New Challenges Faced by Modern Portable Sanitation Businesses

Rajeev Kher raises awareness about the important role of portable sanitation in an emerging Indian economy.
New Challenges Faced by Modern Portable Sanitation Businesses
Left to right are Rajeev Kher, Saraplast founder, with Ranjit Kher and Ulka Sadalkar, executive directors.

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Rajeev Kher is a champion of sanitation in a place where modern sanitation is not widely embraced. “I come from a country which is very rich in culture and tradition. Unfortunately we are not looked upon as the cleanest place in the world,” he says.

Kher runs the portable restroom division of Saraplast PLC based in Pune, India, which is in central India and near its western coast. With close to 4,000 units and 300 hundred employees in India’s largest cities – his home of Pune plus Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and the smaller capital city of New Delhi – he is trying to tackle India’s problem of open sewers and defecation in public places.

Kher learned about portable sanitation while he was an intern in North America. When he wanted to set up his own business he chose portable sanitation because he knew the field would have an impact on his country.

Explore Five Challenges That Affect Rajeev Kher's Portable Sanitation Business:

1. Building a reliable workforce

Saraplast units are serviced by a truck and three workers: two technicians and a driver whose only job is driving and looking after the truck. The size of Kher’s staff is influenced by India’s particular workforce. There is a lot of absenteeism, so the company must have enough employees to allow for that and serving customers, Kher says. The nation’s caste system is the primary cause for this. In traditional India, people born into a certain level of society were allowed to work only in certain trades and could not marry outside their caste. Although these views are changing, the change is slow. The result for Saraplast is that many Indians see themselves as above the job of cleaning portable restrooms, Kher says.

“Getting people becomes a very difficult problem. We have to be getting the right kind of guys. Among most groups there is a lot of alcohol abuse. Many of them come from rural and near-urban areas where people are not well trained and not so serious about their jobs,” he says.

“But we’re trying to raise the bar,” he says. “We make this look like a business that anybody and everybody can do. We’re trying to bring people out of this whole thing of caste, giving them dignity, giving them importance, giving them all the technology – machines, equipment – that they need for mechanized cleaning.”

2. Finding a suitable disposal solution

Cleaning to a high standard of hygiene makes his company unique among competitors, he says.

“There are some people who don’t even have trucks. They just have toilets with valves, and they’ll make a pit behind the toilet and have the waste go into the pit. Or they’ll just fill up the toilet, shut it off, pick it up and take it to the yard and then empty it,” Kher says.

Saraplast employees were hauling wastewater to municipal treatment plants that sometimes turned loads away because the plants were at capacity. Kher’s solution was to set up its own treatment plant so the company is self-sufficient. The small-scale plant was manufactured in India and it reduces BOD and other parameters to modern standards. After testing, the plant was ready to be commissioned in 2013. Water coming out of the plant offers its own opportunity.

“We recycle the water. Most of the city fringe areas are all drought-prone, so this water is for irrigation. It could be for public plantations. It could be for parks. It could be for golf courses, things like that,” Kher says. Better still, he says, his company did not have to set up a supply chain to distribute recycled water. Existing tank truck operators come to Saraplast and ask to buy its water.

3. Tweaking equipment to meet the Indian culture

Portable restrooms require supplies, and for Kher that means another challenge because of the cost of importing what he needs. “The problem is we have to pay a very high duty. In India its almost 35 percent,” he says. Chemical supplies are sourced partly within India, Kher says. Deodorants come from the United States because they are of the quality he wants.

His restrooms come from Satellite Industries and he also has units from PolyJohn Enterprises. Kher buys only unassembled restroom shells because of cultural preference. Indians do not sit on toilets, but rather squat. Saraplast has its own molds used to manufacture squatting units to fit the Satellite shells. The interiors also include a washing system for the lower body because Indians do not use toilet paper.

All of Kher’s vacuum trucks are manufactured in India.

4. Effective partnership with the government

People everywhere complain about their own government, but many people who are not in India criticize the Indian government – for its bureaucracy and general ability to stand in the way of progress. Kher doesn’t see it that way.

“You know, very honestly, the government has just so many things which are a priority for our country, which is a developing country. And it’s very easy always to blame the government, but we need to do something on our own also.”

He looks at government as a partner in what he does. He gets support from government, not only in terms of work when there is a large event that needs portable restrooms, but officials also call him to ask his opinion on sanitation issues.

5. Bringing effective sanitation to the slums

Kher is moving portable restrooms into the slums of big cities as a way to help slum dwellers improve their own lives. With help from foundations, Saraplast arranges for slum dwellers to either lease units or buy them outright and pay back a low-interest loan. Saraplast workers do the cleaning, and the restrooms become a small business for the operator. These operators can offer showers and hygiene products to make more money. Other small businesses advertise their services on the sides of the units. And, of course, restrooms help encourage Indians to embrace modern sanitation.

Sanitation is Kher’s service to society in the largest sense. There is a well-documented connection between sanitation and school dropout rates among girls, he says. School bathrooms are dirty or nonexistent, and the girls eventually drop out, reinforcing that education carries little value for the poorest people.

“If I can provide good sanitation to girls in schools I will be able to improve the education-dropout rate ratio, and that will impact the country in a very, very large, positive way,” Kher says.

More Information

PolyJohn Enterprises - 800/292-1305 - www.polyjohn.com

Satellite Industries - 800/328-3332 - www.satelliteindustries.com



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