In 2015, a women’s group won a court case against the local council in my city of Pune, in India’s western Maharashtra State, for not providing enough female public toilets. There was only one toilet for every 100,000 women. Even if you could find one, it was usually dirty and unhygienic. As a result, it was common for women to avoid drinking water when out and about – leading to an increased risk of urinary tract infections. The lack of toilets also meant many women felt obliged to stay at home, especially when they had their period.
I’m a co-founder of a successful sanitation business that specialises in making, distributing, and running toilets. After the court case, the city council approached us to help create more female-friendly public toilets. We came up with the innovative idea of making them from decommissioned buses, calling them Ti Buses, as ‘ti’ means ‘her’ in Marathi.
These refurbished buses connect to existing water and sewer services to provide high quality, exceptionally clean toilets, and wash facilities for women. Complete with solar panels, panic buttons and helpful female attendants, these hygienic private spaces for women are a world away from what was on offer before.
It’s thanks to funding from TRANSFORM that we have been able to scale our Ti Bus business model. The Unilever team helped us with everything from the colour of the buses to branding, revenue strategies, service models and training for our female toilet attendants. Without their help, we wouldn’t have been able to take the risk of rolling out the Ti Buses across the city. In turn, this proved the model worked and opened the door to other investors. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have secured around £200,000 of investment in Ti Buses. In the next five years, we plan to have thousands of them, right across India.
Our typical customers are low and middle-income working women, especially those who are out of the house all day. They’re sales associates going door-to-door, road sweepers, security personnel and college students. These are the kind of women who usually have highly limited access to a clean toilet. They can’t afford to pop into Starbucks on the way home. Instead, they might stop for snack at a road stall, where there are no toilet facilities.
With our Ti buses, we are not only radically changing women’s access to public toilets, but also attitudes to those working in the sanitation sector. Traditionally, toilet cleaning is looked down on as an extremely dirty job, only done by those belonging to the lowest caste. Before setting up our Ti Bus project, our company regularly struggled to attract employees. Some of our staff would even lie about what they did for a living. They didn’t want to tell people they worked for a toilet company. With the Ti Buses we are changing that.
We’ve provided all our attendants with health insurance, fair wages, training in high quality customer service and a colourful sari uniform. We’ve also made sure that their daily working environment is pleasant, by making the toilets themselves look attractive. The branding’s just right and they’re sparkling clean. We want to inject a bit of fun and glamour into our female facilities. The impact of all these efforts on our workforce has been very positive.
One of our original attendants used to hide whenever we tried to take pictures of the Ti Bus that she cleaned. Now she’s willing to be in photos and happy to be attached to our story. Her daughter’s not ashamed of her mum’s job. For us, that’s been really special. We want to give dignity to an essential job.
Our model is financially sustainable because it has numerous income streams. We charge women a small fee for using the toilets, which is standard practice in India. The buses also have tuck shops that sell drinks and snacks. Depending on where they’re located, others sell different items and services. For example, our Ti Bus near Pune’s courthouse offers photocopying services. The buses also generate advertising revenue.
Access to a toilet is a basic human right. For women in India, it’s lifechanging. By allowing us to go out and about, it tells us that we have same right to public spaces as men do. I remember my first trip abroad, 15 years ago. It really struck me that there were women’s toilets everywhere. It felt like such a blessing. I immediately felt such a sense of freedom.
When planning and designing urban spaces, women’s needs have been neglected for too long. One of our Ti Bus regular customers is a security guard, who spends her days sitting outside a building. Before our bus, she had no access to a toilet. When we set up a Ti Bus nearby, she told us, ‘I’m so glad that somebody cares.’
Lisa Hawkes, Senior Manager Sustainability Unilever
The most rewarding aspect of supporting Saraplast was seeing the company’s identity move to being more than just a toilet. By working with Ulka and the team to explore different value propositions, and asking women using the toilets what the space was for them, we learnt that it needed to work for a wide variety of activities, including somewhere for schoolchildren to change out of uniforms and for mothers to tend to their babies.
We learnt another few interesting insights – the “unashamedly pink” branding was effective in helping people identify the buses as toilets; and traditional flyers complemented social media in increasing footfall. But it was equally important to know that the Ti Buses needed to be somewhere that people could take a quiet few minutes for a private phone call, or just to breathe. They wanted somewhere they could feel safe and take a break.
Now the Ti Buses are a wider service, that can, for example, enable people to spend all day in a park, because there is a place where they can get water, snacks and go to the toilet, allowing them to have a lovely time. This is a lesson we’ve taken across all our WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) projects at TRANSFORM: understanding that it’s about more than just the primary usage.
Inspired by Saraplast’s Ti Bus, the model has been replicated on the other side of the world. Jersy City in the USA have been turning buses into mobile hygiene centres for homeless people, with showers, clothes washing facilities and spaces for health consultations.