Toilet Humour for Social Good

When you are known as Mr Toilet, you are allowed to tell the occasional fart joke. When Jack Sim, aka Mr Toilet, met Matthew in Mumbai earlier this year, the head of the World Toilet Organisation was trying to convince a local actress to appear in a Bollywood movie about the dangers of lousy sanitation. She looked less than convinced as he described what he envisaged for the opening credits – a river full of floating turds which rise up to form the letters of the names of the stars. Maybe he will have better luck with his plans for a World Toilet Museum (perhaps, he wonders, Bill Clinton will donate his favourite loo seat).

It would take more than a sceptical look to stop Mr Sim in his campaign to give the world clean toilets. Besides, by now everyone was laughing, which is at least half the battle. Mr Sim, who started his career in business in Singapore before becoming a social entrepreneur, learned the importance of humour during a chance meeting in Thailand with Mechai Viravaidya, aka Mr Condom. (Has anyone thought of updating the Mr Men as public health guides for the socially responsible 21st Century?) “Get them laughing, they will listen”, advised Mr Viravaidya, whose slogan is “Condoms are a girl’s best friend” (you can see a Ted Talk by him here).

With World Toilet Day being celebrated on November 19th, what better moment to applaud Mr Sim’s tremendous achievements in pushing hygenic toilets for the world’s poor to the top of the global agenda? There is a terrific 3 minute film, Meet Mr Toilet, here.

Mr Sim launched 16 businesses, before finding himself seeking a fresh start after the Asian economic crisis. He worked for the Samaritans. Then he read a comment by Singapore’s Prime Minister, saying that as a country you are judged by the cleanliness of public toilets. So in 1998 he formed the Singapore Restroom Association, and then, realising the need for a global organisation on the subject, he launched the World Toilet Organisation in 2001.

Since then, he has held annual World Toilet Summits on World Toilet Day, two World Toilet Expos and created a World Toilet College. His concern is not just for the poor. In 2005, he successfully campaigned for “potty parity”, getting Singapore to change its building code to have more cubicles in ladies toilets, so that women do not have to queue for the loo. (His research showed that women on average spend 110 seconds on the toilet. compared to 35 seconds for men.) But his real wake up call came when he discovered that 40% of the world’s population had no toilet, with deadly consequences.

As well as campaigning he has created a social enterprise that makes cheap toilets using an open source design at a cost of around $32 each. He has ambitious plans to launch an annual Base of the Pyramid Convention in 2013, bringing together firms working to develop a wide range of products for poor people, to showcase best practice and encourage cross-sector collaboration. The goal? “To make everything cheaper, faster, better and easier.”

Still, he worries that “If we succeed to get the poor out of poverty, will we accelerate the environmental suicide, with 4 billion new polluters behaving like an average American?” The answer, he says, is to “design new lifestyles that are environmentally sustainable that effectively becomes a global trend. We need to make Simplicity ‘Cool’, in the same way we make Toilets Sexy.” Quite so.

Indeed, toilets have become sexy in their way, at least among philanthrocapitalists, including Bill and Melinda Gates and, from the younger generation, John Kluge. (Mr Sim likes philanthropists, though he doesn’t understand why some of them feel the need to keep on making money long after they are already rich. When he pitches them to support his toilet initiatives, he likes to ask “are you feeling flush?”) In August, the Gates Foundation announced a challenge to design the “toilet of the future”. Kluge’s for-profit impact investment firm, Eirene, is aiming to provide better sanitation for 1 billion people by applying a “Silicon Valley mindset” to “hacking the toilet“.

Celanthropists are into the cause of clean toilets, too, led by Matt Damon. So are some big companies, such as Unilever, which marked World Toilet Day by launching a Domestos-branded white paper aimed at “breaking the taboo of the loo.”

The battle is by no means won. But at least, thanks in large part to Mr Toilet, the world is now talking shit.

Meanwhile, Mr Sim has some advice for everyone: count the days. When he turned 40, he calculated the number of days he had left if he were to live to 80, and has been counting down since. The shrinking total, he says, “Keeps you focused on living a full life.”

Happy World Toilet Day!

Mr Toilet meets Matthew in Mumbai

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