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Poop Rewards: Cell phone minutes for sanitation

Photo of cell phone towers on the sky line of Old DelhiThere are far more cell phones in India than there is access to sanitary toilets — about 600 million out of 1.2 billion Indians have ready access to a clean bathroom, while 800 million Indians have cell phones. That rather shocking stat, was an a-ha moment for Swapnil Chaturvedi, an entrepreneur who has been working on sanitation projects in India’s slums and who was looking for an idea to help him reach many more millions of Indians with clean toilets.

Chaturvedi’s idea is the awesomely-named Poop Rewards, a startup that creates an incentive program using cell phone talk minutes and other prizes to convince Indians that don’t have easy access to toilets to use designated public toilets in their area. These cell phone users are extremely price sensitive, explained Chaturvedi to me in an interview after winning first prize at the business competition Startup Weekend Delhi, and he thinks this demographic will be willing to change their behavior (or use a public toilet) to save a little bit of money or earn free cell phone talk time.

How it works

With a phone company as a partner, more public toilets could be built in the necessary areas — the U.N. estimates it only costs $300 for a low-cost toilet — and cell phone companies can use the rewards program to retain low-price conscious customers and provide a public service, which can also help with loyalty.

The Indian cell phone market is becoming increasingly commoditized and Indian cell phone companies are struggling to find ways to end churn (customers hopping to the next cheaper cell phone carrier offering a deal). Chaturvedi says carriers like Airtel spend a significant amount of money just trying to keep its customers from leaving for a competitor. In the same way that the airline industry was saved by rewards programs that gave free miles to loyal users, cell phone companies can create rewards programs around sanitation that can also give back to the community, says Chaturvedi.

Down the road, Chaturvedi envisions the program could be an open source tool that local entrepreneurs in developing areas can use to create their own Poop Rewards programs with carriers. But Chaturvedi is still just figuring out his business model, he tells me.

Development of an idea

Like all good entrepreneurs, Chaturvedi has pivoted a bit on his original ideas. He had been working on a type of toilet that could convert human waste into electricity, and he’d received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work on that. But after going over the math, he kept realizing he was only going to be able to reach a very small population relative to the problem because the project required funding and lacked incentives. His new idea, Poop Rewards, could potentially work with the waste-to-fuel toilet, but it is more focused overall on just boosting a sanitation network.

Chaturvedi hopes to start a pilot project with a test toilet and user group in the coming months (Airtel is really interested, he says). Make way for the Poop franchise. Though, yes, there are a bunch of hurdles ahead, like convincing a carrier for a deal, and launching a program that does actually produce a behavior change.

Along the way no doubt he’ll need some funding, and most of the startups at Startup Weekend Delhi were looking for funds. At the end of Chaturvedi’s pitch, angel investor Dave McClure (see disclosure below) told Chaturvedi that his pitch was the best of the day and that he is interested in potentially funding the project.

Additional thoughts

If you’re still not getting the problem he’s trying to solve, think on these two things: poor sanitation leads to increased sickness and death from water borne diseases. It’s also time consuming to have to go search for a somewhat private place for a bathroom break, and this is particularly burdensome for women.

Poop Rewards’ cute/weird/funny name also stood out from the beginning of the Startup Weekend event compared to many of the other teams that went with confusing or boring names. While sometimes funny names can be gimmicky, they’ll always at least gain attention and turn heads, and a little attention is usually a good thing in an elevator pitch session.

By Katie Fehrenbacher Dec. 11, 2011, 6:00pm PT

Further information from:
Mike Bone, British Toilet Association
T: +44 (0) 1403 258779