• Wednesday, Aug 12, 2020
  • Last Update : 03:28 am

Sanitation refreshing solution for a dirty problem

  • Published at 03:26 pm August 26th, 2019
Public toilet
Photos : Courtesy

Start up company Bhumijo gets BRAC funding to build hygienic toilets

“When I visit Dhaka this summer, I will definitely use this facility”, vowed an expat Bangladeshi who couldn't hold back her emotions watching a social media post. 

Can you guess what facility she was so moved by?

It was a public toilet - an exclusive one for women inside Gawsia, one of Dhaka’s most crowded markets. But why would a public toilet be so moving?

It may be hard to believe, but accessing hygienic toilets in public is still a bit of a needle in a haystack situation in Bangladesh, especially for women. A study conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh shows more than 90% of public toilets run by city corporations in Dhaka are unusable. Most of these facilities are reported to be unsafe, with 54% of them lacking basic sanitation facilities and 91.5% of them deemed dirty.

Instead of risking such an unhygienic environment, most women opt to not use toilets while traveling in public places. This leaves them vulnerable to different kidney diseases including Urinary Tract Infection (UTI).

The untimely demise of a close relative due to kidney diseases made Farhana Rashid, an architect and urban planner,  think about the placement and facilities of public toilets very seriously.

She along with her husband, an architect and urban planner, formed the team Bhumijo with the simple idea of renovating existing public toilets, and later participated in the Urban Innovation Challenge hosted by BRAC. 

The team went on to become one of the winners and received incubation support from BRAC. The incubation phase was designed for aspiring entrepreneurs to take a deep-dive into the problem and explore multiple possibilities to find the problem-opportunity fit.

At the outset of their incubation journey, Bhumijo conducted a comprehensive mapping of Dhaka city to identify some of the key places women frequently visit. It came as no surprise to see Gawsia emerging as the most necessary place to run the experiment as it is one of the most sought after shopping destinations for women in Dhaka city. The team then identified existing toilet facilities in Gawsia market area, and the next hurdle was to negotiate with the market authority to renovate one as a test case.

The co-founders eventually convinced the authorities and immediately jumped into work, transforming a poorly-maintained facility into an exclusive one for women and children. This facility instantly grabbed incredible traction in social media, mostly due to a compelling AV that featured the before and after state of the facility. 

“Making a business out of building toilets was far-fetched earlier, and this first prototype was an eye-opener for us to understand the business model,” Says Farhana Rashid, co-founder and CEO of Bhumijo. Later, Bhumijo also managed to secure seed-funding from BRAC to get their business off the ground.

6 months after its inception as a private-limited company, Bhumijo has already expanded its footprint in 5 major cities across Bangladesh by designing, building and maintaining toilets in public spaces- be it market, park, slum, railway, or launch station. Bhumijo has also started providing maintenance services to some public toilets run by WaterAid in Dhaka cities.

One fine day, Bhumijo received a call from Rangpur District Commission(DC) office, to build a toilet in a revamped park, called Surovi Udyan, situated at the heart of Rangpur city. Since completion, the Bhumijo facility has awed people and even prompted many to take selfies in front of it. This incident was special for Bhumijo since it was their first footprint beyond Dhaka.

Starting a business with any social mission is no small feat, but sheer determination of the co- founders, coupled with accessing proper support streams that include seed-funding, mentoring, strategic guidance, and technical assistance- can take a mere idea to an exciting business, and most importantly, impact the lives of people.

Salman Sabbab is a Deputy Manager at BRAC's Social Innovation Lab

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