At first glance, the rectangular structure in the heart of Hyderabad’s Hitec City looks like any small café. Its roof is skirted by a striped awning, it is fringed by a set of pretty plants, and it even offers free Wi-Fi. What sets it apart are a ramp access, an amenity often missing in Indian public places, and its purpose.
Operational since March, the Loo Café is Hyderabad’s first public luxury washroom. It has three bio toilets (for men, women, and people with disabilities), a cafe and a space allocated for an ATM. Set up by a private company, Ixora FM, the café’s aim is to change the common perception that public toilets are poorly maintained and unhygienic.
Toilets have always been a problem area in public spaces, and the major concern is hygiene, says Abhishek Nath, the founder and chief executive officer of Ixora FM. “We visited a lot of public toilets in the city and most of were horrible,” said Nath. “We kept brainstorming, built a couple of units and discarded them.” Finally they came up with a small, self-sustainable unit, where the “focus was on maintenance”.
Occupying a compact area of 170 sq ft, the washrooms at Loo Café are free to use. The attached cafe serves snacks and beverages all priced below Rs 30. The women’s washroom comes with a sanitary napkin vending machine (each costing Rs 5), and a disposal bin. It also comes equipped with air coolers, solar panels, and security cameras. Occasional visitors are guided towards the toilets by an assistant, and a free access card is given to those who might want to use the facilities regularly.
“The washrooms are clean, accessible and near a busy junction,” said Madhu Joshi, 33, who works nearby in an information technology company. “For working women, this is both convenient and safe. Once we are out of the office, we are stuck with bad or no washrooms, and I usually have to make a purchase at a Cafe Coffee Day to use the loo.”
Building a Loo Café costs anywhere between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 18 lakh. The high cost, says Nath, is owing to the prefabricated structure and the technology used in it – thermal insulation controls the temperature, easy-to-wash surfaces keep the area dry, and stink sensors monitor the quality of air. The user feedback is linked to both the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation and Ixora FM’s offices.
“There are many people who build washrooms as part of their corporate social responsibility activities, but for them, maintenance becomes the issue,” said Nath. “Others do it from a commercial angle, where advertising revenues take precedence and washrooms are not the focal point. We tried to get the space right initially. We then created a model, where the revenue from the café and renting out an ATM will sustain the maintenance issues.”
Harichandana Dasari, the corporation’s zonal and additional commissioner and one of the brains behind the project, believes the toilet model will work. “I have seen a lot of models, and barring Sulabh [which has a committed workforce], not many have been successful,” said Dasari. “Revenue and a committed workforce have always been the [major] hindrances and Loo Café seems to have cracked the code on both fronts. There are multiple things that sort of snowballed. A café would bring in revenue, and an ATM would bring both rent and a security guard. Linking these two with a loo seems a sustainable model in the long run.”
So far, around 8,000-9,000 people have used the facility. Employees from the surrounding companies, auto and cab drivers, mothers with young children and sanitation workers are frequent visitors.
“The whole concept was built on one premise – to ensure that the premises are so clean that people want to eat at the café next to a public toilet,” said Dasari. A similar initiative was launched in Indore, but not on such a scale.
Both Nath and Dasari agree that for the model to be sustainable, the focus has to be on numbers. The corporation has divided the city into six zones. Currently permissions have been given for 100 Loo Cafés to come up by January 2019, with each zone having 30 Loo Cafés to ensure it is financially viable to hire cleaning staff. Apart from cafes, other options explored for generating revenue include hair salons, diagnostic centres, pharmacies and cobbler shops. The first Loo Café for the visually impaired is set to open in Serilingampally in November.
A report titled True Cost of Sanitation, which was published jointly by the LIXIL Group Corporation, Water Aid and Oxford Economics, found that lack of access to sanitation cost India 5.2% of its GDP in 2015. In this scenario, Nath believes the Loo Cafés can be a game changer.
Nath hopes to introduce the concept in Maharashtra (he is in talks with the state government) and Madhya Pradesh by the end of the year. “The next units will take hygiene levels to another high,” he said. “...while the washroom might be clean, the knobs are usually filled with germs, so upcoming units will operate on a nudge model, where one can tap the door with one’s elbow or shoulder to enter.”