Their services are not restricted to building public toilets, they also plan and design them, and offer maintenance service
Shahana (pseudonym) had been travelling for over two hours. The journey took longer than usual time because of traffic.
By the time she reached her destination, she really needed to use the bathroom.
But looking around her in the sprawling bazaar, there was no bathroom for women, not even a public toilet.
Shahana is not the only woman who faces this problem in Bangladesh. Almost all women suffer from lack of toilets when they leave home.
Many develop the unhealthy habit of not using the bathroom for long hours and increase the risk of contracting urinary and kidney infection.
Some of the bathrooms which are available are usually not clean or hygienic.
Almost none have facilities such as changing tables for babies, breastfeeding, or sanitary napkin corners.
A social enterprise named called Bhumijo has come forward to ensure hygienic and safe public toilets for women in the country.
Their services are not restricted to building public toilets, they also plan and design them, and offer maintenance service.
Additionally, they offer advertisement opportunities inside the facility and products can be displayed in designated areas.
The Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of Bhumijo Farhana Rashid always felt the need for public toilets for women. What bothered her was how not drinking water before going out was normalised and nobody even spoke about it.
She noticed how many offices, even universities do not have proper toilets for women and how these problems remained unnoticed.
Her own aunt's death from repetitive UTI and finally kidney failure jolted her and she finally decided to do something.
Farhana has an architecture and planning background, which made it easier for her to create designs for public toilets which would ensure hygiene and safety for women.
She has also worked with eminent Bangladeshi architects like Marina Tabassum and Ehsan Khan.
In 2017, Bhumijo won Brac's "Urban Innovation Challenge" competition and that boosted Farhana and her team's confidence.
Farhana said, "In our country, most of the sanitation-based works are undertaken by NGOs. These are usually fund based projects which are later handed over to the government or the community."
"Initially, we planned for our public toilets to be located in the busiest areas of Dhaka. We figured Noor Mansion (Gausia Market), which is usually visited by hundreds of women, should have a proper public toilet. The shopkeepers were not very interested in the beginning, but when they saw how well maintained and facilitated it was, they themselves began to take care of it," Farhana told The Business Standard.
When Bhumijo began its journey, Farhana had two main worries.
Firstly, how the toilets' hygiene and cleanliness would be maintained, and secondly, how people would accept these establishments.
But so far, the major problems faced by Bhumijo have been constructing toilets in densely populated places and getting permits (because not everything falls under the city corporation).
As of October 2020, the organisation has designed 10-12 toilets in Dhaka and its outskirts; these are not run by Bhumijo.
There are six operational toilets which they run.
By the end of November, there would be five new toilets, Farhana said.
The Bhumijo team consists of 24 people who work full-time. Apart from them, there are volunteers and consultants.
"Our services are based on the clients' demand. We do more than building public toilets. If a union parishad or any other agency asks for full maintenance, we will provide them with it. If someone wants supervision support, training of cleaning staff, we provide them that as well," said Farhana Rashid.
For a new start-up like Bhumijo, reaching a break-even point was not easy, but they did.
She further said, "Other than the regular pay per use, clients can also pay weekly and monthly subscription fees. Selling hygiene products also helps us earn an amount." But she also mentioned it is tough for them to raise the maintenance cost of the toilets.
So, how is the cleanliness and hygiene maintained in the toilets?
"It is upsetting that many users are not responsible. Some users also behave rudely with the cleaning staff. Unless we change these attitudes, bringing changes would be difficult. Our managers and volunteers make routine visits to the toilets, there is a maintenance schedule which is followed. Sometimes we make random checks," she explained.
As a female entrepreneur working with toilets, Farhana has been asked questions such as "Why do you work with toilets? You have degrees from abroad!" But she remains unfazed by criticism and simply wants to continue with her work.
Recently, Bhumijo launched touchless toilets with the help of Unilever Bangladesh Limited and TRANSFORM (a joint initiative of Unilever Global and DFID) in Dhaka Medical College Hospital and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and Hospital, to ensure safety for the medical staff and patients.
On this, Farhana said, "Even before the pandemic, we noticed that people were gradually becoming more hygiene conscious about using public toilets. It increased after the coronavirus outbreak. The touchless toilet concept ensures that components like the flush lever, seat cover, washbasin tap, etc can be operated without using hands."
Farhana added that when they went to discuss toilets for women with the Gausia market authority, they had to convince the officials to give Bhumijo a month to show that such toilets would be beneficial for the female customers.
She said, "We told them that the market essentially belongs to female customers, so why not provide them a simple facility like a toilet? We asked them to give us a month, and if by that time things did not improve, we would relocate the toilet."
"And now those same people are proud of the public toilet in their market. They tell their customers about it. Not only this, seeing the good condition of the women's toilet, they improved the men's one at their own responsibility."
"We get many requests from all over the country, 'Apa' please improve the condition of the public toilet in our locality, please build us a new toilet and so many more. By 2021, we would like to operate 30-50 mobile toilets," hopes the young entrepreneur.