nearest ‘Ikotoilet’ and all your dreams come true.  For just five shillings (3p) you get to do your business in a spick and span public loo. What’s more, once you’re done you can top up your phone, buy a cold coke or get your shoes shined.  The vision of David Kuria, this simple social business aims to challenge toilet taboos and make sanitation sexy.  Sound a bit crazy? Not one bit. Poor sanitation kills millions every year and David’s ‘toilet talk’ strategy is saving lives.

“In most parts of Africa, you can’t talk about sex and you can’t talk about toilets. It’s considered very private”, David explained to us. Let’s be honest, conversations about personal hygiene are uncomfortable the world over. But when every 20 seconds a child dies of poor sanitation[1], it’s not an issue which can be ignored.  Most international NGOs do register the importance of this problem and along our journey we’ve seen an abundance of toilets installed by World Vision[2] and the like. Thankfully David is as skeptical as we are about the impact of these initiatives.

“I don’t think NGOs will ever support any real service delivery impact”, David said. Having worked in the NGO space for numerous years, David had every right to hold to this personal point of view. Before his Ikotoilet venture, he set up and ran a new government department aimed at co-ordinating the NGOs working in Kenya’s slums. After that he ran the Nairobi office of an NGO that does hands-on development work in urban settings. But, after eight years of drilling boreholes and building toilets, he saw the challenges facing Kenya’s slums growing worse, not better. Convinced there must be another way of doing things, he quit his comfortable NGO job and decided to go it alone.

With no real plan and a limited amount of savings, David set up a registered business called Ecotact in 2006. When trying to justify the sanity of his actions to his wife, all he could say was that he wanted to tackle a pertinent issue in an innovative way. Whilst his family worried for their future security, David beavered away at a borrowed desk, and after six months he had hatched a master plan. “Sanitation is more important than independence”, Gandhi is famed to have said. After a thorough review of the challenges facing his people, David decided Gandhi was undoubtedly right.

So improving sanitation became his chosen mission, but what about the innovative approach? Totally disenchanted by tokenistic toilet-building, David set his sights high. “I wanted to re-invent the whole sphere”, he told us. After hours of hard graft and research, the Ikotoilet concept was born and with it three core objectives:

1) To transform the architecture of the toilet

An architect by training, David believes all buildings should be beautiful. “No one has given any thought to the toilet as a piece of art”, he said to us not even breaking into a smile. Determined to prove that with beauty comes respect, David purposefully designed every block of toilets (each block known as an ‘Ikotoilet’) to be a striking landmark. Using funky shapes and bright colours, it’s fair to say the Ikotoilet isn’t easily missed. What’s more, both the staff and the customers take time to keep the loos in great condition, proving David’s mantra that if you build something beautiful, people will want to take care of it.

2) To implement a business model that disrupts the status quo

For just 3p, an affordable price for all, the general public can go to an Ikotoilet and access clean, safe and hygienic sanitation facilities. A service that before Ikotoilet, simply didn’t exist.  This might not sound revolutionary but here’s the twist. The Ikotoilet block is also known as a ‘Toilet Mall’. The space surrounding the loo block is rented to local businesses that provide a range of services like hair cutting, shoe shining and money transfer. Drawn in by the opportunity to advertise to a captive audience, bigger businesses also pay for wall space to promote their brands.

Income from entry fees, rent revenue and advertising deals covers all the overheads of each Ikotoilet and leaves enough left over to repay David’s investment loan. In fact, within five years each Toilet Mall will be turning a tidy profit. Aside from being a nice little money-making scheme, the beauty of this model is that it removes the stigma around stinky toilets, creating instead a space where communities can convene. In turn, this places important pressure on the Ikotoilet staff to keep their standards high and their facilities 100% stench free!

3) To get people talking about sanitation and hygiene

Using innovative mass media campaigns, David tackles cultural taboos which keep toilet business a ‘hush hush’ topic of conversation. To date he has recruited Miss Kenya to serve toilet tissue to customers, at the same time talking to them about the link between hygiene and beauty. He has also brought in other public figures to do the same, including the Vice President, key religious leaders and Kenya’s top comedian.  In 2010, he took an even wackier approach. He brought together 18,302 children, 1050 adults, 40,000 litres of water and 23,000 bars of soap at one venue to break the Guinness World Record title for ‘Most Number of People to Wash their Hands in One Day’. Unsurprisingly, this campaign and others successfully keep hygiene in the headlines. “We have got people talking about toilets”, David told us positively, explaining that driving behavioural change is the objective which underpins everything within the Ikotoilet strategy.

