A Microsoft alum, Brian Arbogast is used to thinking about the necessity of technological innovation – only now, he spends his days applying that type of thinking to fecal sludge management. He currently leads the Gates Foundation’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WSH) program. Arbogast, who started as a software engineer and then worked as a corporate vice president on R&D projects for Microsoft, is now tasked on a day-by-day basis with generating innovations in the space of sanitation technology. Lydia Randall recently caught up with him for Broken Toilets, to discuss the need to balance technology and non-technology based solutions, the importance of local partnerships, and his self-described “bullish optimism” for the potential of technological sanitation solutions.

The Gates Foundation is seen to have an interest in promoting sanitation solutions through a largely technology-based approach. How successful has this approach been for the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program, and what effect has this had on attitudes to sanitation in the markets you’ve been working in?

We’ve kind of invested in, first of all, trying to understand what are all the reasons why people don’t have better sanitation and what components of those come from the environment, the government… and then when is it a question of pure economics. A number of years ago, we started investing in some approaches to changing technologies, frankly, in order to address some of the economics in many cases, and so we kind of invest both in technological interventions as well as non-technological interventions. How do you make markets work better? Are there approaches for public or private partnership models between the private sector and government utilities that can lead to better take-up of sustainable sanitation services? So, we look at all the different tools we have at our disposal, and that our partners have available, to try to basically just drive take-up of sanitation and reduce fecal pollution in the environment.

Can you speak a little about these non-technological approaches and how they’ve been compared to the technological approaches?

One good example is the work that we’ve done with the utility in Dakar, Senegal. The utility there, ONAS, has accountability for sanitation and they’ve been a great partner because they’re very incented to do what they can to drive better sanitation in the city. When we first looked at what the pros were, we saw that there were many. There’s a good group of entrepreneurs that are available to empty pits, but we found a couple of problems. One was that if you’re a poor household and your pit is full, it’s very difficult to find and then to secure somebody to empty your pit. So then you have to kind of find them, and negotiate with them for that one transaction. Often times when they get to your house you’d have to renegotiate again, and many times they wouldn’t even empty the pit, they’d take just the liquid portion out. So, with the partners in Senegal we created a call center and people called this number when their pit was full and needed emptying. The call center would then send a text message to 10-12 trucks saying, “Hey, in the next hour if you want this job, bid on it.” And what would happen at the end of the hour is that the lowest bid would get the job, having given the price they agreed upon to go empty the pit. Then, the next day, the call center calls the household and says, “Are you happy with the service? Did they do what they said they would, and did they charge you what they said they would?” This has basically not only made it much, much easier for households to get their pits emptied, but it’s also driven a reduction in the cost of pit emptying, which is fantastic, just by introducing a little bit of competition into the marketplace. There is no kind of magic, new technology, or really major technological component here. It’s just helping identify ways that markets can work better and then providing some technical assistance to partners to help the utility figure out how to get that done, and then how to measure and evaluate and figure out plans to improve it over time.

Have you found a particular toilet or a non-technological solution that really fits in the economy of the specific places you’re working? Is there one example you can point to that’s been really successful and scalable?

With these interventions in Dakar, in the interest of scaling them, what we find is that the first thing you need to do is show that they work in one place, and then document them well. So it’s still too early to say that these have scaled broadly. But what I know is that you now have people from other cities across West Africa, and even beyond, that are visiting Dakar, that have heard about their good progress, that are meeting with them and trying to understand what is the nature of the intervention that they did, and the improvements they made to the market. One of the challenges is providing the evidence of the success of these kinds of interventions and then disseminating it so that there’s broad take-up, and I can’t say that any of those has reached a degree of scale yet, but based on the results, we think that they’re promising.

WSH has stated the need to increase demand in communities for sustainable sanitation solutions. You said in an interview that India specifically needs a shift in attitude from open defecation is natural, to “It’s not healthy”. Why is there a need to increase demand in communities for sanitation, and why this is important?

Absolutely. India’s kind of a remarkable case because it’s such a high percentage of the world’s open defecation. Around 60 percent of all the folks that defecate in the open are in India, and it’s 50 percent of the country. A study done by the R.I.C.E. Institute showed that, in some regions, even when the government has paid for the creation of toilets, in many cases what we found was that close to 50 percent of all toilets were just never used for their intended purpose, and even for those toilets that were used by someone in the family, 40 percent of them had at least one family member that was still not using them. So what we found was that there was just a preference for, in these specific communities in India, defecating outside rather than using a toilet. So there’s a significant challenge in education and behavior change, and this was a challenge that previously the governments had not been engaging in in any depth, and what we’re seeing now, at least at the national level, is a lot more talk about behavior change and a willingness to find new approaches to try to communicate and incentivize different behaviors.

How has the Gates Foundation specifically spurred those conversations, and how are specific community contexts taken into consideration when you’re considering demand and considering the need to achieve this goal?

