Emerging leaders

Meet the woman who brings toilets to the developing world

Currently, there are 2.4 billion people worldwide who do not use improved sanitation. Women and girls in developing regions, specifically, are affected by the problem. Jasmine Burton, the founder of Wish for WASH company, found a smart and simple way to make a positive change. She came up with the idea of an inexpensive toilet that could be easily taken to any place in the world. In an interview with W Insight, she talks about social entrepreneurship and her passion for...toilets.

Joanna Socha, editor-in-chief of W Insight: When you were a child, you didn’t dream about designing toilets, I guess?

Jasmine Burton:No! For most of my childhood I thought I was going to become a veterinarian. But when I found out that sometimes you have to put the animals down, I started to look for other options. One day I learned about architecture and I thought: OK, this seems really cool: I can be creative, I can draw, I can create things that people get to interact with. When I was 18, I started at Georgia Institute of Technology and I learned that I wasn’t really wired for architecture. And that’s when I learned about industrial or product design from my friends and peers. It was the coolest thing! I learned that I can do something creative, I can do something functional and I can add value to people’s lives—all at the same time. It was the moment that I realized that my dream job was creating things that I can build and test and see how people interact with it. This was the beginning of my passion for human centered design and design research.

Jasmine Burton
Jasmine Burton, Wish for WASH

How did your family and friends react to your changing plans?

My parents have always been very supportive of me doing things that make me happy.  Seriously, they are the best. They also, however, wanted me to become a financially independent adult in order to support myself. They were saying things like: “We will support you and your dreams but let’s also talk about the pragmatic side of life such as finances and bills”, which is hind-site and was really cool and empowering for me. As I started pivoting to toilets as a career, that was a very strange time for everyone around me, but I think – having a supportive community has enabled me to do all the things that I’ve been able to do. People around me realized that creative design work is not necessarily just making beautiful things. You can empower humanity, you can improve human life, you can have something that’s aesthetic for people of all socioeconomic status and backgrounds. Design can really connect us all in this lived reality that we all share and that to me is so beautiful.

I always did something that was a little bit different. One time I designed a reusable (sanitary) pad, another time I created a stove for developing countries. It was perhaps very different from the rest of my design cohorts’ typical approach to projects, but as I was talking about my creative vision and the way that I defined beauty and design in different contexts, being around creative and supportive people really enabled me to grow and continue growing as a change catalyst in the WASH (water sanitation and hygiene) space.

Tell us about the moment that you thought about designing toilets for developing regions. Was there a specific breaking point when you thought about the idea?

When I was 18 and a freshman in college, I attended a Women’s Leadership Conference at Georgia Tech. It was at a time that I started my industrial design schooling. I loved it but we were also taking some classes about sustainable design. We were learning about ethical design, about designing something that can, for example, decompose well into the earth, something that’s ethical for the world. At the same conference, I heard Susan Davis, the director of Improve International talking about how half of the world doesn’t have access to toilets, and how specifically women and girls in developing countries are affected by that. Girls drop out of school when they reach puberty, because they don’t have access to toilets. Women will often times just end up staying in their homes, because – imagine, how vulnerable it is living in communities that don’t have public toilets as a woman. Doing something that’s culturally ‘disgusting’ or taboo such as menstruating and defecating (even though everyone does it or is affected by it)- there’s a stigma that comes with it. This was the moment that I thought: I am a woman in higher education pursuing something because of the community around me and because the world around me enabled me to live a safe and hygienic life. And I couldn’t believe that in the 2000s people are not able to complete their education because their schools don’t have toilets. That was the craziest concept for me. Like people have cell phones, internet, but they don’t have toilets. It became immediately clear to me that this was a problem that needed more design thinking and creative problem solving in order to effectively get access to safe and hygienic sanitation options for all people.

Who did you tell first about your idea and what was their reaction?

I called my parents saying “I am going to design toilets!” – I was crying. My mom said: “Good, you sound really excited, but also let’s focus on getting good grades in your classes and graduating, too.” As you can imagine, it was a random call to receive, but my parents were really supportive and at the same time were trying to keep me focused on my studies.

You led the team at Georgia Tech that designed the concept of the SafiChoo toilet and with that concept you won the Georgia Tech InVenture prize. It enabled you to test your idea in Africa, launching the pilot in a refugee camp in Kenya. How did the product benefit thanks to it?

