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A few weeks back, we were still in Istanbul, I had a skype call with a person I strongly admire, Dr. Bindeswhar Pathak.  We didn’t talk for long but after the call I felt electrified. ‘He said we could do it!’. This thought went through my mind again and again. ‘He said it is possible to build a social business constructing toilets for the poor of rural India.’ That was all that I needed to hear from someone like Dr. Pathak.

The first time I heard of Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak was in November 2011.

I had just had come up with the idea to cycle to India and raise money for a social project. When I talked to Sven Riesbeck about the idea and that we might be able to utilize the funds to build the toilets which were dearly needed, Sven was enthusiastic.

Sven Riesbeck had been interested in toilets and water issues since he was seventeen years old. He handed me a book. ‘This is what you need to read to get an idea about the global water crisis’ were his words. And in that particular book there was a mention of Dr. Pathak. It was a very short mention. But it made a huge impression on me.

According to the book, the organization that Dr. Pathak had founded, Sulabh International, had built over 60.000 toilets in India. That was back in the nineties. Today, Sulabh has built over one million toilets. It is operating over 8000 public toilets and the Sulabh twin pit latrine, which has been kept patent free by its inventor, has been built by other parties over 5 million times.

I knew this was worth trying to contact Sulabh International. Try to learn from them. Learn about their secret. Learn how they were able to make a change in the lives of so many.

In Istanbul I got my first chance to talk with Dr. Pathak. His assistant Gaurav Chandra pinged me on Skype. ‘Are you ready for the interview?’ he wrote. Actually, I wasn’t. I sat in front of my computer doing something completely different. ‘Yes, of course I am ready.’ I wrote back. I hadn’t expected Dr. Pathak to do the interview with me anymore. A few days back we had agreed on a time for an interview. But then it was canceled in the last minute. Then we found a new time. I asked for them to confirm the time but didn’t receive an answer. On the day the interview was supposed to be, I was still waiting for a confirmation. About two hours after the time that we had set at first, Mr. Chandra pinged me.

After a microphone and video connection check on Skype, I could see in the video how Mr. Chandra carried me through the premises of the Sulabh International organization in Delhi before setting the laptop down in front of the founder of one of the biggest Non-Profits in India.

It was a short and inspiring call. Dr. Pathak’s message: Anything is possible. But you have to do the ground work if you want to achieve something.

A few weeks later Erik, Johann and I visited the Sulabh Campus in Delhi to meet Dr. Pathak in person. We were greeted by the entire staff in a welcoming ceremony. After an extensive morning prayer sung in Hindi and a few words of wisdom from selected staff that addressed the rest of us from the podium, we were taken for a round tour of the Campus.

Besides a toilet museum, a biogas plant connected to the public toilets, lining the Sulabh Campus on the eastern side, the campus included a school, offering education to the children of manual scavengers for free.

Some people criticize Dr. Pathak for the personality cult around him. To me, that is just the Indian way of life. And after all, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak really got something to show for it.

The things that made the deepest impact on me that day are:

1. Dr. Pathak’s technology is relatively cheap in comparison to the unit price we are paying for our toilets.

2. The toilets are eco-friendly, if built correctly and in the right locations

3. The toilets seem to be easy to build, easy to operate and with slight changes in the design, they wouldn’t be that different from the model of toilets we are constructing at the moment, separating urine from feces

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The journey on the cycles from Germany to India is finished. And it was very rewarding in many differents ways.

Now I feel that some of us are heading off onto a new journey.

This time it is not on bicycle.

This new journey is about finding out how to build a social business around toilets and then to build toilet after toilet after toilet, improving sanitation conditions step by step.

Eventually Guts for ChangeNon-Water Sanitation e.V. and our many partners will build, sell, distribute hundreds maybe thousands of toilets and provide communities, cities and even countries with access to sustainable basic sanitation. That is the goal.

Taking the first steps on our journey, we have met Dr. Pathak. And through the knowledge of Sulabh International, Dr. Pathak and his assistant Gaurav Chandra, we have come one step closer to that goal.

P.S.: There will follow another article shortly on the many new opportunities that have presented themselves during our first two weeks in Pune. Stay tuned.

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