By investing in a very comprehensive survey, what we (and our partners in government) really did was get a much richer sense of the nature and the size of the problem and some of the reasons for it. I think that was key to helping us all have a better understanding of those actual communities; what are people’s perspectives and what do they tell us about why they behave the way they behave today? That study by itself doesn’t give you the ideas about how you can go about changing behaviors, but it certainly has been pivotal in educating all of us about the actual local preferences, and gives us some starting points for figuring out innovative ways to reach those communities and engage them.

Is it still at a starting point, or have you noticed any social behavioral changes in light of that report?

We’ve not yet seen any studies that show, across the entire region, whether there have been broad changes. We know that there are many communities that have taken up the challenge of Swachh Bharat and have become open-defecation-free, and more and more of those situations are being documented and celebrated in different measures in the Indian government. So what we’re seeing are community-based changes, and we look forward to broader, more systematic information that can tell us whether we’re heading in the right direction or not. But the level of engagement of the Indian government to really understand this and invest in it is real, and it’s significant.

How are you evaluating those programs, and how is the Gates Foundation accountable to the specific communities they are in placed in?

We’ve got a strong commitment not only to measure and evaluate the investments that we’ve made and the work we do with partners, but also to make those reports publicly available. The goal is to try to help shape over time the body of knowledge that we’re all working from, whether it’s the communities themselves, the government entity, the NGOS, international donors, etc. We’re all getting smarter over time about what works and what doesn’t work. So the main things we do are publish and then disseminate.

In terms of the dissemination of those papers and reports, how are the people responsible for them getting direct feedback from the field?

In many cases the actual data for the reports, and how we’re learning it, comes from actual engagements on the ground. It comes from basically doing particular interventions in real communities. What we are excited about is just how many local partners we have that are actively engaged, not only in the intervention, but in the measuring, evaluation, and then later in the dissemination of that intervention.

The Gates Foundation is one of the major players in the realm of sanitation, and hence wields a lot of influence in what ideas are implemented. What is it like working with those local partners, and do you work with any sanitation companies that the Gates Foundation doesn’t fund?

Absolutely. We have lots of local partners that we fund directly, many local entities that get funded indirectly as sub-grantees, and then of course we have many, many partnerships where none of our money is flowing to them but we’re partnering on anything from policy discussions, to sharing best practices.

What have you learned from their approaches?

The main thing we’ve learned is just how critical it is to have a deep understanding of the given community, of what the community prioritizes and how they think about sanitation. One of the things that we’ve found to be remarkably valuable is convening. One of the things that’s interesting is that, even when we’re not funding a particular group, by inviting them to a convening with other partners there can be a huge amount of knowledge sharing within a few days or a week that they might not otherwise have had access to, or through which we wouldn’t have had access to all of their learning.

What do you think is the potential for impact from the grantees of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge?

It’s a great example of what we talk about at the foundation, which is having a willingness to take risks if there’s a potential for a very high reward. I consider the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge as a great example of a high risk, high reward program. When we started back in 2011, before I joined the foundation, I think there were probably many people who thought it was pretty fanciful, if not a little crazy, to think about coming up with a toilet that would be affordable but that would not require any water coming in, sewer line going out, or any connection to the grid and would kill all the pathogens and kind of obviate any need for fecal sludge to get trucked around, or for extensive sewer infrastructure. What we’re finding a few years in is that some of the things that nobody knew whether they’d even be possible, we’re seeing multiple different designs for that are showing, yeah, it absolutely is possible. So these days I’m incredibly bullish about the opportunity for this portfolio of technologies to eventually make a significant impact. We’re already seeing some great designs getting some field-testing in real life, in the field, and we’re engaging with commercial partners who are starting to look at the technologies, and are imagining what it would mean to build a business around them.

Brian Arbogast, Director, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) exhibit at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair – India in New Delhi on March 19, 2014. Photograph: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Prashant Panjiar

What does that tell you about the potential for scaling these winners of the challenge?

It’s one thing to have it work in the lab, and you can get quite excited. It’s quite another thing to see it working with real people, who didn’t help design it, using it, and liking it in a field trial. For example, one of our grantees, the University of Loughborough, installed one of the earliest prototypes. They gave it to a family who were living in apartments in Chongqing, China, on the eleventh floor of an apartment building. They used this toilet for three months and had no problem, and really liked it. What was interesting was that it was quite a large unit; it was the size of a good-sized bookshelf in their bathroom. While they were working on that, the team at Loughborough was doing the next design iteration, which was dramatically smaller and, as a result, also expected to be significantly cheaper. So what’s happening is we’re testing the science and the core engineering at one point, while teams are still iterating on how to make it better, cheaper, use less energy, and be more self-sufficient. Those kinds of iterations are incredibly exciting.

How do you think the sanitation solutions that come out of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge compare to lower tech alternatives? Is there room in the market, or a need in the market, for both?

 I think there is plenty of need in the market and there are a number of low tech solutions that we get excited about, as well. One fantastic example is the SaTo pan that was designed by American Standard, which is now a part of LIXIL. It’s a very simple design, just an insert for a latrine pan, but what it does is it creates a water seal, even if you’re flushing with very little water, and that water seal makes a dramatic difference on the user experience. You end up with a toilet where you don’t see the waste, a toilet where you don’t smell it, and where you don’t have the issue with flies, which can be vectors for disease. The SaTo Pan is kind of an amazing invention, but it’s less than two dollars and there have already been over a hundred thousand of them sold in Bangladesh. That was quite a small investment from us, in a really exciting partnership with LIXIL, that’s leading to a real fantastic product that is scaling up in an exciting fashion. Then I’d come up and say, how can we improve this? If we were to optimize this for places in Africa where there may be even drier pits, and less use of water, what would that look like?

