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He literally threw money down the toilet

Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world. The objective: to help people lead healthy and productive lives. Under the direction of Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the foundation works in 138 countries, mostly developing and under-developed.

It started with a story in the New York Times. Written by Nicholas Kristoff, the article pointed to thousands of deaths due to diarrhea in Africa and Asia. For a couple of readers in Seattle, Washington, this didn’t make sense. After all, no one should be dying from diarrhea. It is a corner pharmacy and a pill away in terms of treatment.

When Bill Gates and Melinda Gates read that story, they just had their first child – their daughter. Melinda Gates read the article and thought that this could have been her child. When they discussed it more, they wanted to do something about it. And that initial discussion changed philanthropy and sanitation completely.

Most developed countries take for granted basic things like plumbing, toilets, cleanliness, sewage treatment, wastewater management… Sadly, those continue to be issued in many developing markets. When the article was published, Bill had just stepped out of the day to day management of Microsoft and was looking for more social causes to be engaged in. He wanted to find out how something as basic sanitation that he had taken for granted all his life could be killing thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of kids.

Massive plumbing, dug up roads, water, and power…

Bill Gates is known to be an incredible reader and consumer of information and is known to have an immense memory and ability to connect the dots. Those skills, coupled with his deep pockets, offered the perfect marriage. He quickly found that the simplest of sewer treatments required massive investments in plumbing that dug up roads and that many municipalities didn’t have ways to do this. They did not have monies nor or land to take up such an exercise.

The other big problem was running water. The essence of the plumbing system assumes that there was water available to flush away impurities from toilets, carry them safely across sewer lines, where they do not collide with other drinking sources, and somehow get treated so that they don’t cause environmental damage.

The biopic mentions that one of the initial solutions was just funding the infrastructure – pay for toilets, water treatment facilities… And then the couple realised that the community won’t have water to flush and treat and they won’t have sewers to take the waste away even if they built the toilets.

The more Bill Gates spent time on this, the more he understood that this problem required a new, integrated solution – a safe, clean way of easing in a toilet, a toilet that does not use a precious commodity like water to take away impurities, a process through which impurities can either be taken away safely or stored safely and self-contained in terms of energy consumption.

The Eureka moment came when he thought of using the problems to create an integrated solution. What if the very waste that would be flushed away could itself power and solve the water and flushing problems? So it was an idea that he said if these are the only shitty (pun intended) raw materials we have, can we make these raw materials work for us in an interesting way?

Sanitation, not a sexy topic…

Bill reached out to some of the best and the brightest universities in the US, explaining the problems and seeking their help in researching and engineering a solution. Apparently, no one responded. That is when Bill realised that sanitation, sewerage, and toilets are not sexy topics that establishments spent time doing better. They don’t attract attention because they are considered to be very basic and banal. It’s not technology, it’s not robotics, it’s not artificial intelligence. It’s literally dealing with crap and waste!

Money was not a concern. But judicious utilisation of his money to go into an area where nobody was interested in going into, became a passionate rallying cry for him to address the question: “Why are people not interested? We’re spending so much more time and energy and resources on things that kill far fewer people.”
Bill did a few different things. He launched competitions across schools and universities. He spoke at many conferences. He went to China to address a huge science conference, promising to fund R&D in this area and generous prize amounts for the best solutions.

Can you design a toilet for me?

One of his friends owned a huge specialized engineering and manufacturing firm that developed stealth technology and other high technology solutions for the US military. It was so secretive that they didn’t even allow anybody to see their R&D or their high-end military engineering capabilities. Bill spoke to his friend and basically said: “I know you work on some amazing cutting edge military technology, but can you design a toilet for me?”
The specifications included getting potable water from shit!

The specifications were interesting: the toilet should use as little water or no water. It should be safe so that the fumes don’t come back. The waste should be disposed of at source and somehow potentially be heat and/or energy source to generate power to run itself. And as a kicker, he added, if one can figure out a way where it can also make safe drinking water, that is extra juice!

By the way, given that the markets for such technology don’t have any or reliable power, all of this has to be done as a standalone unit – capable of functioning off the electricity grid.

Six-year toil, around $ 300 mn spent…

After six years and more than 300 million US dollars, one solution seemed to hit the mark the most: a unit that basically has a toilet or series of toilets. All the waste from the toilet acts like a biogas plant and that heated waste generates steam which powers the unit. And it provided some drinking water as a “by-product.” In the Netflix show, Bill is shown around this unit, explained how it worked and taken to the small water tap at the end that provides clean water. You see Bill taking a glass, filling it up from the tap and drinking it right away. The CEO of that organisation is heard commenting, “I really did not expect him to trust me and drink that water.”

So, this is good. Except that Bill asks for the cost of the unit. When told it is about 50,000 US dollars, he thinks about it and says that it is unaffordable for most countries and believes it should be brought down to less than 500 USD – a price point that makes this scalable and effective! ( Remember our own Ratan Tata worked on his Nano, targeting a price of a lakh of rupees?)

Currently, some of the units are installed in several places around the world. In Dakar, the capital of Senegal, one-third of the entire drinking water supply and sewage management reportedly happens through this integrated process.

There are several impressive lessons from this Netflix biopic. It has taken just a couple of people to focus sharply on such a vital issue of global concern. It took them six years and their own money. Bill Gates is among the richest people in the world and $300 million is perhaps a drop in the bucket, but you can’t but help feel amazed that he spent it on something this basic and for people and places nowhere near the communities he is part of. Remember, it is not needed in the US. It is not needed for his friends. It is not needed for other industrialists or politicians. Such efforts have been spent by his foundation on several other issues afflicting poor, developing countries –the eradication of polio, AIDS…

Bill and Melinda Gates, through their Foundation and directly also sparked a whole legion of billionaires and millionaires to give away most of their wealth to global social causes. These included Warren Buffet, who commits his huge fortune to the Bill Gates Melinda Foundation.

Disruptive innovation indeed!

It also brings out the fact that incremental progress and innovation don’t work for some problems. There is a quote, “the light bulb was not invented by the continuous improvement of a candle.” The innovation was in a different way of approaching illumination. You can’t design solutions at the same level at which the original problems were created. You have to fundamentally change the questions you’re asking so that you can think of a new solution. That is what Bill Gates and his Foundation have done – helped bypass traditional roadblocks and limitations.

We have lessons for this in India – like aligning the vision of Narendra Modi and Bill Gates around sanitation and health. The Swacch Bharat initiative addressed the problem of toilets in India, but concerns remain around effective plumbing, water connections and so on. Let us redefine the problem for better solutions and partnerships.

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