Hotseat: Jack Sim

One man's quest to give the world a toilet.

Jack Sim wants people to admit they poop.

Sim, 55, a successful Singaporean construction executive, is the founder of the nonprofit World Toilet Organization. It's OK, please laugh—Sim says getting people to do so has been key for his organization's success in increasing awareness for better sanitation in developing countries. In 2008, Time magazine named him a Hero of the Environment.

WW spoke to Sim before he left for Portland, where he will speak at noon June 4 at Mercy Corps, 28 SW 1st Ave.

WW: How did you get started?
Jack Sim: I started the Restroom Association of Singapore in 1998 to clean up public toilets. Then I started the World Toilet Organization. I went to a very experienced person who is doing something like this [for condoms] in Thailand, "Mr. Condom." I said, "How do you do this?" He said, "Can you make people laugh?… If you make them laugh, then they'll listen to you." So I created the acronym WTO, playing a pun on the World Trade Organization. The media loved it.

So, what does your WTO do?
Forty percent of the world's population still doesn't have toilets. For the longest time, sanitation has been banded with water. All the money, all the attention, goes to water because it's critical. It's like putting your grandmother next to Miss Universe. So what I did was create humor, so when the grandmother started to tell jokes, Miss Universe would become boring.

WTO legitimized the subject of sanitation, which is originally very disgusting and avoided. The reason the world still has 2.6 billion people without a toilet is that we don't want to engage the subject.

How effective has the WTO been?
Before 2001, there [was] nobody writing about sanitation and toilets. I think we can claim that the World Toilet Organization is the one that broke the taboo on sanitation. Look at the whole series of World Toilet Summits. The first one was done in Singapore. Beijing hosted one year and renovated 4,000 public-toilet plots for the Olympics. We went to India, which has the biggest problem of sanitation in the world by virtue of its population, and the president of India came. So I think we keep on upgrading the status of toilets and sanitation.

What's the biggest change you've seen in toilets in the last 10 years?
People are able to admit they poop. Recently the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation actually switched their focus from water to sanitation; we're glad a big name is putting its brand behind this thing. It took a lot of time to break the taboo. Three years ago, we started the SaniShop micro-franchise, where we teach the poor how to produce toilets. For $1,000, the manufacturer can start a factory, making $5 per toilet. After 200 toilets, he gets back his capital. The selling is done by a village woman who earns $1 or $2 commission. So we create three sales jobs and three mason jobs. Six jobs for $1,000 and we deliver sanitation sustainably.

What about plumbing and water treatment?
It's actually a very simple toilet. It composts itself, and then the pathogens die off after 10 months. You can dig it out with a shovel yourself. 

What does the future look like?
We have to mobilize a lot of people. We know the longevity of human life accelerated very fast with the invention of the flush toilet. People live longer because the child death rate was reduced. People in Nigeria have an average life span of 46 years. Not because there are no old people, but because the statistic is held down by child death. We want to reach the day when everybody will have a clean, safe toilet wherever they go.

What's the coolest toilet you've ever seen?
When you think about high tech and all that, you think about the Japanese toilet. But I think the coolest is when somebody doesn't have a toilet, and they can afford to get their first.

The transformation in their life is amazing. They say, "I'm going to tell all those people who don't have a toilet to go get one. We get privacy, we get convenience, we don't have to go to the bush, we don't have to be bitten by the snake.”