It’s hard to miss the odour. Usually, you would just twitch your nose and walk as fast as possible. But, for the inopportune moments when you are at your bladder’s mercy, the queue is too long. Then, once you have fished out the change and gone inside, the roof is missing and exhaust vents are uncovered. To add to your woes, the flush isn’t equipped to do the job and the stench is unbearable. You swear never to return and keeping twitching the nose. That’s the response to and condition of most public and community toilets in the country. A Thiruvananthapuram-based company, however, is trying to change this by manufacturing electronic toilets. Eram Scientific Solutions manufactures modular self-cleaning toilets that are off the grid. For a fee of Rs.1, Rs.2 or Rs.5, you get access to an automated toilet with audio commands. Equipped with motion and temperature sensors, the toilet is programmed to turn on the lights and fan when a user enters, flush 1.5 litres of water after the first three minutes and 4.5 litres after a little longer and even clean the floor after every 10 users. Moreover, fitted with solar panels, this portable toilet comes equipped with GPRS so one can remotely monitor water levels. There is also an app for you to find the nearest eToilet.
Conceptualised by MS Vinod, a law graduate and MBA degree holder, the eToilet was set up in 2008 with the support of the Kerala government. Vinod had worked with the state government on several e-governance projects. In 2006, venturing out on his own, he started an IT firm and a research and development arm, Dea Celera. The combined learning of the past years and the R&D arm gave birth to the eToilet. Three years later, when Vinod was scouting for investors, the project caught the eye of Saudi Arabia-based Eram group founder Siddeek Ahmed. Not only did Ahmed purchase a majority stake in the company, he has pumped in Rs.20 crore thus far, ensuring that the social enterprise is constantly innovating to fix the public sanitation segment.
While the project took off from Kerala, it isn’t restricted to the southern state anymore. Eram has installed 1,600 eToilets across 19 states. Here is how the process works: Once it is assigned a particular municipal area, Eram scouts for locations that are notorious for open defecation. However, simply installing an eToilet in such locations doesn’t solve the problem. Alleviating the concerns of the public with regards to maintenance and water supply takes some effort. “People think that if the area is already dirty due to open defecation, a public toilet will only make matters worse,” says Anvar Sadath, CEO, Eram Scientific Solutions. To combat this, exteriors of the eToilets are plastered with posters explaining how it is different in terms of maintaining hygiene.
While bio-toilets and portable toilets are being developed by several manufacturers in India, Eram is the only Indian company to manufacture a fully-automated and sustainable one. Sure, there are similar models in the US and Australia, but they are dry toilets minus the floor-washing system that’s customised for India. Besides, they cost ten times more than Eram’s unit. This explains why several state governments have sanctioned funds for Eram’s modular toilets, especially in schools and slum areas. The Chennai Municipal Corporation recently made headlines for purchasing 183 eToilets for a cost of Rs.3.7 lakh each and making it available free of cost to the public. AS Murugan, executive engineer, buildings, Corporation of Chennai, says, “Chennai has currently installed several models of community toilets including bio-toilets, Namma toilets, Prime toilets and Eram’s eToilets. The latter is the most sophisticated of the lot since it doesn’t look like a toilet, occupies very little space and requires no manpower.”
Moreover, for a sector that hasn’t seen much innovation since the creation of the flush toilet in the 16th century, Eram’s product has justifiably been the recipient of 41 national and international technology innovation awards. But the one award that enabled the enterprise to explore its potential was a Rs.3 crore-grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) as part of the group’s ‘Reinvent the Toilet’ global challenge in 2012. Madhu Krishna, senior program officer, water, sanitation and hygiene at BMGF says that operation and maintenance of toilets is a major issue globally. Building a brick-and-mortar toilet costs anywhere between Rs.45,000-Rs.1 lakh. “Governments and CSR arms of companies are happy to spend on building toilets, but there isn’t enough expenditure on operating and maintaining them. Eram’s fully automated toilets address that issue. We realised that the grant can help de-risk their investment,” she adds.
Apart from providing a capital boost, the grant has also helped Eram forge partnerships with institutions such as California Institute of Technology and Duke University to incorporate waste treatment and anaerobic treatment systems into its model.
Flushing away apathy
John Duffy, program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation explains why Eram’s work is so important. “There are only two billion people in the world who use toilets that are connected to treated sewage systems, and one billion people around the world still defecate in the open. This is a major problem in India, where Eram operates, as one in two people continue to defecate in the open.”
