The Syrian refugee crisis has gripped headlines and shone a spotlight on needs for temporary shelters to house the displaced. Part of these needs are toilets, and many people in the world still lack these sanitary fixtures. It's a problem that causes 3.4 million deaths from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related (WASH) issues per year.
Refugee camps are just one example of how many in the world suffer from the lack of sanitary facilities. Now a former design student from Georgia Tech, Jasmine Burton, wants to help solve this global problem, creating a toilet system called SafiChoo. Burton specifically designed it to be inexpensive and ergonomic, as well as to accommodate the cultural diversity of toilet use around the world.
With the help from the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing -- which helped get the ball rolling on making the SafiChoo design a reality -- Burton is working to manufacture these toilets through a company called Wish4WASH (W4W) LLC. Although the toilets can be used in any location that needs them, Burton is specifically targeting refugee camps around the world.
The toilet system is currently in its third prototype iteration, undergoing some changes based on a pilot test of the latest design in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, according to Burton.
Often in refugee camps and disadvantaged areas of the world, toilets are mere holes in the ground or communal pits, which create serious health hazards. Burton said she was inspired to design SafiChoo, when she found out during her first year of college how the lack of proper toilets was especially affecting women's education in certain parts of the world.
"I learned from a Georgia Tech alum and one of my current mentors, Susan Davis of Improve International, that nearly half of the world doesn't have access to a toilet; of those people, women and girls are disproportionately burdened," she said in a press statement. "Specifically, I learned that pubescent girls in the developing world frequently drop out of school as a result of their schools lacking toilets. As a product designer and woman in higher education, this reality angered me so much that I left the conference and called my mom to say, 'I know what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to design toilets.'"
SafiChoo provides a hygienic and ergonomic toilet system based on four key features: a toilet seat on which people can sit or squat based on their preference; a genital washing device, which is a religious and cultural ritual practiced by nearly 70 percent of refugees; a waste collection and filtration system that routes into containers for easy collection and to prevent contamination; and education that increases awareness of hygiene issues that impact health.
"It's all about how technology is driving sanitation," Scott Merritt, a press spokesman for the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, told Design News in an interview. "Jasmine's invention is designed to improve on sanitation, improve on health, and be affordable and extremely user friendly. You can have a slab of wood with a hole cut in it [as a toilet], or you can have something purposely designed to be user intuitive, and it just maximizes the value of the design in what it is and what it's doing.
SafiChoo is composed of a mix of materials, including plastic, ceramic, clay, metal, and wood, and its current design features an elevated toilet seat that sits atop the waste collection container. A manual bidet sits to one side, and the toilet also features a foot rest so people who want to squat rather than sit will feel more comfortable. The design has been parametrically modeled with a focus on improving the SafiChoo user experience in preparation for large-scale rotational molding and spin-casting manufacturing, according to press materials about the toilet.
W4W hopes to have its first production of SafiChoo toilets in the pipeline this month. Once the system is available, the first models will be installed in Zambia (where Burton is currently living) to gain user insights about ergonomics, intuitiveness, usability, and feasibility over the course of the next year, she said. Once the toilet design is tested and any feedback incorporated into updates to the system, W4W plans to sell to international NGOs and US-based customers next fall.
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Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.