Gates-backed tech toilet poops out in India

One of the most popular missions lately for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been its effort to re-invent the toilet, an initiative it launched nearly two years ago to great media fanfare. Lack of access to proper sanitation is a huge global public health threat, and need.
Bill Gates reviews one contestant in the Toilet Re-Invention contest.
Bill Gates reviews one contestant in the Toilet Re-Invention contest.
Gates Foundation

One of the most popular missions lately for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been to re-invent the toilet, an initiative it launched nearly two years ago to great media fanfare as part of its broader program aimed at improving sanitation and water.

Billions of people lack access to proper sanitation, making this a huge global public health threat, and need. Some news stories:

Time Gates Foundation funding toilets of the future 

NPR Bill Gates crowns toilet innovators

Reuters Gates Foundation puts money on solar-powered toilet

Today, according to India media, one of the winning toilet innovators in the philanthropy’s contest, Eram Scientific, has failed to attact poopers nearly a year after introduction. As The Hindu reports, an official says part of the problem is:

“People don’t know how to use these technologically advanced toilets. They are afraid to use it; they fear being locked up…”

Bill Gates is on his way to India so maybe he’ll swing by to check on this project and see if he can flush out the problem. To be fair, this is why this project is part of the foundation’s Grand Challenges program, which is designed to test out high-risk ideas and learn from failure.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Marla Smith-Nilson

    I totally agree with learning from past experience. That is what monitoring and evaluation is for – to improve the planning and execution of future projects, take corrective actions, and build a knowledge base of experience. But this idea of taking high risks in order to learn from failure is troublesome to me. It sounds edgy and cool and may be an approach that works well in the tech industry, but when it comes to improving the use and access of toilets for the world’s poorest I think the best approach is to learn and improve on past successes. There are governments and organizations out there who are already producing toilets that the world’s poorest people like and know how to use and maintain. I believe we should be investing more in efforts to identify and back those organizations who are successful now rather than wasting millions on risky high tech solutions.

    • Xiaohan Zhang

      Hi Marla,

      Totally agree with you. The aid community sometimes takes the “cool” way instead of the reliable way of solving problems.

      Flipping perspectives, however, one must note that investors, tech organizations, and even readers like you and I are often more attracted to the edgier/cooler projects. This results in the riskier projects receiving more funding compared to the seemingly boring ones. How would you suggest your changes given this perspective as a reality?