Un world toilet day on november 19: the business of business

Toilets are a great luxury in Nigeria – not even half the population has one of their own at home. Public toilets are also in short supply.

Toilet ownership can make you rich. This piece of jewelry, however, is a work of art Photo: McDermid/reuters

Ibrahim Abubakar has his hands full. He is constantly unrolling toilet paper – each customer is allowed to take two to three sheets into the toilet. At the same time, he is constantly rummaging through the drawer of his small wooden table for change. Small bills – ten, twenty or fifty naira – are always in short supply: 100 naira are currently worth 25 cents.

Business is good, says Abubakar, nodding to a customer. To round off the offer, he also has a dispenser with antibacterial liquid soap on the table. It is late afternoon at the Wuse Market in Nigeria’s capital Abuja. The big rush to the toilets, which are located near the mosque, has long since passed. "How many actually come every day, I can’t even say. There are too many to count." His trade secret is, "It always has to be really clean. Then the clientele will come, too."

That’s the job of Husaini Abdullahi Yusuf, a young man who hails from Kano State in the north and was recruited specifically to clean toilets. Again and again, he goes from the women’s toilet to the men’s toilet and back, mop in hand. "Sometimes when it’s particularly dirty, I have to take a rest," he admits.

But that wouldn’t bother him very much. "In the beginning, I mainly wanted to have a job and earn money," he says as he stands next to the front door of the ladies’ room. There, the freshly mopped floor is just about to dry. He didn’t realize the importance of his work until much later. "I’m very happy that people can defecate in a clean place." His job, he says, is important for Nigeria.

In Africa’s most populous country, toilets are still scarce, even a real luxury. Only 41 percent of the country’s 200 million inhabitants have their own toilets at home, according to a survey by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). 16 percent share one with neighbors, and 18 percent have an outhouse somewhere. But almost one in four Nigerians (24 percent) has to defecate in public.

High penalties that no one enforces

This is much more common in rural areas than in cities. But even there, not all homes have toilets. Young men in particular, who come from the countryside and eke out a living as day laborers, have to share tiny rooms without sanitary facilities. They often have to go to public toilets like the one at Wuse Market or urinate at the roadside – even if there are self-painted signs everywhere warning that this will be punished with a fine of 5,000 Naira (12.50 euros). No one collects this fine.

Ibrahim Abubakar points to the fee board. The use of the urinal costs 20 Naira, that of the toilet twice as much. He also offers showers for 50 Naira (12 cents). Compared to the minimum wage, which is 30,000 naira but is by no means always paid, this adds up to a large sum each month. More than 94 million people in Nigeria live below the poverty line, which means that they have less than 1.90 U.S. dollars, less than 700 naira, at their disposal per day.

Yet Nigeria is the continent’s largest economy. According to the state oil company (NNPC), up to 2.5 million barrels of oil can be produced daily. Nigeria thus ranks sixth in the world. Annual start-up weeks and the booming Nollywood film industry – only Bollywood is bigger – give the impression of a modern, innovative society. However, the aid organization Oxfam concluded in July that Nigeria is the country in West Africa where the government is doing the least to address vast inequality – and the toilet problem reflects just that.

A well-equipped public toilet facility is the great exception in Nigeria, says Zaid Jurji, who heads the water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) sector for the children’s charity Unicef in Nigeria. "Only 9 percent of markets and bus stations have sanitation and water." If they then offer hygiene facilities – i.e., sinks and soap – only 1.4 percent remain.

School toilets critical to girls’ education

The situation is no better in other areas. Only 46 percent of hospitals have a water supply. All three WaSH areas are covered by just 5 percent of the facilities. The situation is also catastrophic at schools. Only 16 percent have water and sanitary facilities. Sometimes hand-washing is practiced in classes. Sanitation clubs also explain to students how important hygiene is.

But for girls entering puberty in particular, a lack of toilets often means the end of their ongoing education. Hardly anyone can afford sanitary pads. Instead, pieces of cloth that quickly become soaked are used. "The girls have to choose between going to school and potentially being ridiculed by boys. Or they can stay at home and miss important lessons and even exams," says Ayo Ogunlade, who works in Abuja for the nongovernmental organization WaterAid.

Teachers also often lack the necessary sensitivity. For years, Nigeria has been the country with the highest number of children not attending school. Unicef now puts the figure at 13.2 million.

Yet President Muhammadu Buhari’s country has great plans. In 2016, a ten-year plan was developed so that by 2025 it will be ODF, open defecation free, as experts and politicians call it, when no one will defecate in the open. Nigeria was motivated by India, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared free of public defecation only in early October. He has doggedly pursued the goal since 2014, even using the toilets in his election campaign. A year ago, a delegation of Nigerian experts took a look at how things are going in India. A short time later, Buhari declared a toilet emergency. However, he did not make this an issue in the election campaign at the beginning of the year.

Private in the area

To declare Nigeria an ODF country, nearly 2.4 billion euros will be needed by 2025, the ten-year plan says. Of this, 1.8 billion euros would go toward building latrines in households. In total, the government wants to provide a quarter of the sum. The rest is to be financed privately or with the help of donors. For WaSH expert Jurji, private sector involvement is crucial. "It is very vibrant here." Also, he says, toilets are simply good business.

But to promote toilet construction across the country, a system is needed. "The local authorities provide land, Unicef supports the construction of the water system. For the company that finally builds, there is a credit system and an agreement on who is responsible for maintenance later on," says Jurji, citing a possible model.

For experts, however, one thing is also clear: It is not enough to simply put toilets down. Rather, large-scale campaigns are needed to change habits and thus end public defecation. "It’s conceivable that there could be advertisements on shampoo bottles and soaps, and mobile phone providers sending out text messages," Jurji says. The latter has long been a popular and often-used advertising tool.

In Nigeria, again, money could be a deciding factor. In 2012, the World Bank estimated that the country loses a good 1.1 million euros a year due to poor sanitation. Diseases such as diarrhea are the result. Ultimately, the lack of toilets causes a lot of stress, says toilet operator Ibrahim Abubakar. "When I’m out in the countryside, I can go into the bushes. In the city, I can’t. So when things get really bad, my only option is to knock on a front door and ask if I can use the restroom sometime."

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