There is no dearth of public toilets in India’s cities. More are constructed every month, yet few people want to use them. Women, in particular, avoid these ill maintained, smelly facilities, and hence have no access to washrooms for hours together.
Would you believe it if someone told you that there exists a women-only, clean, affordable private washroom in a public area, which not only offers hygienic facilities but also a hot beverage, sanitary napkins and a few minutes of respite from the day’s turmoil? Woloo-Women’s Loo — is that dream destination and the first facility was inaugurated on November 19 (World Toilet Day last year), near Mumbai’s busy Thane railway station. In a telephonic interview, its CEO, Shivkala Mudaliar, speaks to Mrigank Warrier on how the idea was born, what sets it apart, why it works and more…
Q. You have spent most of your career in the banking sector. How did you get into setting up washrooms for women?
A: Like most people, I worked in corporate jobs which weren’t my passion, for almost two-and-a-half decades. I took up opportunities that came my way, mainly in admin, which was a male-dominated field. I wanted to do something of my own; following rules set up by someone else is not something I enjoy. That’s how I came to social entrepreneurship, by starting Things Etc, which works with tribal and local artists, NGOs and self-help groups across India to revive Indian art forms and bring them into modern utility products.
Manish Kelshikar, the founder of Woloo, had already conceptualised the idea; he saw my work and thought I would be the right person to take up the Woloo project. Thinking from a woman’s point of view, understanding what women need and expect, how they behave when it comes to their own personal health and hygiene, how to put numbers against these concepts, and actually setting up all the backend – had been done by me.
Q. Woloo prides itself on taking the stench out of washrooms. What role does this have in distinguishing it from other existing shared washrooms?
A: When we even think about washrooms, we think of a stink. We have never seen a clean, hygienic sanitation facility, apart from those in five-star hotels. We have many facilities built by the government that are already available, but none of them are usable. Our basic ethos at Woloo is that women need, seek and deserve a clean, neat and secure washroom.
I travel a lot across the country. Even when we travel within Mumbai and need a washroom, the best place we can go to is a CCD or a McDonald’s. But we feel so guilty about just going and using their washrooms that we then buy a coffee or a burger, which can cost 100-250 rupees; we are essentially paying that much just to use a toilet. At Woloo, we decided instead to have a simple cafe, along with a convenience store.
Q. Who forms your clientele?
A: Our target audience is urban women who step out of home either for office work or a personal errand, and spend an hour or more in travel, or at least two hours away from home. So, we decided to situate our Woloos near railway stations, bus stations, temples, tourist places and on arterial roads.
Wherever you go, you will find toilets. But how usable are they? My customer is a woman who is hygiene — and image-conscious. She will not use a public toilet or a mobile one. She won’t want to stand in line. When a woman anywhere has to stand in line in a public place, she immediately has people staring at her. So where can she wait comfortably? At Woloo. Men have public spaces — from paan shops to the side of the road — for themselves; such places for women do not exist. Women have to spend exorbitant amounts of money for the same kind of privacy.
Women are programmed to think and do multiple things at the same time. Woloo is not only about hygienic washrooms. It is a community we are trying to build for an urban woman, where she can take five minutes off from her life for herself. Woloo is a place for their downtime, where they can come, relax, sip on a coffee, and just sit for a few minutes.
Q. What are the amenities offered at a Woloo?
A: The current Woloo is spread across 325sqft, and includes a washroom area with four regular cubicles with Western-style commodes. An assisted washroom, which is a little larger, also has a diaper-changing station for new mothers.
It also includes a cafe for hot beverages, a small seating area, a convenience store which sells sanitary pads and innerwear, and a sewing kit. The washroom section is a dry, clean area and can be used as a changing room, as and when required. The Woloo also has WiFi.
Q. Please describe a typical customer’s experience at Woloo.
A: When a woman walks in, she first purchases a twenty-rupee singleuse Woloo ticket. An access card is given to her to be able to enter the washroom area, which she hands over to the janitor, and uses the facility. She then has a cup of tea or coffee or some water, or just sits for a while.
Initially, we also had a monthly pass for INR 499 — 30 uses over 30 days — and after every usage, the customer would get a hot beverage, bottle of water or sanitary pad. But we realised that women feel okay buying a 300-rupee lipstick, and don’t think twice, but when it comes to their own health or personal hygiene, they always compromise. We didn’t want that compromise to happen, and wanted more and more people to use the facility. Now, we have a pass for INR 99 with 30-day validity and unlimited usage.
Q. How is the facility maintained?
A: Each cubicle is cleaned and sanitised after each usage. To dispel any potential smells, we also have air-conditioning, air-fresheners, and the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee as soon as you enter, from the cafe.
We are open from 8am to 10pm, and work in two shifts. Each shift has one security guard outside the facility; even though we are a women’s — only facility and have access-controlled doors, we are in a public area and want to keep out all antisocial elements. We have one person at the desk, and one janitor for cleaning.
Q. What kind of footfall have you seen?
A: Everyday, we have 300-375 walk-in customers. Mumbai is a country in itself. Each station within the city has a footfall of at least 40,000 lady travellers every day. Even if 1% are taken into account, I will be servicing not less than 400 people a day.
We have joined hands with female auto-rickshaw drivers in Thane. Each one takes at least four rounds near the station; they work 6-8 hour shifts, and only get to use the washroom after going back home. We have invited them to use WoLoo.
Q. How have women responded to Woloo?
A: We have amazing stories. We have seen women who were in tears after seeing a clean washroom, especially middle-aged ones, who have never seen one in their lives. We have had women who have just come and poured their hearts out to us, because at Woloo, there is nobody to judge them for wanting a clean toilet. People have come just to click pictures to satisfy themselves that this is not a fake WhatsApp forward, and sent them to their social circle to say, Woloo exists!
Q. Will we see more Woloos come up in 2020?
A: We will have new centres in the next 6-8 months across Mumbai, on each suburban railway line. We have also evolved a franchisee model specifically for women. About 5-7 women can come together, invest and own a Woloo, and start earning from that. We aim to empower at least 30,000 social entrepreneurs in the next five years.