In your experience is there a project that you’re most proud of across the board in terms of sanitation solutions?

That’s kind of like asking me who’s my favorite daughter! It’s not a good idea to answer those questions.

There are all kinds of projects that are exciting. Basically, the ones that are the most exciting are the ones where we learn something, and where everyone who’s working in that space learns about a new approach or learns more about an existing approach, because the challenge is massive and it’s going to take a lot of different solutions to meet the needs of very, very different communities around the world. So I can’t say that there’s any one favorite. I’m lucky in that, across the board, we’re working with very inventive partners, so I get to have a favorite daughter almost every day of the week.

What questions drive the Gates Foundation’s strategy?

Well, we sort of had the vision of eventually getting to a world where everybody has access to safe and sustainable sanitation and we [went] through all the different barriers that we face as a world in getting there, and many of them are economic. So, in many cases, the interventions have to change the economic systems.

How can it be cheaper for the right things to happen? In some cases, there are just better models for partnering, so our goal is universal access to sanitation. One way to really measure that is to ask just how much fecal pollution is there in the environment that makes people sick? So one very exciting thing is that it’s now a part of the Sustainable Development Goals, which means that it will be measured in every country, in every constituency. People will, once you’re measuring it, be thinking a lot more about all the different ways to reduce it. And what we’re now doing is [thinking about] what are all the new ways that we could, in different communities, in rural areas and urban areas, make a difference on this huge challenge. So we try [these different approaches], we measure them, we evaluate to see if they worked, and if they did we double down or we encourage the sector to double down.

When WSH is envisaging solutions for specific communities, how do you cater and work your technology in and around the specific economies when, for example, a member of that community might make their living emptying fecal sludge. How do those people get incorporated into the change?

In many cases what we’re finding is the people that have been involved in manual emptying are oftentimes the best people to engage in mechanical emptying. They understand the problem space and, if they basically have access to the ideas and technology, and sometimes access to capital, then they can basically become part of the solution themselves. So you see a number of communities where that’s kind of the natural partner group to work with. In terms of how do you develop programs that are supported and are sustainable? They need to be supported by the local community, and they need to be supported by the local government. Ensuring that you’ve got, not only the political will to invest in sanitation, but also the clarity around whose job it is, the institutional clarity, those are things that are very key pretty much anywhere that we see strong take-up and progress. You’ve got some champion that is very connected to the community that is helping to drive these changes

So how is WSH engaging those champions to take up the cause? How is that engagement happening on the local level?

It’s our partners who end up engaging them directly. So, in the example of Dakar, getting the engagement and participation of the group of truck owners and truck operators was essential for the progress that’s been made there. The woman who I mentioned, Mme. Faye Lena Tall, who runs the fecal sludge treatment plant now, used to be head of the association for truck operators. It was through working with her that we were able to engage the broader community, and that ONAS, the utility, was able to engage the broader community, find out what was really important to them, learn about the barriers such as lack of access to capital, and then develop mutual respect and trust by actually listening to them and then coming up with proposals that answered what they told us the challenges were. It took local leadership, not only in the public sector but in the private sector, and it also took the set of folks that were already in this business and knew it better than any of us to help shape the eventual solution.

Even with access to a latrine, research shows that people prefer to defecate in open. How does WSH address the fact that behavioral practices might slow take-up of the technologies you have coming out?

In the past in India it really seemed like they had just one approach to solving sanitation problems, and that was to build more toilets. This research provided evidence that building more toilets was never, ever, ever going to solve the problem, which was that these toilets were not sufficient, and were not of the nature that the communities wanted. So, for example, we know that when people in those communities build their own toilets they tend to build toilets that have pits that are much larger. So one of the questions seems to be how quickly will they fill up? It’s understanding things like that, that different communities might have very different concerns and desires, which lead to eventual solutions.

Looking to the future, what’s next for WSH? What are your main goals moving forward, and where are you going to be focusing your efforts and why?

I’m very excited about the progress on the technologies and the fact that more and more of them are now getting to the point where they can really benefit from engaging commercial partners who get excited about building businesses around these technologies. Because, at the end of the day, what we really need are a set of products, a competitive marketplace of solutions that households get to choose from, and that governments get to facilitate. Over the next year I’m excited about some of those commercial partnerships. I’m very excited about the momentum in a number of countries, including India, and that when we’re looking more broadly, we see in other countries instances where people are talking about the necessity not just to have a toilet, but to manage what comes out of it, to invest in fecal sludge management. It’s really treating all of this waste that’s the end goal. The fact that this seems to be much more on people’s minds as a problem that we need to address also means that over the next year or two we’re gonna have a lot more opportunity to engage folks that haven’t been worried about this in the past.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.