Tackling this open defecation is also one of the mainstays of the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched in 2014. Since e-toilets fit in perfectly with the mandate, one would assume that Eram would be a clear beneficiary. However, Sadath laments how the scheme has only led to a race among government agencies and corporates to build the highest number of toilets with no concern about their maintenance. “Until the scheme was announced, sanitation was not a priority. However, since the scheme was launched, everyone is only concerned about installing toilets. There is no mechanism to monitor the upkeep and check if these toilets are even being utilised or not. And most corporates are not interested in investing in innovative technologies.”
As the mission places a huge emphasis on building toilets in schools, 64 public sector companies such as LIC, SBI, Coal India, NTPC and 11 private firms like TCS, Mahindra Group, ITC and Coca Cola are busy trying to install toilets in schools. TCS has roped in Eram to build 600 e-toilets in schools across 333 villages in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Lijo Mannaraprayil, who oversees the software major’s Swacch Bharat initiative says, “Eram is capable of implementing a large order within a very short span. Moreover, maintenance happens in a timely manner. As they have deployed engineers in various places, the downtime of a toilet is minimal.”
However, the government’s ‘Swachhata Status Report 2016’ states that despite such efforts, 56.6% students in rural areas opted for open defecation. In addition, a recent study by the NSSO revealed that while over 1.09 crore toilets were built in the first 11 months of FY16, 52% of people in rural areas chose not use them. The survey thus reinforces what Sadath says about the lack of maintenance mechanisms. As per the report, 44% of toilets installed don’t have a drainage system and 63% are not equipped with a liquid waste disposal system. “If this continues then there is no way we can achieve the target of setting up the huge number of toilets (12 crore) by 2019. There must be a call for built toilets to develop a mechanism to evaluate the waste discharged as well,” says Sadath.
Apart from the lack of investment in technology, Sadath says dealing with state governments itself is a task. “Currently, I get 40% business from the private sector [CSR projects] and the rest from the government. I want to increase the former’s contribution to 80% as payments by state governments are delayed for more than three months.” Sadath shares how Eram still has not received the full payment for four e-toilets installed in Visakhapatnam in 2013. This, even though the toilets proved their durability and remained unaffected during the 2014 Hudhud cyclone. He adds that red tape continues to remain an obstacle for securing government contracts.
Despite the bottlenecks, there is no doubt that the sector offers huge opportunity. Eram, on its part, is trying to make the most of it by working on multiple fronts, including finding better sewage treatment solutions. Currently, Eram’s eToilets are fitted with bio-digestors from Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
It is now working on a pilot project with a BMGF grantee, the University of South Florida (USF), to integrate waste management technology with the eToilet. The added mandate being that the final cost can’t exceed $0.05 (Rs.3.33)/person/day. Accordingly, for the past three months, over 1,500 students at a school in the fishing hamlet of Pulluvila in Kerala have been using two eToilets fitted with USF’s NEWgenerator that converts waste into fertiliser, generates power and makes potable water. Taking off from Pulluvila, the pilot project will then be deployed at eToilets that are visited by at least 300 users daily for a year. After this, it will be tested in north Indian states.
Daniel H Yeh, associate professor, department of civil and environmental engineering at the University says, “Eram has the user interface (eToilet) while we have the downstream technology to safely treat and recycle wastewater with the NEWgenerator, thereby creating a safe, closed-loop, and integrated sanitation cycle.”
Besides waste treatment models, Eram is also working on design changes. “The first model of the eToilet looked like a spaceship. We advised Eram on re-designing it in a way that would make it less intimidating to a user,” recalls Krishna, adding that design needs to be simplified further to bring down costs. Currently, Eram’s eToilets are available in four models — two Delight models costing Rs.1 lakh and Rs.1.40 lakh, the mild steel model that costs Rs.2.85 lakh and the stainless steel model that costs Rs.3.70 lakh, with additional maintenance costs. While Eram’s production capacity is 400 units a month, costs get added as some elements are imported from Germany and the United Kingdom. Eram is trying to bring down these costs and has managed to lower them to 5-8% from 30% earlier. “We are dedicated to lowering the cost by reducing imports. But machines like coin validators are not available in India,” Sadath explains.
For now, Eram is targeting a turnover of Rs.40 crore in FY17 after logging Rs.24 crore in FY16. But the 12.5% excise duty seems to be hurting its margins. Inter-state sales is another problem, shares Sadath. This is probably why Eram is looking to take its products overseas. “There have been several queries from other countries. This quarter itself we might go beyond the Indian border,” he affirms. Eram will start operations in Nepal in June this year, with four units on a trial basis. The company is also exploring partnerships with private firms in other countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the Middle East. Besides, it is working on customised models for countries like Senegal in Africa, which face severe water shortage.
Back home, Sadath is hoping that the GST Bill will help reduce the tax burden and red tape. Till then Eram is busy working. As Sadath says, “While every other manufacturer’s job ends with installing the toilet, our work begins only after deploying it.”