The success of Ikotoilet in Kenya has come as a shock to David, especially as Ikotoilet almost failed to get off the ground. In 2007, when David was trying to get started, he was turned away from every Kenyan bank for a loan. “They would give me an audience but when I told them it was about a toilet, they would look at me as if there was something wrong.” On the brink of chucking in the towel, David managed to convince Acumen Fund (an investment company solely focused on social ventures)[3] to take a chance on him, granting him a $750,000 loan in three installments. Luckily, this risk paid off. Within just three years, 50 Ikotoilets have been installed in 20 municipalities across the country and in 2011, Ikotoilets expect to receive ten million customers, an average of 30,000 per day.

Importantly, Ikotoilet is also providing employment to 150 staff and, much to David’s delight, people are clamouring to get a job in the company. “This is not a toilet team, it’s an Ikotoilet Team”, David told us, explaining how his staff are employed in “sanitation hospitality”.  Determined to create a dignified place of work, each of the operators at an Ikotoilet receives a uniform and a tailored training programme. Ingeniously tackling sanitation taboos from every angle, these basic provisions support the shift in mindset that David is trying to create. The job of a toilet attendant has actually become desirable. Now I bet there are not many countries which can make that claim.

But Ikotoilet can make many claims. Not only have they completed an almost clean sweep of social enterprise awards, including recognition from World Economic Forum, Ashoka, Clinton Initiative, World Toilet Organisation and Global Water Challenge, [4] but they are also Kenya’s single largest toilet roll consumer! This might not build their environmental credentials, but Ikotoilets make every effort to keep themselves green. They use waterless urinals, low flush toilets and water-saving taps. They even try to make use of human waste by converting it into bio gas for cheap cooking fuel and fertilizer for community gardens.

If these awards tell you one thing, it’s that Ikotoilet has a bright future. David estimates that Ikotoilet is only responding to 10% of the demand in Kenya, providing ample space for growth over forthcoming years. Within Kenya, he’s also branching out into sanitation for schools. Using donations to cover the initial building costs, he’s already built ten Ikotoilets on school grounds and will use corporate advertising to pay for the ongoing overheads.  Hoping to shape the views of the next generation, each new installation is also supported by an education programme which promotes hygiene, sanitation and good health. Not content to stop at the Kenyan borders, David is also looking at scaling Ikotoilet across the whole continent. With the financial support of East African Breweries, a ten toilet trial is about to launch in Uganda, and there are plans in the pipeline for Tanzania, Ghana and Liberia. This expansion is essential as currently it’s estimated by the United Nations that only 60% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to basic sanitation facilities.[5]

Having travelled through much of Africa, we can vouch for the fact that the demand for these sanitation facilities is sky high.  Now you could argue that governments should be encouraged to take responsibility for providing these basic facilities themselves. But David’s experience of working with bureaucrats is sad proof that politicians are not willing to fill this gap. David approached the Kenyan government for financial support to help him scale his business much more quickly. He also proposed that all Ikotoilets be handed over to local councils after a period of time. Unfortunately, all of his proposals have fallen on deaf ears and the government is willing to do nothing more than publically endorse his work.

Apathetic politicians are a massive frustration for David, as well as countless other social entrepreneurs. But in all honesty, Ikotoilet’s response to the improvement of sanitation is far bigger and far better than any government could likely provide.  Though David can’t yet measure it, he knows that his facilities and campaigns are having an impact on the incidence of sanitation-related disease. When we visited an Ikotoilet in central Nairobi for ourselves, the long queue of customers was evidence enough that people are taking onboard his messages. In Swahili ‘Ikotoilet’ literally means ‘There is a toilet’. After our Ikotoilet visit, we decided we wanted to add a few extra words. There is a toilet…which is changing the world.

For more info visit:

[4] See for World Economic Forum; see for Global Clinton Initiative; for World Toilet Organisation; and for Global Water Challenge

[5] United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report (2010)

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011