The way I see design and the way I was educated – it’s really a process of understanding people and meeting them where they are with the products or services. We had that concept of a toilet that my team and I came up with in a class at Georgia Tech. We exhausted all the searchable research, we did desk reviews, we called people, we looked stuff up online, we came up with a concept, we built it, we tested it ourselves, but that only gives you “x” amount of information. It’s baseline. In order to see how it works you have to put it in front of the people, who will be using it. When we won the Georgia Tech InVenture prize competition, which is the largest graduate venture competition in the US as the first all female team, we had this incredible opportunity to make the trip to Kenya and have that product to go from this one concept that we’ve had at a lab in Georgia Tech to testing over a dozen toilets with users.

We have had challenges of course. The toilet concept included a sit/squat seat. For us, designers, it was very intuitive. For people, who have never used a toilet, or never used a toilet that looks like ours, it wasn’t intuitive at all. They were sitting on it backward for example. So we changed the seat a little bit and now it’s more clear, how to use it.

Coming out from that project, we brought it to Zambia where I lived in 2015 and 2016 and we were able to have another pilot based on the feedback that we received in Kenya.

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Are the toilets actually environmentally friendly in places where there’s no basic sanitation infrastructure? 

So in many low-income countries that don’t have access to improved sanitation, people often use buckets or holes in the ground. These are not sustainable, healthy or safe. If you use holes in the ground there is a risk of children falling into it, or the holes overflowing and spreading diseases. So our concept was a modular toilet that can be self-contained, which means that you have the seat and then underneath the seat something that captures all the waste.  There can also be a septic system, which means that several houses connect to a septic system and there is a big container for the waste and then they share the cost of removing it. Another way is to connect the toilet to a water sewage line and that waste can be flushed away. It all depends on the infrastructure of the city. It also depends if you can pay the flushing costs. We are working to create something that can be adapted to the context, to make it in a way that it’s saving money and time for families.

Have you ever had any moments of doubt about the path you chose?

When it started happening, when we won the InVenture prize, started piloting, went to Zambia, I was doing and learning so many things that I only felt incredibly blessed. All those incredible communities mentored me and supported me in things that I haven’t had any idea about, as, for example, legal issues, patents, filing for a company, or taxes! I learned and I am still learning so much. The WASH sector is rapidly changing and growing. The UN said that by 2030 they want to create universal access to improved sanitation across the world. I really feel so excited about it. Whatever task I am working on that day, whether it is super boring or not, I often remind myself that it’s a part of a greater movement that’s rooted in health equity and advocating for our shared humanity. I just finished my Master’s degree in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine so I can understand the foundations of health and infectious diseases and health promotion so that I can ultimately speak on public health when working in the sanitation space. Through Wish for WASH and our developments and networks of support, I have also learned more about business, legal things, etc. And I think that’s ultimately what the millennial generation is about. We’re not necessarily linear people; we see things bigger and we want to understand more and ask questions in an often complex and nuanced way. I think it’s really exciting to be a millennial in the workforce and to have increasingly more multisector experience.

When you have so many different experiences, as – in your case – the McKinsey course on team management or the Humanity in Action fellowship in Poland on hate speech, where we met, it can be difficult to focus on your main goal. How do you connect the dots and make the different experiences useful for your everyday work?

That’s a great strength and weakness of mine. I love learning as many things and take advantage of as many opportunities and meet as many people as possible. If you do too many things, you’re not focusing your mission and you’re not on track. But if you don’t seek to understand more from various sectors or lines of thinking, then you’re stuck in a vacuum. To me it feels like I’m limiting myself. The way I see it, sanitation is a multisector web, so that’s why I immersed myself in so many things. During the McKinsey management course, it was really great to see how some of the leading minds in the private sector communicate with one another and how they solve problems within teams and across teams or departments within an organization or sector at large. I learned about cross-cultural communication and social impact which I think could be really applicable and powerful learnings to abstract to the sanitation world.

What would be your advice to other millennials who would like to make a positive change, while being passionate about their work?

I started my career in a sector that is not really defined, and it is in a startup stage. So I really did a deep dive into something that a lot of people would say is impossible. But I think that when you’re around good people and you see things and you care about things, it is possible to do this work. You have to be creative, you have to open your mind to new possibilities. A lot of people find reasons to not start something, saying things like “I am not old enough” or “I don’t know enough yet.” Being young, being a millennial, who has not been in the workforce long, you have a vantage point that is so unique and so valuable and so needed, especially at this time in the world. Once you can fully embrace it, you can say: “I might not be the smartest person in the room, I might not know everything that’s being said, but I care about this issue or this opportunity or this topic and I want something positive to happen as a result of my passion” and that energy and positive perspective is enough.

edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka

Jasmine Burton is the founder of Wish for WASH and currently works as an associate manager for Toilet Board Coalition in Geneva. She graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with B.S. degree in Industrial/Product Design and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with M.S. degree in Public Health.

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