A market approach to ending child deaths from preventable disease, by Rakesh Kapoor


Around the world more than 2.5 billion people do not have access to a toilet, and more than 1 billion people defecate in the open, impacting human health and leaving women and girls vulnerable to the risk of gender based violence. Poor sewage filters contribute to the spread of diseases such as typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea.

Last month we marked World Toilet Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the hundreds of thousands of preventable child deaths caused every year by poor sanitation. An estimated 64 children around the world die every hour from diarrhoea alone.

To many in the developed world, the thought of losing your child to a disease like diarrhoea is unthinkable. In developing countries like Nigeria and India, it is reality. In India, for example, 125,000 children die every year from diarrhoea. Children suffering from chronic diarrhoea also face stunted growth, impairing their ability to realise their true potential. Poor health also has a significant economic impact, with countries like Nigeria losing as much as 1.3% of national GDP to poor sanitation according to a 2012 desk study carried out by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP). A serious economic burden is also placed on those affected by disease.

So far, despite significant efforts to build toilet facilities, governments and the charity sector alone have failed to end stunting and preventable child deaths. At RB we believe that sanitation products targeted at the world’s poorest, within the right price bracket, can provide a sustainable way to encourage the essential behavioural change needed to stop child deaths from diarrhoea.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has embarked on an ambitious mission to provide access to toilets for more than 60 million Indian households by 2019. Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) campaign, the government has this year built 5.8 million new toilets – 4.9 million more than last year. While the efforts are commendable, this essential work is not having the impact on public health that it should. Building toilets does not provide a sustainable solution to keeping them clean, or a way to educate in their use. Reports show that many of the new toilets are going unused or have become storage facilities for grain and clothes, stalling Modi’s sanitation revolution.

While some may think that issues surrounding sanitation should fall to national governments and the international development community alone, we believe there is a role for the private sector. At RB, we are using our expertise in hygiene and sanitation to solve problems for consumers at all levels. This includes people who may not yet understand the need for hygiene.

After two years of research and development, and working with some of the world’s leading chemical scientists, enzyme specialists, and fragrance experts from a number of leading businesses, we have developed two new affordable hygiene products: a multipurpose soap that can be used for washing hands, clothes, surfaces and bathing; and a toilet powder for open pit latrines that reduces faecal matter and the transmission of germs.

These two products, which are currently being piloted in Pakistan and Nigeria, and will later be introduced in India, have been specifically developed for consumers at the bottom of the pyramid. They are highly affordable and effective, without compromising on quality. For example, market research demonstrated the importance consumers placed on scent, as well as affordability. Our toilet powder has a citrus fragrance, reducing unpleasant odours and encouraging consumers to make use of the hygienic pit latrines, as opposed to defecating openly in public areas.

Consumers at all levels deserve high quality products, and if such a product is purchased rather than received for free, the user is more likely to attach value to it, use it, and feel the benefits.

It is our ambition that all products will be produced in the countries in which they are sold, creating local jobs. Local women will also be trained to act as distribution agents, becoming recognisable advocates for better hygiene. All revenues will be reinvested into new product development and fund our Stop Diarrhoea campaign in collaboration with Save the Children, which aims to apply the World Health Organisation and UNICEF’s 7 point plan for diarrhoea treatment and prevention in its entirety within programmes in India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Too many people die unnecessarily from diarrhoea. It is a problem we can solve – but only if we harness the best of government, charities and the private sector. By taking a market approach to some of the world’s most intractable problems, the private sector can be at the heart of developing innovative solutions that empower some of the world’s poorest people and give them the products to significantly improve their own lives.

  • Kapoor is the global chief executive of RB, the world’s consumer health and hygiene company.