Girls In The Developing World Often Drop Out Of School Due To A Lack Of Toilets, Wish For Wash Is Changing That

December 10, 2015  |  

Some 2.6 billion people worldwide don’t have access to basic sanitation facilities and are consequently forced to use pit latrines (or holes in the ground). According to UNICEF, about 4,000 children die everyday from preventable diseases because of poor sanitation. Think about that — 4,000 children, daily. Jasmine Burton thought long and hard about that figure until she came up with a solution: Wish for Wash.

Burton launched Wish for WASH, LLC exactly one year ago. The social impact for-profit organization was started with the goal of bringing innovation to sanitation through culturally specific research, design and education. Its initial products and services, like culturally sensitive toilets, were specifically created to target refugees, and in an interview with the innovator behind them, Burton told us why she launched the company and how she told her mom she wanted to design toilets for living.

MadameNoire (MN): What were you doing prior to launching Wish For WASH?

Jasmine Burton (JB): In 2014, my senior design team won the Georgia Tech InVenture Prize Competition, the largest undergraduate invention competition in the United States, for our design of an inexpensive mobile toilet, SafiChoo. Before graduating from Georgia Tech’s Industrial Design Program in December 2014, I participated in the Georgia Tech Women’s Leadership conference, the CDC’s Summer Public Health Scholars Program, Humanity in Action Fellowship in Poland and Industrial Design studio classes, which emphasized ethnography and social impact work.

I am passionate about improving community health via redesigning water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, which is why I founded Wish for WASH.

MN: What specific moment led you to this particular concept?

JB: In 2011, as a freshman at Georgia Tech, I was inspired to do something about the global sanitation crisis at a women’s leadership conference. I learned from a Georgia Tech alumna and one of my current mentors, Susan Davis of Improve International, that nearly half of the world doesn’t have access to a toilet; of those people, women and girls are disproportionately burdened. Specifically, I learned that pubescent girls in the developing world frequently drop out of school as a result of their schools lacking toilets. As a product designer and woman in higher education, this reality angered me so much so that I left the conference and called my mom to say “I know what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to design toilets.”

This declaration about my destiny was made at the wise age of 18 and was fueled by my design education. Three years later, I had the incredible opportunity to design a toilet for the Kakuma refugee camp as a part of an interdisciplinary senior design capstone at Georgia Tech, and that led to the birth of the SafiChoo toilet.

MN: Can you explain how the social enterprise works?

JB: Of the 7 billion people in the world today, everybody poops! Yet 2.5 billion people do not have access to a hygienic toilet. Instead, they routinely use holes in the ground and latrines, which often reach such poor conditions that they advance the parasite cycle rather than terminate it. Open defecation is also widely practiced, causing its own set of preventable mental and physical health issues as human dignity is stripped and environments are left susceptible to fecal contamination. Without appropriately designed waste management and hygiene systems, disease can rapidly overwhelm a community.

The SafiChoo solution is a sanitary option that can be universally and easily deployed by the customer (such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) while simultaneously being culturally specific with a toolbox of options that enable the end user to choose how to use the toilet to best meet their preferences. Specifically, the squatting position for defecation in public facilities is preferred in many cultures worldwide, while genital washing is a religious and cultural ritual practiced by nearly 70 percent of refugees. The patent-pending SafiChoo 2.0 toilet, W4W’s first line of sanitation relief products, is a novel toilet seat system designed to address these cultural preferences.

MN: What are your goals for the organization for 2016?

JB: At this particular time, during the season of giving, Wish for WASH has launched our first Indiegogo campaign to support our toilet beta test in peri-urban communities that lack basic sanitation in Zambia next year. The results of that pilot will enable us to determine if we are ready to scale and if we are ready to potentially partner with a larger international relief NGO (non-governmental organization) so that we can have a larger reach and capability for impact. Any and all support would be incredible since #everybodypoops!

MN: What are the benefits of running and working for a social enterprise?

JB: I believe that it is everyone’s collective responsibility to work to make the world a better place, regardless of age or any other differentiating factor. We all live here so we all should work to make it better some way or another. Social enterprises work in a way that is intentionally and strategically helping society via the utilization of business acumen. They can be nonprofit or for-profit or a hybrid in terms of business and tax structures, but all have one thing in common: they do meaningful work. And based on my experience, despite age or field, the majority of people want to do meaningful and fruitful work.

Though 23 may seem like a young age to start a social business and attempt to change the world, I have really encountered a lot of positive responses to my youthful energy and the fact that I am a millennial both in my work at home and in Africa. Age is just a number and organizations that have this youthful energy that apply innovative thought processes for the betterment of the world, draws people’s attention and support. And this contagion of social change is exciting and makes work days long and busy but incredibly fulfilling.

MN: What is the most surprising thing about working at a social enterprise?

JB: I work in both a for-profit social enterprise (Wish for WASH) and a nonprofit social enterprise (Society for Family Health), and through my experience in both, I am most surprised about how many of these issues still exist. When I was first told that nearly half of our world does not have a toilet and that reality is the reason why many girls drop out of school when they reach puberty or why so many women, who wait to go to the bathroom at night because of the embarrassment associated with openly deflating, are prone to sexual assault and rape. My daily reality in suburban America could not even fathom why this problem was not solved years ago in tandem with great technological human advancements such as the iPhone. And that internal thought process fuels my passion. I am also surprised about how many people do not know about these heart-wrenching side effects that are the byproducts of global health inequities. Putting these pieces together has led me to become an advocate for this work. I identify as a humanitarian design activist and, ultimately, I seek to use my creativity to make the world smile.

MN: Why should people consider a career at a social enterprise?

JB: There are so many societal issues that face humanity today, which makes working in the social sector an innovative and exciting way to work on actively solving some of the world’s grand challenges. There is so much opportunity for impact and cooperation between existing organizations. And there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing something that you helped create in the hands of someone who’s been barred from it because of structural inequalities that exist. Working in a social enterprise is exciting and hands on and provides a positive energy that leads you to truly believe that you can make a meaningful difference in this world.

To donate to Burton’s Wish For Wash crowd-funding campaign, click here.

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