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Winnipeg entrepreneur Cordell Jacks with villagers in Cambodia.
Winnipeg entrepreneur Cordell Jacks with villagers in Cambodia.

Improving Third World health, one toilet at a time Add to ...

This is a story about saving lives, nurturing love and building latrines.

It starts with two young Winnipeggers deciding to travel the world. And it ends in Cambodia, where the couple have saved countless lives pitching a life-saving product most people in the West take for granted.

"Believe me, I never imagined my career would take me into toilets, but I'm glad it has," says Tamara Baker, who, along with her partner Cordell Jacks, has set up a roaring latrine trade in a country where some 85 per cent of rural dwellers defecate in fields, creating a massive public-health problem.

About two years ago, the University of Manitoba business school grads found themselves at a personal and professional crossroads. By all outside appearances, they were living the dream. Both worked good corporate jobs and made good corporate paycheques. They just didn't feel good about it.

"I really, really hated it," Mr. Jacks, now 30, says of his financial services job. "It didn't have the soul I was looking for."

Ms. Baker, 28, felt the same about her senior marketing gig. That shared experience drew them into a romantic relationship in early 2007. Within two years, they decided to tackle their collective malaise, selling their worldly possessions and booking tickets to Calcutta.

But a funny thing happened on the way to India. Two days before they were set to embark, someone from IDE, a Winnipeg based non-profit that supports business opportunities for poor people in the developing world, called and convinced the couple that Cambodia, a country with world's worst sanitation rates outside of sub-Saharan Africa, needed their enterprising minds.

The reasons for Cambodia's dismal sanitation rates were no mystery. Installing a toilet ran about $150, well beyond the means of the average Cambodian, and few people responded to hectoring public-health lectures about the ills of defecating above their water table.

"Somehow, we had to make the world's most unsexy product seem attractive to people who knew very little about it," Mr. Jacks says.

First, they had to redesign the toilet. IDE courted renowned designer Jeff Chapin, and over several months he came up with the Easy Latrine, a simple $30 toilet using a prefabricated chamber, pipes and a concrete pit. Where an old-style latrine took a whole day's work and several contactors, any villager can install an Easy Latrine in a few hours.

"It's not particularly beautiful, but it's a real breakthrough because of the cost and the production methods." says Jan Willem Rosenboom, the Cambodia water and sanitation coordinator for the World Bank, which funded the project along with the United States Agency for International Development.

Next, they needed to stir up demand. Rather than harangue locals about public health, Ms. Baker decided to market the toilets as a status symbol. "Keeping up with the Joneses is as much of a concept in Cambodia as it is here in North America," she says of the marketing campaign she pitched village by village. "So we sold sanitation as something that will make you feel proud, something that fits the budget, as achievable aspiration."

And it appears to be working. Sanitation revenues in the pilot region have increased 800 per cent in one year, with businesses selling more latrines in nine months than they'd sold in the previous four years. Twenty-two new sanitation businesses have sprung up. One region's latrine coverage increased by 36 per cent. Best of all, businesses all over the country are clamoring for training in EZ Latrine construction, so they can starting hawking the loos throughout the country.

"Now that the private sector is organized to do this, it's spreading like wildfire," Mr. Jacks says. "Rather than create a toxic cycle of dependency, as some aid can do, we hope to leave the country within a year."

Officials with other NGOs, including the venerable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are now asking for the couple's help in other sanitation enterprises around the world. They've even been inducted into the World Toilet Association hall of fame (yes, it exists).

Despite all the toilet talk, the couple couldn't be happier together.

"The last year has definitely had its challenges," Ms. Baker says, "but we've certainly decided that we can have much more to offer the world as two than one."

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