In Business Now Wash Your Hands Please

Listen to Now Wash Your Hands Please (29/07/2010)

Just occasionally the stories we tell on In Business are movingly simple. This week's programme contains one of them. It's about the slightly tricky subject of hygiene, and how it cannot be taken for granted. It has to be learnt.

There is a vivid historical example of this close to the BBC's iconic building Broadcasting House in the centre of London, in the slightly racy district of Soho, still best known as a resort of after dark recreation.

In 1854 as people crowded into London and found cheap lodgings near the very centre of the city, Soho was the location of a terrible outbreak of the killer disease cholera. By the end of the summer, 600 people had died, and many had fled the area.

The cause of cholera was not then known, but many experts of the day blamed pent up urban environments, a concentration of people. This "miasma" theory was doubted by the medical pioneer Dr John Snow of Westminster Hospital.

Working on the ground, he listened to Soho residents and identified the epicentre of the cholera outbreak as a public water pump in what is now Broadwick Street. The council disabled the pump handle and the outbreak swiftly died away, though it may have been ebbing before the contaminated water supply was cut off.


The story is a reminder of how things many of us now take for granted in healthcare, such as dealing with germs, had to be learnt by experience.

It was fascinating then, to encounter the other day an academic at the esteemed London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Val Curtis. She is director of the School's Hygiene Centre, and she has confronted head on one of the nasty little secrets of being poor.

Every year many children in the developing world die from diarrhoea ... perhaps one million, perhaps two. These are obviously preventable deaths. Val Curtis did the research that identified the problem, and then became a campaigner.

She enlisted public health official, NGOs and multinational consumer goods companies in an alliance to spread the word about something very simple ... washing your hands after going to the lavatory.

This may sound a very simple idea, but it has grown into an international extravaganza called Global Handwashing Day: the next one is on October 15th. International advertising agencies have devised striking ads with the simple message: "Wash your hands with soap". It is the soap that turns the activity into one which may defeat the spread of disease.

It is the soap that makes the campaign of interest to the multinationals. As the late management professor CV Prahalad has pointed out, poor people should not be denied the benefits corporate products can create. In this case, the soap may save many lives, if it is used properly, and frequently.

That is one example of how things much of the world takes for granted still need entrepreneurial attention. And that leads me to the really poignant, rather delicate, story of sanitary pads in Africa.

When young women in many poor African countries begin to menstruate, they often drop out of school for the days in the month when they are bleeding. They do not have access to nor cannot afford sanitary pads. If they use traditional cloth, it's difficult to get it clean, and the result may be infections.


At the Said Business School in Oxford, the marketing Professor Linda Scott has been doing research on this in Ghana (.doc). She soon realised that not only were young women damaging their chances of receiving a proper education by dropping out of school every month, but menstruation often marked the onset of adulthood so that the girls were then no longer supported by their families.

They were growing up too fast. Boyfriends and babies often followed hard on the heels of menstruation. In other words, the conventions of society were once again marginalising women, almost invisibly.

Professor Scott talked about her findings to the woman education minister in Ghana, and the minister cried at the discovery, so obvious yet so unseen. And in Rwanda recently I met Julian Kayibanda, a woman who has joined forces with a young American social entrepreneur Elizabeth Scharpf from Harvard in an organisation called SHE: Sustainable Heath Enterprises.

The idea is to build new local businesses in Rwanda manufacturing sanitary pads out of banana fibre, rather than having to spend much more money importing them.

How simple, how straightforward, how vital.

Listen to Now Wash Your Hands Please (29/07/2010)

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

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