Gone are the days of sanitation languishing in the shadows while other basic human needs take the spotlight. In the past decade, the topic of sanitation has emerged from backroom discussions among engineers at water conferences to a high-level, global dialogue among activists, celebrities and philanthropists.

Many have come to the table through the obvious connection between sanitation and public health. According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, over 1.5 million children die from diarrheal diseases each year due to lack of sanitation.

Today’s generation of advocates is inspired to stay the course because they recognize that sanitation is not just a one-dimensional health issue, but has implications for environmental sustainability, social justice and livelihood creation. In other words, it has become a fascinating domain for social entrepreneurship.

Both donors and implementers have begun to take a more holistic approach. Together, they are developing innovative, integrated solutions that shift from a primarily destructive aim (i.e. killing pathogens that make people ill) to a productive one, whereby human wastes are transformed from a dangerous pollutant into a valuable resource.

This new way of viewing sanitation as resource creation raises some powerful questions:

  • What if sanitation could become a major provider of essential nutrients for agriculture, or help replace fossil fuels through the production of gas?
  • What are the economic implications of developing productive and ecological approaches to the global sanitation crisis?
  • Is it possible that the critically needed provision of a basic human right can be transformed into a livelihood generator for social entrepreneurs around the globe?

I am honored to work with Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), an organization that focuses on these very questions. Since 2006, SOIL has researched and implemented ecological sanitation projects in Haiti that transform human wastes into rich, organic compost, which restores soil fertility and increases agricultural production. In recent years, SOIL has begun shifting from a traditional aid paradigm (i.e. donor-funded public toilets) to a social entrepreneurship model, where customers pay a small monthly subscription fee for private toilets and waste collection and treatment services. SOIL generates additional revenue through selling the finished compost for agriculture and reforestation uses.

Although SOIL is a non-profit organization, we believe that the key to sustainability is social business development, and the path to scaling innovation is through replication by the private sector. Non-profits are well positioned to participate in research and development of innovations and respond to emergencies, but sustained development outcomes require the participation of socially conscious local entrepreneurs.

Sasha Kramer is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), one of the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year 2014. 

Image: A farmer spreads fertilizer in a paddy field at Traouri village. REUTERS/Ajay Verma