How FINISH Society is marrying financial inclusion, sanitation, and health for the underserved communities
FINISH (Financial Inclusion Improves Sanitation and Health) Society, Founded by Valentin Post and Vijay Athreye, is an organisation which works towards sustainable and equitable development of the sanitation sector in India.
FINISH Society was conceptualised by its promoters – TATA-AIG, SNS-REAAL, UNU-MERIT, WASTE, and a leading microfinance company – and is being supported by an Indo-Dutch consortium comprising NGOs, academic institutions and financial institutions from the two countries since 2009. The initial support for the programme was given by Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS), Government of The Netherlands.
According to the number given by FINISH, about 435,000 sanitation systems have been constructed (till March 2015) across Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, UP, and West Bengal.
Valentin has spent considerable amount of time in India. He holds a master’s degree in quantitative economics wherein his fieldwork brought him to Agra, a masters in societal history which brought him to Calcutta, and an MBA in environment. Valentin worked for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) for 10 years with industrial waste management as the focus area. His work with UNIDO stationed him at Chennai for five years. He then joined an organisation called ‘WASTE’ in The Netherlands in 2004, and shifted his focus to human waste management.FINISH
Valentin’s work had involved multiple projects. And he had often seen that when the funding ran dry, the projects had to be culled. FINISH was a project that would have met the same fate. Valentin adds, “Building up assets, having developed human capacities and networks, we (Valentin and his colleague, A. Sahasranaman) wanted this project to continue post project and hence started the FINISH Society. We did exactly the same thing when I was at the UN earlier and stationed in Chennai, we set up a foundation to take over post projects.” Vijay met Valentin through Vijay’s sister and the two hit it off. The friendship evolved into collaborating on FINISH Society.
The approach that FINISH takes is an integrated one – combining demand generation through behaviour change and financial inclusion measures with increased access to improved sanitary and hygienic conditions, ultimately leading to a safer environment for all.
FINISH encourages involvement of community members as workers, enterprisers for contributing to its very own village’s overall development. Therefore, by taking a different approach to sanitation, FINISH aims to create awareness among the people on the importance of sustainable sanitation and hygiene so that the change achieved thereafter is not temporary.
Valentin explains, “It is cost-effective as we are working with existing partners and their infrastructure (both physical and human). The micro-insurance distribution model developed by Vijay and Tata – AIG – serves as the example here. We have been able to deliver a public good (sanitation) on a corporate platform. Thus, demand generated by the partners – aided through capacity development of Finish Society – is linked to micro-finance.”
This gives room to scaling, specialisation, and innovation. FINISH is also focusing on high sanitation coverage (densities) for health impact.
Valentin adds, “We have promoted sanitation in such a way that the carbon and nutrients present in human waste can be recycled in a safe manner and be put to use in agriculture and/or as a source of renewable energy. This old practice – which happened in many countries including The Netherlands – has gone into disuse and is slowly gaining momentum internationally. The main difference with the age-old practices is that the focus is now very much on safe reuse of human excreta.”
Beneficiaries (poor households) can now invest in toilet and underground treatment systems as per their own needs. Better sanitation directly impacts health and reduces health bills, ensures more working time for a person and a chance at being more financially stable. FINISH Society is collaborating with a range of financial institutions, corporates, and other organisations – Actiam (nee SNS), NHB, Canara Bank, Nabard, TATA – AIG, SBI, and LTI General Insurance, HZL, Cairns Energy, CII, and Amul, UNICEF, World Vision International, Habitat for Humanity, ICCO, etc.
Valentin says, “In numbers we estimate that one out of five families where sanitation demand is generated decides on a safe sanitation system. Taking an average size of five members per family, it can easily be seen that FINISH reached well over 10 million people out of which two million people have constructed and are using a safe sanitation system.”
He adds that in terms of employment, well over two million work days have been realised in construction alone, many incomes have been supplemented in the awareness raising (incentives for field staff, typically women field staff of the partners). In the same breath, Valentin also says that it has been difficult to ascertain is the impact on health. He says that the impact studies though clearly show that the beneficiaries clearly see the benefit of having a toilet.
FINISH claims that it has been successfully increasing sanitation coverage by adding one safe sanitation system every four minute through demand generation. In 2013–2014, FINISH added supply chain solutions like the ‘Rural Sanitary Mart’ – a one stop shop for sales and service of all the sanitation requirements, along with community mobilisation for demand creation and financial inclusion.
In the process, Valentin has learnt a lot too, “For me it has been a very steep learning curve in working with many different stakeholders, interests and putting trust in the partnership model, partners, and people. For instance, my on the ground knowledge was naturally very limited, but we had others who had great strengths there. Similarly, insurance was a new topic for me, but Vijay and the team were experts at it. In contrast, sanitation was new to most of the team but not to me, so we all learned from one another.”
The sanitation reuse market, the value chain, making use of nutrients and carbon present in excreta and turning it into viable products is a challenge for FINISH. Valentin adds, “Governments not only in India but elsewhere subsidies chemical fertilisers, whereas organic agricultural inputs are typically not subsidised.”
Speaking about where FINISH is headed, Valentin says that they are working on global acceleration, reducing cost of construction, linking sanitation to climate, food and water management issues. “Sanitation as a development issue offers largely unexploited advantages from a development perspective. It touches upon health, environment, gender, disability, tourism, economic growth, climate, and food security,” he says
Valentin says that he has two dreams. He elucidates,
The first, when pursuing proper sanitation and solid waste management, the quality of life of people improves and they become not only healthier but also economically better off. The dream is to find a way to make sanitation a sustained change in underserved communities. Is it possible to build in incentives? The second one is perhaps the bigger challenge – to utilise all the nutrients, carbon, and water in human waste in a safe manner. This implies treatment, which ideally should be done by small enterprises, who are selling their products to farmers, who in turn can reduce their inputs of chemical fertiliser. This in turn lowers the import bills, run-offs of excess fertiliser polluting the groundwater and aquifers, reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, and restores the natural fertility of the soil. All this means business, but sustainable business and pens the door for new types of finances in support for instance climate funds. My dream is to demonstrate this at scale with our partners and hopefully this will be copied by others.