From Atop of the Toilet to the Base of the Pyramid

Yolanda Roa and Linda Moet present an interview conducted with social entrepreneur Jack Sim.

At the age of 24, Jack Sim had already established himself as an emerging entrepreneur. But making money was not enough, Sim wanted to improve the world. Starting with his home country, Sim’s first initiative was to raise the sanitation standards of public restrooms in Singapore and eventually provide accessible, clean toilets around the world.Beginning from 1998, Sim set up the Restroom Association of Singapore. The mission was then extended to an international on in 2001, with the founding of the World Toilet Organisation.

But surely, success in raising awareness of public health and sanitation, as well as in achieving financial stability and independence, has not been as convenient as that one downward stroke of flushing the toilet.  The persuading of governments, United Nations Organizations, and toilet manufacturers to collaborate is also a process that has clogged along its way, and yet this intrepid entrepreneur managed to convince his national government and international organisations to adapot a World Toilet Day as part of UN resolution in 2013. World Toilet Day has been commemorated annually on 19 November since.

A video by the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources Singapore, on World Toilet Day (19 Nov).

Sim has continued to advocate for global equity.  In 2011, another innovation, the Base of the Pyramid Hub, was established to synergize social entrepreneurship for the fast and effective delivery of services and goods to developing regions and ultimately, allow the base of the pyramid to achieve economic stability.

The scent of this project, being just as empowering as the former, has encouraged us to learn more, we approached Jack Sim to find out more about the progress of this new initiative.

Since establishing the hub back in 2011, what is one of the biggest problems that the organization has faced in encouraging larger corporations and entrepreneurs to venture into the BoP hub and focus some of their attention on creating employment and initiating services in under-developed locations?

Originally, I thought it to be quite sophisticated, but when I started I realized that you cannot be a consultant, an introducer, matchmaker or a direct service provider, so you have to find a negative space: the background on how to create a movement, rather than a real entity. So this is a very long learning curve. That means that I have to keep dumping what I already know to include things that I have to learn new. This is the reason why so far there is no ecosystem for the BoP. There is a lot of research unit, research places, and there is a lot of ???, and most of them are unable to deal very fast. These are several years of learning, which is costly because I have travelled to all kinds of places, from the World Economics Forum, world UN system, multinational companies, even to the slums, villages, different continents. I have been researching this, not in an academic manner, but in terms of active learning and understanding people at the ground.

Do you have an example of a BOP-Hub project? What are some actual examples of how the BoP hub has contributed to a certain under-developed region’s healthcare, sanitation, infrastructure, or overall economic quality?

In reality, we are a work in progress. We have no completed projects yet. I’ll tell you about our different sections. We have local communities that we could now engage and gain their trust. We have got a building coming up with 65000 square feet, which we will fill up with a lot of different partnerships: we have universities, a design business, funders and we have gathered a lot of business models, that we are now helping to raise money in the order of million dollars. Our own incubation is a business with fortified rights providing proper nutrition to 350 000 construction workers for which we raised 1.1 Billion Singaporean Dollars (850 000 US dollars). Another one is starting a school of gumption that will disrupt the educational system. There are several projects in the pipeline, for example to facilitate help to farmers who rely on middle-man loans: the middle man will loan their money at a high interest and buy their products at low prices.

From my understanding, under-developed nations might also be restricted by certain political bureaucracy or cultural restraints, posing obstacles for these companies to access their consumers, generate profits and eventually establish a self-sufficient economy. What solutions have been generated and are there examples of successful approaches?

In more communist countries, there are government interventions, restrictions and village hoodies everywhere.  However, if you go to most countries, the government is quite dysfunctional so therefore they do not actually have the resources to police you. Registering an entity can be a problem, that can take many months or years. The other is the access to sending money into the country and taking it out of the country.  As far as for doing business, most countries don’t worry about you doing that.  But the mentality of the people about doing business, that’s where we have to build capacity. 

How do you think education comes into play in empowering the more vulnerable population, such as women and children, because personally I believe education is one of the least profitable but most desperately seeked services, so what strategies can the BOP undertake to effectively  create that beneficial learning environments, while also boosting economy, making a profit and creating more services?

I think some education in numeracy and language is good, but it does not need to be academic, a vocational, entrepreneurial training or social engagement would be good, so that they can apply it to a business. For that you don’t really need to be highly educated: you just need to count, common sense, a lot of gumption and entrepreneurial instinct. This can be found in roughly in 1 out of 100 people. So these people need some start-up capital, some training, some basic models to copy, some hand-holding. Just sending kids to school won’t provide them with a bright future. If there is no entrepreneur to create the jobs, then they still will have no opportunities. If I go to Nairobi, taxi drivers are all highly educated, but they say they cannot get a better job than taxi drivers. In the Philippines, a lot of people are college graduates, but they actually go oversees to be domestic maids, wash clothes, feed babies, iron clothes and garden flowers. If education is not market-based, it is a waste of money. If you want to train people, you have to train them for something that can earn money: vocational skills, trade skills – whether it is to build something, fix something, engineering. Like in Germany, where they treat tradesmen as important, as educated people. Academic education can be overemphasized.

Now for my last question, what would you recommend young people and students like us, parts of the well-served countries, to eventually become more active and spreading the central message of the BOP Hub, how do you recommend that we get involved?

 I think you can volunteer, you can go down to the ground and learn things at the same level than the people you want to help. Talk to people, you’re alive and like one of them. You should ask them a lot of questions, about their aspiration, their live. You cannot know what they want, since they don’t know what is available. However you cannot tell them what you think they want, or decide for them. Instead, you have to ask questions in the right way to discover what it is they really want. As an example, just last week I went to a village. I asked them if they wanted Wi-Fi, and they said no. Why? Because they don’t have a smartphone, and so no use for Wi-Fi. But if you had the android phone? –  No, the phone is too expensive. Why should I have Wi-Fi? Would you like to earn money, by trading with people in the city directly? –Yes. Would you like to bypass the middleman? –Yes. Would you like to have better prices for your produce, for your crops? –Yes. So how much did you pay for your subscription? – 3 dollars. For Wi-Fi, you pay the same. – Then I want Wi-Fi. But they still have no smartphone. We can rent them the android phone, after which they can buy it. If they earn the money with the Wi-Fi and the phone, they will be able to pay it back. And then they are happy to sign up. Before they didn’t know they could have this. So you keep asking questions until you come to a good agreement. You can’t tell them what they want, or what they or their children should have or should do. You have to ask them. Do not disrespect them, treat them like your neighbours. Then you learn how to help them and how to run a business.

 A business does not start with myself. A lot of students want to have a start-up, since it’s very trendy. They want to tell their friends about it and their achievements. It’s fashionable, but you shouldn’t do it for fashion. Do it because you really want to see the local income people improve their quality of life. Do it because you see that your effort can help others, and it makes you happy. If you do it like that then you are humble and are doing it for the right reason. If you do it to be famous, to win prizes, or to put a picture of you in the village on Facebook, those are not very important reasons. The most important is your deep sense of purpose, why you think these people should have a better quality of life and if you believe in what you are doing.

 Thank you very much for doing the interview. Do you have any questions for me?

 If you guys would like to volunteer, please help me also to help the people.

Photo: pixabay

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