Local Empathy: Toilet Innovation in Japan and Kenya

Incremental Excremental Innovation

By Shlomo  Maital    

                Sound Princess

Toto’s Sound Princess

   The core of innovation is meeting an unmet want or need in a creative manner.  The tough part is simply identifying that need.  Here are two examples of how empathy – feeling AS IF you were the person in need – is crucial.   And how incremental innovation can be…excremental. 

   *  A Japanese toy company, Toto, invented the otohime, or “Sound Princess”.  It is installed in thousands of restrooms across Japan.  What does the Sound Princess do?  When you press the button (see photo), it mimics the sound of flushing water.

    Why?  Many Japanese women were continually flushing, so that the sound would mask the sounds they made in using the facility.   The portable purse-friendly device is a huge best-seller in Japan.

    I would LOVE to know the back story, of how (and more important, WHO!) invented this device. 

   * The Umande Trust, a Kenyan community organization, tackled the problem of disposing of human waste in Africa.  A common solution is the ‘flying toilet’ – plastic bags of human waste, flung as far as possible.  Umande builds massive biodigesters that composts the output of a fleet of toilets.  Each toilet charges a few pennies for each use, and makes about $400 per month.  The biodigester composts the waste, creates biogas and makes hot water for some 400 residents. 

     There are probably millions of would-be entrepreneurs who are trying to devise apps, to rival WhatsApp, sold recently for $19 b.   The field is too crowded.  I wish they would focus on dark corners, basic areas where there are unmet needs because, well, human waste is just not appealing.  By empathizing with ordinary people, observing their daily lives, entrepreneurs can create value in areas far from the standard smartphone.  But, it starts with empathy, a keen eye and sharp ear, and a deep passion for making the lives of ordinary people better, even incrementally.

*  Dayo Olopade, International New York Times, March 1-2, 2014, p. 6