“Toilet innovation is important”: an interview with UNU-MERIT researcher Shuan SadreGhazi

Toilets may not be the sexiest of topics. But for UNU-MERIT Maastricht researcher Shuan SadreGhazi, they are a highly significant – if neglected – phenomenon. “Today, more than 2.4 billion people in the world don’t have access to a proper sanitation system.”

SadreGhazi, who was born in the Kurdish region of northwest Iran, has an educational background in engineering and management. After studying in several countries, he became interested in the topic of pro-poor innovation while in Sweden. “My Swedish supervisor gave me C.K. Prahalad’s book The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. I was hooked”, he says.

New beginnings

Driven to pursue a PhD and wanting to do something related to the underserved population in the developing world, SadreGhazi applied for the UNU-MERIT’s Innovation Studies and Development PhD programme in Maastricht. Once accepted, he couldn’t wait to begin.

“I opted for innovation at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) as my research topic. Thanks to UNU-MERIT’s international network I met many people in the field. Working with professorial fellow Dr Shyama Ramani got me into studies on sanitation in India, and then I did field research on an animal nutrition venture in rural India”, SadreGhazi explains. “I chose India because it’s the Silicon Valley of social ventures and hence a perfect place for a BoP study.”

Eye-opening discoveries

Once on the ground, SadreGhazi noticed something striking: It’s the 21st century and yet people there still lack basic sanitation and nutrition. He also noticed an issue with what he calls the ‘soft innovations’ of the other sanitation initiatives he was observing. “Once the hard technology – the toilet – was installed, many sanitation project teams walked away without following up. They assumed that the intended beneficiaries would be happy to get access to something they didn’t have before, and would automatically adopt and benefit from the product once it was there. This wasn’t the case.”

Not all projects failed though, which triggered the initial question for the research: What were other enterprises doing to succeed in disseminating pro-poor innovations? To find out, SadreGhazi interviewed successful NGOs and sanitation entrepreneurs. “The failed enterprises considered the project done after installing the toilets. They also didn’t communicate enough with the intended users to facilitate adoption of the new product. They mistakenly scared the locals into using products by warning them about the horrible things that would happen to them if they didn’t”, he reveals. “Conversely, the successful enterprises looked into the culture and local traditions, and identified ‘soft innovations’ to give a sense of status and ownership to the users. A free handout undermines dignity. Nobody likes using a product that’s identified as a poor-people’s product. Building on local social dynamics, they prompted a competition among households to design their own toilets.”

Further challenges

Alongside all this, SadreGhazi faced other issues too. “Even today, there’s an anecdotal way of perceiving developing countries, development and poverty”, he says. “People tend to oversimplify poverty, when in fact it’s a complex, multidimensional issue. It’s challenging to get a holistic and more real picture of what’s happening.”

So who is to blame for this distorted image of the poor? According to SadreGhazi, to an extent the media and some NGOs are at fault for portraying the poor as miserable victims. “As long as we see users as victims there’s not much room for effective innovation.”

Making memories

While SadreGhazi witnessed many incidents during his research, some had a stronger impact than others. One event that stands out was during his time on the ground with a Dutch company that was trying to introduce animal nutrition in one of the Indian villages.

“Approaching the village, I knew something was wrong. It turned out that one of the cattle belonging to a farmer who had agreed to participate in the project had died. The villagers related the death to the study, which was not the case. What’s worse was that the cow belonged to the head of the village! Needless to say the locals wanted out after that. It was difficult.”

SadreGhazi also has fond memories of his time in India. “I liked going to the villages. We sometimes think that these people feel miserable. When you live with them, you realise that they seem happier than the average person in the ‘rich world’. They might be penniless, but they have rich hearts”, he explains. “This was a big lesson for me. We can’t judge others based on what little information we have.”

Looking forward

Sanitation may have a long way to go, but SadreGhazi has high hopes for the future. “I’d like to see everyone having proper access to sanitation because it’s a basic human right. Poverty is a vicious cycle, but through appropriate nudges the poor can be helped to help themselves and break the trap.”

Shuan SadreGhazi (1979)is based at the Maastricht office of the United Nations University. His research interests lay primarily in innovation management and business strategy, with a specific focus on their implications for human development and emerging markets. SadreGhazi’s PhD research at UNU-MERIT was on pro-poor innovations. His research on rural sanitation concluded in 2011 and his research on animal nutrition in 2010.

Source: UM Magazine, 12 November 2013

Photo: Shuan SadreGhazi

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