David Payne: Loos in Lagos

David Payne In a hot Washington DC two days ago I needed the toilet. I was on Wisconsin Avene in Georgetown. My English reserve suddenly overcame me. I dreaded the thought of pushing past clean-cut American families waiting outside restaurants to get a table for Sunday lunch and trying to spot signs for a washroom.  In the end I found a Starbucks with nobody queueing to use the loo.

Later that day, at the opening session of a conference I’m attending organised by the Society for Scholarly Publishing, I heard about Isaac Durojaiye. Isaac lived in Nigeria, and worked as a security guard for important clients. He was 6ft 10ins tall and wore a suit.

While out working in the busy streets of Lagos, he had nowhere to relieve himself. There were just 200 public toilets in the whole of Nigeria, he discovered, a country of 162.5m people. And unlike in Georgetown, bars, restaurants, and coffee shops were thin on the ground.

Behavioural scientist Beverly Schwartz, author of Rippling – How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation throughout the world, told the conference: “Because of his size he could not easily hide himself. It annoyed him that there were no public loos in Lagos.”

Isaac thought the health and dignity of Nigerians was being eroded because they had nowhere to defecate and urinate in private while going about their daily  lives.

So he started making them himself. His first 18 were made from three used shipment containers. He also wanted to tackle urban employment, so he employed homeless people to build them. They were then leased to young men and women on a franchise basis, who charged people to use them. You can see a film about Isaac here.

His business model also involved renting and selling toilets to companies. These deals helped to fund basic toilets in heavily used public spaces. More than 1500 have been built since 2003. The Lagos state government also provided funding for 2000 free toilets, creating another 2,000 jobs for unemployed youth in and around the capital.

As Beverley talked about Isaac, who died earlier this year from complications related to his diabetes, I thought about the 2011 BMJ Innovations film, Shit Matters.  It describes how community led total sanitation has helped to reduce the spread of disease through open defecation.  Four years earlier more than 11 300 BMJ readers chose the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal—“the sanitary revolution”—as the most important medical milestone since 1840, when the journal was first published. There is a millenium development goal to halve the number of people worldwide without access to a clean and safe toilet by 2015. But a BMJ feature warned in 2009 that the goal would not be met until 2049, and not until the  23rd century in sub-Saharan Africa.

Why talk about Isaac’s social entrepreneurship at a scholarly publishing conference? Schwartz’s definition was broad and could, she argued, include the conference delegates among its ranks (active in our communities, thriving on competition, innovative, etc). Florence Nightingale was one, she said. So too is Nicole Ryecroft, who works with Canadian publishers to phase out the use of products derived from ancient rainforests.

Social entrepreneurs, I discovered, use entrepreneurial principles after identifying a social problem to deliver a desired change. I thought it was telling that I’d never heard of Isaac or Nicole and struggled to think of others, but I could list dozens of business entrepreneurs. Is this because there aren’t many of them, I wondered, or because they channel their energies into their projects and don’t see publicity as a distraction?

David Payne is editor, bmj.com