India’s $10bn polymer opportunity in toilet provision

Economic growth

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India toilets Jul14There is never a shortage of growth opportunities.  But too often companies choose not to access them.  Hopefully that won’t happen with the opportunity to supply millions of tonnes of polymer to meet India’s desperate need for toilets.

As the blog wrote recently, 600 million Indians currently defecate in fields – as shown above in the photo – because their homes have no toilets.  They represent nearly 10% of the world’s population.  And as the New York Times notes:

Human waste surrounds parks and lines roads and train tracks. Women in rural areas wait until dark to relieve themselves outside, leaving them vulnerable to rape. In the darkness, some say they sometimes set down young children in others’ waste or step in it themselves….And rapid population growth has meant that most Indians are being exposed to more human waste than ever before.”

So the blog would like to challenge chemical and polymer companies to do something about this, and make money.

There would be enormous social, economic and developmental benefits from solving this problem.  The provision of toilets is the basic need for a society – even more basic than drinking water.  The reason is that you can’t have pure drinking water without a sewage system.  The water, as in India today, simply becomes contaminated with disease.

The problem is also urgent.  New research has highlighted how even well-fed children can be literally stunted for life due to open-field defecation:

Children are exposed to a bacterial brew that often sickens them, leaving them unable to attain a healthy body weight no matter how much food they eat.  “These children’s bodies divert energy and nutrients away from growth and brain development to prioritize infection-fighting survival,” said Jean Humphrey, a professor of human nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When this happens during the first two years of life, children become stunted. What’s particularly disturbing is that the lost height and intelligence are permanent.”

Thus health officials suggest that “India’s stunting problem represents the largest loss of human potential in any country in history, and it affects 20 times more people in India alone than H.I.V./AIDS does around the world.”

The numbers impacted are indeed huge.  The Economist suggests up to half of all Indian children are affected.

The good news is that we know the answer to the problem:

  • Today’s increased life expectancy in developed nations is based on the major advances in sanitation that took place a century ago
  • They were the building block upon which later advances such as vaccines and antibiotics were able to build

It should also be a profitable opportunity.  Some top-of-the-head calculations suggest that:

  • India needs at least 100m toilets to be built – each requiring at least $50 of polymer
  • All of these toilets need connecting to sewage works – probably needing another $5bn of PVC or PE piping

So that is a minimum $10bn opportunity on its own, even before we add in all the other parts of the system, plus maintenance and upkeep.  It also carries little technical risk, as the technology is well known.  And it could easily become a stepping stone to other major opportunities.

  • For example, once the toilets are installed, it would be comparatively easy to create a village biogas system that would provide electricity for the village
  • In addition, sanitation is clearly key to leveraging India’s economic potential.   48% of Indians currently defecate outside, compared to only 1% of Chinese, according to latest WHO/UNICEF data.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons that companies can dream up to explain why this opportunity is not for them.  They will be the losers as we move into the New Normal, as their focus is always to find reasons NOT to do something.

Blog readers, however, are people who like to discover new opportunities, especially when they are both profitable and clearly ‘the right thing to do’.   Installing toilets is also the declared policy priority of the new Modi government:

By 2022, no Indian should be without a home, without clean water, without electricity and without a toilet”.

Equally important, as we highlight in chapter 8 of Boom, Gloom and the New Normal, is that there should be plenty of funding available to kick-start this development.

Please think about whether your company might want to become involved.  And contact me at phodges@iec.eu.com if you would like to discuss further.

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