Our RISE innovation fund has expanded, and we cannot wait to introduce you to our new fellow, Shreya! Continue reading below to learn more about her innovative solution to improving access to sanitation facilities in urban-slums and settlements in Bangalore, India.
"Shreya, can you share with our community more about yourself? What were you doing before your entrepreneurial journey?"
I have a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Anna University and have worked in the field of architecture and design for over four years in Mancini Design, Chennai and Future Research Design Company, Bengaluru. I was also a guest lecturer at IIT Roorkee and a Teach For India Fellow in Bengaluru between 2017-2019, where I taught full-time in an underprivileged public school.
Currently, I am the co-founder and the head of design and operations at The Better Design Foundation (BDF), leading the participatory design workshops and enabling a co-creation process of design. BDF's human-centric interventions focus on education and sanitation in Bangalore, with a view towards expanding to further cities by 2022.
"What are the biggest problems in the water, sanitation and hygiene space that people encounter in your community? How has COVID impacted this situation on the ground?"
The urban poor face many sanitation challenges with the additional issues of land availability and access to water, making solutions particularly difficult. Most often, communal taps are the only source of water, and buckets or pots are used to transport water back to their dwellings, for dishwashing, bathing, cleaning, drinking and any other need. Water transportation is usually carried out by women in the household by foot unless the family owns a vehicle. The communal taps are anywhere from 50m to over 1Km away from houses. Used water is diverted into rudimentary rivulets that run beside individual constructions and slowly drain into open storm-drains on the nearest accessible street – leading to an abundance of greywater in and around most homes which is a continuous health hazard.
Land pressure plays a large role in the lack of availability of toilets as most dwellings are too small for in-house toilets, which leads to a dependence on community toilets – shared up to 80 households. These community toilets are usually disconnected from public sewage lines and have intermittent to no water supply. They utilize rudimentary septic tanks or open drains that rely on manual scavenging or (best case) private waste collectors such as ‘honeysucker’ trucks that intermittently pump out the septic sludge and often illegally dump them in nearby water bodies.
Since these areas are largely developed informally, they are extremely congested – leading to unplanned construction of community toilets prone to blockages and flooding. When community/public toilets have long queues or are unsanitary or unaffordable, people resort to open defecation.
Water-stress is a significant source of concern in these communities – families spend significant amounts of time and effort (some surveyed families report spending 2-3 hours a day) simply procuring water for in-home use and accessing basic sanitation. Using the toilet – a basic daily need – is a source of anxiety for many, particularly due to the deplorable conditions of toilets wrought by insufficient water and haphazard to non-existent waste management processes.
COVID has exacerbated the situation on the ground as difficulty in having access to running water has made maintaining hand hygiene a challenge and sanitation spaces such as community toilets being crowded during peak hours has made social distancing extremely difficult in these dense urban communities.
"What makes your innovative solution unique?"
Sanitation is a complex problem with many moving parts. Reliable access to freshwater and resilient waste management processes are key to sustainable, safe sanitation. Despite limited access to fresh-water, urban usage patterns are extremely inefficient, and the water value chain is deeply flawed. Different sanitation use cases are not connected, and water is almost never recycled to reduce individual water strain.
We designed a water-efficient community sanitation facility for a group of 20-25 users. A shared toilet is distinct from a community or public toilet in that it serves a fixed user base - encouraging a sense of ownership and driving responsible user behaviour. Further, to overcome land acquisition challenges, our facility is designed to be constructed on terraces.
In order to overcome the challenge of insufficient freshwater availability we are implementing a greywater recycling system to reuse water from brushing, bathing and laundry as flush water. This reduces the freshwater requirement per user by up to 50%.
To motivate regular maintenance, we are implementing a novel ‘urine-diverting toilet’ that accomplishes urine diversion without placing the burden of behaviour change on the user. This creates a potential revenue stream as collected urine can be sold to fertilizer manufacturers.
In locations disconnected from sewage lines, where septic tank installation and evacuation may be cost-prohibitive we are developing a ‘sealed-cartridge’ waste management process that allows for regular waste removal while preserving the dignity of sanitation workers.
"Can you tell us more about how empowering women is a key aspect of the Better Design Foundation?"
Women require more trips to the toilet than men and are eight times more likely than men to suffer from urinary tract infections, increasing their frequency of visits. Women make up a majority of the elderly and disabled and 20-25% of women of childbearing age may be on their period at any one time, needing to change a sanitary pad. In the face of unhygienic or prohibitively expensive public sanitation options, women are left with little to no alternatives and often suffer from numerous health conditions caused by unsanitary conditions or by avoiding toilets. Even open defecation - an option sought by men, as an alternative to unhygienic toilets - is not an option for women who are at danger of sexual assault.
The majority of our users are women and our project will keep the voices of these women at the core of the design of the intervention to empower them.
"What inspired you to dedicate your life to this work?"
Kunal (co-founder) and I worked as teachers in urban Government schools through the Teach For India Fellowship, and it opened our eyes to the condition of the public infrastructure in underserved communities.
Being an architect by profession, I was uniquely positioned to effect change in this regard and our first intervention focussed on improving the learning environment in underprivileged government schools.
Visits to the communities where our students lived and interactions with them, shed light on the problem of water and sanitation in these areas and its impact on every aspect of their lives from education/livelihood to health.
When these communities were affected by COVID, it further exposed the need for a better solution. Creating a sustainable, replicable, human-centric solution that can serve as a new model for sanitation in dense urban communities became our goal.
"What do you hope to gain from this experience?"
It is an honor and a great opportunity to be in a position of empowering women and girls - along with helping to reduce the fatal impact of COVID within my community. Bringing significant, substantive changes and strengthening women’s bargaining power in decision-making positions, while also addressing issues of gender-based violence and providing them with financial independence, is what I look most forward to.
"Why is being a RISE fellow important to you?"
RISE supports female entrepreneurs working on a challenging focus area -WASH- that has the potential to make a lasting impact in the community. With the ecosystem of support made available through the program and the opportunity to meet entrepreneurs who are tackling similar challenges across the globe, RISE is a unique opportunity to make my project a reality while also helping me learn and grow.