Jack Sim is a funny man with a serious, yet unexpected mission: to revolutionize toilets for the base of the pyramid and to ensure worldwide sustainable sanitation. Often referred to as “Mr. Toilet” – a title he takes great pride in – he has worked tirelessly for fifteen years to make the availability of clean toilets a political priority and an economically feasible reality for the world’s ‘poor’. The need is big: 2.6 billion people currently lack access to a clean private toilet.
When I met Jack Sim at a pre-WEF event at the HUB Zürich I couldn’t help but wonder about this curious man on stage. He was humming with energy, excited to share his story about the many issues concerning poop, making the audience laugh and yet providing relevant information about his cause. To give you a sense of Mr Sim´s remarkable spirit, watch this short movie about the founder of the other WTO, the World Toilet Organization.
But what drives an accomplished businessman to leave the construction industry at the age of forty and to subsequently devote his life’s work to toilets instead? And how can you remain inspired and engaged for over a decade when your main concern literally is the matter of shit? Sim has two answers, a philosophical and a practical one.
Firstly, he rationalizes that during his years as a businessman he sold his time to buy money. “But once money has no more meaning because your needs are covered, you no longer need to sell your time for money. After all, you are dying every moment, so why should you continue selling your time for money? For a diamond watch? It makes no sense, it’s stupid. So after achieving financial independence, I resolved to spend my life on the most precious thing. And in my own interpretation that is social impact. It is still less valuable than your life because your life is priceless, but if you are selling something priceless, you want to get the best thing in return.” On a more practical note, he explains that the sanitation cause had been strongly neglected and there was much that needed to be done.
Armed with this strong sense of purpose, he embarked in 1998 on a one-man crusade to raise the standards of public toilets in Singapore and around the world. He soon realized that the subject of toilets was widely ignored by politicians, the media and society at large. Even though 40% of the world’s population does not have toilets, there were merely small local non-governmental organizations tackling the cause prior to the establishment of the WTO in 2001. “When we started – we saw that people felt uncomfortable, yes even embarrassed to talk about toilets. So we turned the subject from an awkward one into a media darling by making it comical. We still use the power of humor to break the ice and get people to start a global conversation around sanitation. Just look at our name, it is the WTO – World Toilet Organization – from the beginning we’ve been playing with the pun on the World Trade Organization.”
Indeed, more than a decade later the humorous spirit has worked its magic. Jack Sim has successfully established the World Toilet College, the World Toilet Summit, World Toilet Day on November 19th, and SaniShop, a social franchising business for local toilet vendors. The latter enables local entrepreneurs to set up a small toilet business and manufacturing unit at affordable prices ($40 per toilet). One of the biggest challenges of a SaniShop is to change people’s behavior to use a toilet. To do so, Jack Sim harnesses the power of jealousy and explains, “In the past, toilet-related activities were taken care of behind the house, so nobody could see it. But in front of the house people would plant flowers and buy curtains even if they have very little money. Just like the rich, they want to make others jealous of their home and garden. So we make the toilet something to brag about. We make it colorful and pretty and turn it into an object of desire. The lesson here is that emotions are not good or bad; they are useful. In a capitalist state, emotions are used to make you buy things that are bad for you, such as cigarettes. Social entrepreneurs must do it differently, and use jealousy so that people buy good things instead, like toilets.”
So in summary, Jack Sim’s three key insights about his work and personal motivation are based on meaning, humor and jealousy. In a fascinating, curious and inspiring way, he has combined these three principles to triumph over the high-impact taboo that surrounds toilets and global sanitation at large.
This post is part of a series produced by Student Reporter for The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. To see all the posts in the series published on The Huffington Post, click here.
Feature Image: Jack Sim; Source: World Toilet Organization.