The ruin of many a pleasant outing — nature calls but there’s nowhere to go. While men have it comparatively easy, disappearing behind a trash can or tree or going between cars and by lanes, the city — despite being overrun by tourists, workers, residents and students — has never been bladder-friendly for women.
That is changing now with four entrepreneurs along with the Toilet Board Coalition, a global non-profit working with businesses, government agencies, and NGOs to scale up sanitation economy, are helping women in the city respond to nature’s call at female-friendly public toilets that account for hygiene, safety and dignity.
This tech enabled social venture called Woloo — short for women's loo — has partnered with 1200 washrooms across Mumbai to provide women with what they call “hygiene dignity”. Via an app, users can find clean and safe geo-tagged toilets — in restaurants, cafes and salons — within 2 kilometers of their location and use the facility, which would otherwise typically be only for patrons.
“Whenever there’s a conversation about hygiene access or public toilets, we always talk about slums and villages but urban working women face the same issues. Our team visited 300 public toilets in Mumbai out of which only 20% were made for women and not even a small fraction usable. In Mumbai four million women travel by train every day. Many are on the road for hours and have no choice but to hold their urge. Many avoid drinking water and those who find a toilet, end up contracting infections,” said Manish Kelshikar, co-founder and chief business officer of Woloo who quit his job in the retail sector to resolve what started as a personal trigger. “I have a daughter who’s 20 now but three years ago when she started going to college, she faced a day of utter agony because she was out and had no place to change her pad while on her periods. That hit me hard,” says Kelshikar who set out to design Woloo as “the AirBnB of toilets”.
In an era where personal hygiene is more critical than ever, Kelshikar says that restaurants and cafes too, have found that providing clean public toilets earned them strong dividends through increased traffic. “Clean toilets mean happier customers who will keep coming back,” he says adding that “a toilet was a non-trading place which is now suddenly fetching extra customers. Initially they were hesitant about allowing non-customers into their washroom but in a pandemic, this sort of certification helps build the kind of trust that eateries want to establish.”
The cornerstone of these toilet facilities is a slew of measures to grade hygiene standards developed in association with the Toilet Board Coalition’s star rating system to ensure that these public toilets meet parameters of safety, accessibility, cleanliness, and are reasonably equipped. “Hosts have to go through a screening process or upgrade their existing washroom according to our hygiene checklist before they are certified, geo-tagged and integrated on the Woloo mobile app,” explains Kelshikar.
Apart from adequate lighting, cross-ventilation, nonslip flooring, uncluttered and dry cubicles, training of the cleaning staff, waste management, and provision of basics like soap, sanitizer, bins, mirrors and tissues, it also uses smart sanitation technology — “remote stink sensors” which sniff out malodour and alert the maintenance staff.
“Anytime the stink level crosses the threshold there’s a trigger and if a toilet crosses three triggers, it is delisted from the app. Also, just like Michelin star officers, we have three Woloo hygiene officers who visit host toilets discreetly twice a month and give a rating. That’s how we keep vigil,” adds Kelshikar.
The startup is also putting the ‘rest’ back in women’s restrooms by setting up Powder Rooms — a lounge-like space in metro and railway stations — equipped with CCTV cameras, Toilet Board certified washrooms, a sanitary napkin dispenser, a baby feeding room, a diaper changing station, a cafe for a quick breather and a store that sells women’s hygiene products.
“The powder room is meant to be an equaliser where every woman has access to clean and safe sanitation,” says Kelshikar as he gears up to launch their flagship ‘Powder Room’ at the Ghatkopar metro station on January 26, after Mumbai got its first Powder Room in Thane in 2019.