5 things I learnt from talking toilets in rural Bihar

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Over the past year, sanitation has hogged headlines in India like nobody’s business. And rightly so – it’s everybody’s business. Two out of three households in rural India don’t have a toilet. And many of those who do don’t use them. Against this intimidating backdrop, over two years ago, my colleagues and I at Monitor / Monitor Inclusive Markets set out to develop a market-based solution to the sanitation problem in rural Bihar. And over these two years of selling the idea of a toilet to rural consumers and working closely with people selling toilets there, I’ve learned a lot regarding consumers and how to sell to them.

 

With the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (the new avatar of the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, itself a new avatar of the Total Sanitation Campaign), the government wants to make India open defecation free by 2019. In less than five years, all 1.2 billion of India’s population will use a toilet. Today, we’re at least 600 million shy of that. In fact, as people in the sanitation sector often say:

According to the 2011 Census of India, Bihar is a laggard in toilet coverage – only 18% of rural households have toilets. In 2012, we set out to develop a market-based business model to resolve this – could we harness market forces to drive adoption of toilets? After talking to 1000+ villagers in Bihar, meeting 150 value chain players and visiting sanitation interventions in many other areas, we developed business models that are now being implemented in parts of Bihar (see post-script for more details on the models). It has been fascinating to put together a business model and see it take shape on the ground. Along the way, I have also learned a lot about how consumers think, and how to sell to them.

1. Your value proposition needs to be concrete, tangible and real to your consumers

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Your product’s value proposition has to make sense to the user, which means three things:

  1. Concrete: Your product’s benefits can’t be nebulous – they need to be specific. For example, just telling consumers that using a toilet is good for health is not convincing – you need to explain step-by-step how open defecation means you’re eating your own shit.
  2. Tangible: Sanitation NGOs today are doing a good job of making the health benefit concrete. But it’s not tangible. Even after you explain the benefits, people still need to be able to see it – just logic won’t do. And health benefits are particularly hard to demonstrate because (a) they start accruing only after a majority of the village stops open defecation, and (b) even after safe disposal of faeces, people still fall ill due to unsafe drinking water and other factors. And if something so axiomatic is hard to prove statistically, try convincing your village consumer anecdotally! Instead, what we found from speaking to people is that they want toilets for safety (vs. traveling early in the day / late at night for open defecation), convenience (especially when ill / for the elderly), and privacy – all far more tangible.
  3. Real: While the benefit may be tangible, it’s important that there be a need for it – else you’re just a very good solution in search of a problem that may not exist. A hallowed business model in rural sanitation is that of a one-stop shop, and one of its main value propositions is convenience. Of course it is more convenient, but do consumers value that? What we saw was that farmers or agricultural workers finish their day’s work in the morning and have a lot of free time later – they’d rather use this time to buy all the materials, than pay someone a commission to do it for them.

 

2. Even if affordability is an issue, people don’t want a ‘cheap’ solution

With toilets, as with cars, people want quality, albeit at a low price. ‘Cheap’ is not a value proposition, ‘value for money’ is. And when offered a cheap solution, people who otherwise wanted toilets did not buy. “If we have to get a toilet, it has to be a quality one”. Convincing people that your low-cost solution is also high-quality is critical.

 

3. To convert customers, ability and triggers are as important as motivation

According to BJ Fogg’s Behavioral model, behavior change is driven by motivation, ability and triggers. This holds even for sanitation behavior – if you want a consumer to construct a toilet, driving ability and triggering purchase are at least as important as motivating purchase. One single step to increase ability to purchase – financing – has disproportionate impact on toilet adoption. Similarly, from a usage point of view, a household that constructs a toilet will not use it if procuring water is inconvenient – ability or ease of use is critical.

Financing also triggers purchase among households that can already afford toilets. One such household took a loan of Rs. 5,000 to construct a large toilet, with an attached bathroom, a shower, and a large septic tank – and they use it religiously (toilets vs. temples, anyone?). This cost at least Rs. 60,000 to construct – they could have, of course, constructed a toilet without financing, but that was the trigger.

 

4. Skin in the game is important, to drive usage

Over the last 10-15 years, toilets have been constructed with government subsidy for rural households across the country. But usage is markedly lower when households contribute neither materials or money, according to last year’s SQUAT report on sanitation usage – none or only a few household members use it. Financial participation keeps people’s skin in the game and drives long-term usage. Maybe it’s a good thing most people don’t understand sunk cost.

 

5. Choice is helpful. But don’t make a user choose between a Nano and a Mercedes

Giving customers choices (but not too many) is definitely more helpful than one-size-fits-all. This is not a new insight. But when you offer three toilets at prices of Rs. 10,000, Rs. 15,000 and Rs. 25,000 respectively, consumers buy none of them – this was an unexpected response during our business model pilots (easily explained in retrospect of course – hindsight is 20:20). The reason is that over 90% of people in most villages in Bihar cannot afford a Rs. 25K toilet – it’s the rural toilet equivalent of a Mercedes. And when you offer a middle-class prospective buyer a Nano and a Mercedes in the same choice, you cause decision paralysis. He may have come in considering a Nano, but he changes his mind on seeing the Mercedes – “Maybe I can save up over the next few years to get a Merc.” He may come back 5 years later or he may not, but he’s no longer a prospective customer today.

Choices need to be from the same cohort – Nano vs. Alto vs. Indica is an easier decision to make, and even easier is a choice between A/C and non-A/C variants of a Nano.

 

As I’ve been setting up my own business, I’ve remembered each of these learnings multiple times –  initially as rationalizations for observed user behavior, but later more and more to predict user reactions. But my most important learning of all – reinforced by every piece of user feedback I receive on my app and every user grievance I address every day – is that users are who they are, and they want what they want. Take that as a given, and try to deliver that value through your product. If you’re trying to tell a consumer what to want, well, good luck to you!


PS. You can read more about our Bihar work and the business models we developed here.

PPS. I must thank Monitor (now Monitor Deloitte) and Monitor Inclusive Markets (now FSG India) for the opportunity to work in sanitation for so long. Of course, this post doesn’t necessarily represent the views of these two companies, and the people I worked with.

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