Sanitization and Hygiene Entrepreneur: Preventing Diseases, Creating Jobs and Empowering Women

On March 24th, 2020, the Government of India put a nation of 1.3 billion people under lockdown to contain the raging spread of COVID-19. While on one hand, COVID-19 and the lockdown disrupted the economy and put millions of livelihoods at risk, on the other hand, they increased demand for hygiene and sanitization in rural and urban localities, in light of the migrant crisis and rural transmission of the disease. To devise a way to turn this demand for hygiene into an opportunity to create sustainable livelihoods, Labournet Services India, a social enterprise, conceptualized the Sanitization & Health Entrepreneurs (SHE) Program

The SHE model seeks to build a tribe of ‘hygiene entrepreneurs’ who would conduct on-demand sanitization of public and private spaces in gram panchayats (also known as GPs or village administrations). The program offers credit to sanitization and hygiene entrepreneurs (SHEs) to procure necessary cleaning tools, and connects them to a network of individuals and institutions seeking sanitization services. 

The larger vision of this program goes beyond fighting the pandemic. Evidence proves that regular sanitization of high touch public spaces significantly reduces chances of infection. This implies that building sanitization capabilities can not only help contain COVID-19, but also reduce the incidence of infections in the post-COVID world. To create lasting awareness about hygiene and sanitation, Labournet is also trying to tackle the social stigma associated with the trade and build an environment of respect for SHEs. Till date there are 94 SHEs across 66 gram panchayats. The SHE network is projected to grow to 5,000 gram panchayats by December, 2020.


The Model

Labournet approaches women Self Help Groups (SHGs) in the selected gram panchayat to become a SHE. Interested women can access credit of Rs.10,000 – Rs.15,000 through their SHGs. This amount helps her procure the tools of the trade – sanitization kit, smartphone with internet, gloves and masks. While the SHE can access guaranteed income by working in Panchayat offices, they need to build ‘micro-markets’ of their own- therein lies the entrepreneurial element in SHE. To enable these women, they built a mobile app to facilitate access to sanitation jobs- especially at high touch public spaces, such as railway stations, airports and markets, which are the hotspots for infectious diseases. 

Scaling up, Labournet realized that women venturing out alone for sanitization work poses security risks. Therefore, they changed the model to include two women as a SHE unit. 

Seeking partners to provide resources and create lasting social impact, Labournet reached out to the COVID Action Collaborative (CAC). The CAC supports the most vulnerable to survive and thrive during humanitarian crises (like COVID). Leveraging thought leadership from the collaborative, they devised the following model for the SHE Program:

To marry the sanitization solution with the original mission of Labournet, livelihood generation, they conceptualized the first operating model or SOP of the SHE Program. Labournet’s efforts were supported by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. The ministry was keen to address the need for sanitization in Gram Panchayats near the National & State highways immediately through the SHE model. The idea had the potential to make a huge impact by providing jobs, preventing infections and promoting entrepreneurship. The implementation needed significant coordination and approvals from government authorities. On April 10th, SHE programme was launched in the first panchayat and expanded to three more panchayats in the next month. 


Making Collaboration Work through CAC

To operationalize the SHE Program, Labournet needed several resources- (a) healthcare experts to finalize Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that SHEs could use to assure hygiene in public spaces, (b) support from social entrepreneurs to build the business model, and (c) creative ways to beat the social stigma associated with hygiene and cleaning related jobs. Labournet asked CAC to socialize the idea of SHE with its members. Many CAC members, each having their unique, valuable experience, came forward to contribute. 

  • Hygiene SOPs: Dr. R.K.Prasad from Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH) Restore Health stepped in to finalize the SHE program’s first SOP using published research, his own expertise and WHO guidelines. The SOP developed for the SHE Program was later endorsed by the Government of India. When asked about his contributions to the program, Dr. Prasad says, “This initiative has induced a paradigm shift in my thinking. 5,000 gram panchayats – the scale of this programme is huge. And the efficiency and pace with which each of the partners moved is commendable. My confidence that you can empower and trust anybody has grown.”
  • Program Framework: CAC Partner, Catalyst Management Services, a development solutions firm, helped provide thought leadership and refine the SHE program’s framework and business model. 
  • Behavioral Nudges: In discussions with CAC, Labournet recognized that there are softer issues around cleaning related jobs during the pandemic. These included the stigmatization of COVID-19, demeaning notions of sanitization, and the lack of respect for workers in hygiene related jobs. To help Labournet navigate these, Vihara, a member of CAC and a social impact innovation firm, is working to brand and position SHEs as ‘protectors of the community’. By building stakeholder experience maps and designing tailored behavioural nudges (including messages, posters, events, stickers, etc.). Vihara is (a) creating the tools to ensure that SHEs are motivated, respected and take pride in their work, (b) hoping to break the gender stereotype and social stigma associated with sanitization and (c) positioning SHEs as health heroes.


