Failed Project | Bill Gates' Toilet


Design seems to center more as design FOR developing countries, instead of design IN developing countries. The design process is short and depends on the free time of the designer as the goal of the whole project is to merely develop a product, whether good or bad. Also, generally these projects by foreigners lean on the high-tech side rather than user-centric design. If it was a longer term project, it would have to involve local capacity, skills, knowledge and expertise that enables the society to meet their own needs. However generally, locals do not have the skills or experience to support these projects (Kass, 2013).

Bill Gates’ charity foundation was able to successfully promote awareness of poor sanitation conditions in third world countries, and in order to help solve the issue he hosted a competition for a Toilet design that could be implemented in Third World countries. However, the winning project was far too costly and overly technical to be feasable (Donaldson, 2008).

It is clear that the design had little understanding of the real needs of and did not design with environment (materials and user knowledge) in mind. The winning design of the competition consisted of a toilet designed by CalTech that wouldn’t be economically feasible. Most toilet entries had additional high tech “cool” factor items which would be extremely impractical in the environments in which they were supposed to be implemented. Their approach focused on a similar problem faced by North Americans- lack of access to established septic systems- but ignored dissimilar problems faced by third-world users such as poverty (Donaldson, 2008).

While design projects like this are often well intentioned, they can be very impractical in the long-run. Rather than attempt to design a "cool" product with high-tech "innovative" solutions, the projects should focus on being low cost, low maintenance and practical material use.

Why This is Important:

Projects from NGO's are not always successful. For example, an American NGO built a water harvesting system in Malawi. It broke down. Several years later, Engineers Without Borders built a nearly identical system. Again, it broke down. It is incredibly important that we learn from past mistakes and are aware of the history of projects in the area. Furthermore, it is important that anything we build is understood by and can be maintained by people in Longido.


Kass, J. (2013, November 18). Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet. Retrieved September 15, 2014.

Donaldson, K. (2008, January 1). Why to be Wary of “Design for Developing Countries”. Thinking, 35-37.

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