The stories of women who couldn’t find a safe and clean rest stop while travelling by bus along Indian highways has opened up a big business opportunity and have sparked a series of new startups offering ‘smart toilets’.
Seeing the provision of clean toilets as a business opportunity was spurred by a 2021 survey that found that one fifth (19%) of 302 million Indian households don’t have access to a home toilet, even though the ‘sanitation business’ is considered demeaning by many.
The trend is bringing a whole range of new services and facilities to rest stops along Indian highways, including cafes, stores, Wi-fi, charging stations for electric vehicles, feeding/nappy changing rooms, showers, and lounges and sleeping pods. Many are app-based and employ contactless systems for access, and almost all provide disabled-friendly and gender-neutral toilets.
Lootel, which launched in 2017 to provide staffed clean and hygienic rest stops that are safe for women to use, grew out of a traumatic bus trip between Indore and Udaipur in northern Indian. Past midnight, the bus stopped in a small town and Neelam Singh and her husband, Yashwant Suthar, went to use the bathroom.
But because the women’s toilets were dirty and unusable, Singh had to look for a place in the surrounding wilderness while her husband stood guard. He chased away a group of men who accosted her, but the trauma stayed for a long time and it changed their career directions.
Several other smart toilet startups grew from similar experiences. Ashutosh Giri Goswami created FreshRooms after finding that there were no proper facilities for his wife and children while travelling. The brand’s first unit opened in 2019, offering a 24-hour cafe, Wi-fi, EV charging stations and lounges along with its bathrooms, which boast touchless entry, automatic sanitisers and heated toilet seats. There are 11 FreshRooms facilities in six Indian states, in urban centres with heavy footfall and on busy highways.
One female member of Safeer Palakkathodi’s family had a horrible time while travelling to Calicut on a bus. “Wherever the bus stopped, the toilets were so pathetic that she couldn’t use them and had to control herself till she reached home. Sometimes, women avoid drinking water while travelling because there are no proper facilities.”
That led him to co-found Travlounge, a Kerala-based start-up with US$1 million of funding which launched a pilot project on the Salem-Kochi highway in March 2023 and sees more than 100 users per day. Working on a subscription model, Travlounge plans to have six units Palakkathodi plans to have operating by the end of the year with two restaurants – a brand common to all and a smaller outlet that is local in style to empower local people and promote what is unique to each place.
The 11 FreshRooms units are used on average by 2,000 people a day, while an estimated 1.2 million people have used Lootels since it launched. All three cost 10 rupees (about 10-12 US cents) per use, but each operator provides the customer with benefits.
Both Suthar and Goswami hope to eventually have a network of up to 1,000 units. Suthar says that, in the long term, he intends to build Lootel into a recognised travel brand.“I am happy when I get calls from women to ask if there is a Lootel on their proposed travel route.”
The Toilet Board Coalition’s Sanitation Economy Accelerator is promoting these kinds of innovative approaches to meeting sanitation needs in India.
One example is in Pune, where 3S is repurposing old city buses as sanitation kiosks, complete with toilets, shower cubicles, diaper changing stations and sanitary pad vending machines, aimed at low income urban women.
Lootel and 3S are flourishing because they integrate toilet use as part of a broader user experience — whether an opportunity for women to “freshen up” or for workers to take a “refreshing break”, the TBC says. And of course, they create jobs – FreshRooms employs at least four people in each unit. Lootel is targeting 1,000 self-sustaining outlets and creating 9,000 jobs by 2025.
Smart toilets in India are clean, hygienic and a safe space for women – meet the start-ups building tech-enabled rest stops along the nation’s roads. South China Morning Post, April 24, 2023
Eight ways impact enterprises can transform the sanitation economy. EY, Mar. 20, 2020
Smart toilet cafe by Lootel, case study Toilet Board Coalition
Creating job opportunities one toilet at a time. Aug. 12, 2020. Lootel
Cover image: Lootel