In this way, SHE became an outcome of a carefully planned collaborative effort from multiple stakeholders. Gayathri, CEO, Labournet says, “CAC helped us connect with various stakeholders, which helped us think through the issues we were aiming to resolve. We are certain that this collaborative thought process will help scale the programme.” According to Shiv Kumar, CEO of Catalyst Management Services and Chief Integrator of CAC, there were five key “force multipliers” or reasons why a collaborative approach worked in this case:

  1. All the stakeholders are united in their shared goal of doing something meaningful to help manage the pandemic
  2. The idea of SHE is simple yet very exciting and promises potential
  3. Every stakeholder has deep sectorial experience in social entrepreneurship
  4. The collaborative is designed for partners to complement each other and support the ‘driver organization’ Labournet. Everybody has their own roles and priorities 
  5. There is a razor sharp focus on results


Developing Entrepreneurial Spirit in Women

When the initial few women were onboarded, they were solely dependent on the Gram Panchayat office for business. To instil confidence in these women and to enable them to explore the opportunities available to them, Labournet provided them a short training on how to develop their business. The results were seen quickly. SHEs started sanitizing bikes outside an examination centre. They also made a foray in the local market by sanitizing one shop and quickly converted the entire market as their customer. One of the SHEs also negotiated with the Panchayat Development Officer to pay her within the stipulated time of contract.


Aiming to Scale

The Government of Karnataka has agreed to deploy SHE in 100 gram panchayats. The aim is to scale the programme to all of 5,000 gram panchayats in the next 6 months. This will be done by operationalizing at least one SHE in each Gram Panchayat. By covering 5,000 Gram Panchayats, the programme will put Rs. 768 crores in the hands of women entrepreneurs annually, and that is just by covering one high touch place. 

Currently, the focus is to fine tune the model to scale the SHEs to 5,000 and to show consistent revenue for them this year. The focus geographies are Karnataka (Bengaluru, Mysuru, Mangaluru), Assam, and Tamil Nadu, states where Labournet has a strong network. The programme will focus on setting in place systems for scale, impact and sustainability. The program’s scaling ambitions are in the table below:

A key constraint that the programme faces at the moment is funding. The program has not accessed any government funds. They are looking to access private sector funding by partnering with 2 – 3 companies like Peer Lending platforms to provide microcredit to SHEs, and to fulfill other funding/ credit requirements.


Learnings from SHE

Gayathri from Labournet firmly believes that projects of such scale are never implemented successfully by a single entity; multi party collaboration is essential for success. It is also important to keep in mind that a programme of such large scale will have to be customized to and implemented a little differently at each place. Furthermore, she reiterates the importance of having buy-in from government departments. By demonstrating immense value, SHE has received endorsements from the central and state governments and Panchayat Development Officers, which greatly helped the programme. 

Catalyst Group’s Shiv Kumar says that the key to achieving the program’s mission is to empower the ‘driver’ organization, Labournet, to find implementing partners to fill in any gaps, and to leverage the ‘force multipliers’ of collaboration. Onboarding just four more CAC partners can expand the program to 40,000 SHEs. As of today, the LGBTQ community in Delhi has also expressed interest in the program. Together we can achieve exponential scale and impact. #COVIDactionCollab


About the Authors


Vartika Shukla

Vartika is a financial inclusion, fintech and women economic empowerment consultant. She has more than eleven years of experience of working with banks, mobile network operators, agent network managers and microfinance institutions across Asia and Africa. 




Debashree Chakraborty

Debashree is a digital marketing expert. Over the past seven years she has partnered with NGOs across India to create awareness on hygiene, childcare and education. She specialises in community campaigns and healthcare analytics.



Meghana Dwaraka, Monitoring Portfolio Lead, CMS

Meghana is an international development consultant, focussed on creating monitoring systems, cross-sector partnerships and collective action for sustainable impact. In addition to leading monitoring at Catalyst Management Services (CMS), Meghana drives monitoring and collaboration building at the #COVIDActionCollab. 


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