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February 10, 2012

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Lady loo queen flushed with success

CHEN Chunhong, a poor farm girl who became a "green" entrepreneur, has invented a better toilet.

The water conservationist has patented a tankless, low-flow loo that can flush with less than one liter of water. Some white ceramic bowls are decorated with blossom patterns and some are even inlaid with gold.

But back in 2007 Chen had to trudge around Shanghai with a prototype toilet on her back, looking for potential backers. Virtually everyone scoffed.

Chen, an environmental activist now living in Shanghai, was honored in the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards for 2011. Chen won for the Asia-Pacific region, the first Chinese to take the prize since it was established in 2006. Each winner gets US$20,000 and one year of personalized business coaching. Around 1,000 women competed with their business plans. Awards were presented in October in Deauville, France.

Overcomes obstacles

Chen, who is in her mid-30s, is determined, persistent and rises to a challenge. Over the years she has overcome numerous obstacles: poverty, lack of formal education, lack of business experience, lack of money, and an abundance of skepticism, indifference and derision by many people.

When her parents divorced, she was forced to drop out of junior high school and go to work. She was a waitress, dish washer and factory worker; she taught herself how to use a lathe so she could earn more in a factory.

Traditional tank toilets use around six liters of water for one major flush; Chen says her tankless toilet saves 83 percent of the water (4.9 liters) and uses just around a liter to flush clean. There are other patented low water consumption toilets in use around the world.

"In standard toilets, one flush discharges a lot of dirty water, another flush discharges even more dirty water," Chen tells Shanghai Daily in an interview. "Toilets consume large quantities of water and discharge great amounts of waste, so I got the idea of inventing a small, daily life product that preserves scarce water and can be part of a water-saving revolution."

Chen grew up in a farmer's family in Yaoqian Village near Longyan city in southwestern Fujian Province. In the countryside, she saw backward facilities, lack of hygiene, huge waste of water and serious pollution.

She and her inventor father Chen Linchang, share a deep reverence for nature. Realizing the enormity of the water shortage and pollution problems, they decided to build a better toilet that replaces standard siphon toilet flushing. Her father had been tinkering for years innovative water-saving devices.

"With a small product, we hope to raise awareness about water conservation and eventually have a positive impact on the world," Chen said.

So she developed the YYtoilet made by Yiyuan (Shanghai) Environemtnal Technology Co Ltd, her own company.

Conventional toilets use a tank or reservoir and siphon pipe to achieve a smooth and fast blowdown flush that removes waste and prevents blockage and backup.

Chen's YYtoilet has no tank or siphon pipe and is operated by a foot pedal, not a handle, making it more sanitary. It takes water straight from the water main and uses gravity to pull down the waste. A one-way blowdown valve closes automatically after blowdown to prevent sewage backup. When the valve is opened, the sewage drains off with gravity and only a little water is needed to wash the bowl clean.

There's no leakage and no waiting for the tank to fill, which is important in public restrooms. Leaking tanks and water running into the bowl waste a lot of water, just like leaking faucets.

Growing up in a village, Chen studied with 40 children in one classrooms with just one teacher. Seeing the need for good education, she decided to become a teacher, but despite her good grades she had to drop out of junior high school in grade four when her parents were divorced. Her father didn't think it was worth paying for further schooling for a girl who could make money working in a factory.


"I left school in dismay," she said. After a succession of tough factory jobs, she learned that she could take the exams for Nanjing Normal University as an external candidate. She later taught herself English and finance and qualified as a professional teacher, specializing in computer and Internet English - not the general, conversational and business English that she would later need.

In 2007, Chen quit her teaching job, sold her apartment in Sanming city, near Fuzhou, gave her father 300,000 yuan (US$46,153 today) and took the rest, more than 200,000 yuan, to Shanghai to set up a company promoting the new loo. She said she hoped to fulfill her father's dream.

"I was motivated to start teaching myself again - this time to run a business," she said.

She decided to explore opportunities in Shanghai because she was not aware that there would be so many obstacles in the big city.

"I wanted to prove that I could do it, when others said I would fail," she said with a grin.

When she arrived she slept on the cement floor of an unfinished 15-square-meter rented flat. That's where she started her business.

She desperately searched for sponsors, investors and manufacturers. She went from place to place, lugging a prototype toilet on her back. She was rejected many times by people who thought her idea would never work.

In the most difficult times, she had no money to pay her tiny staff since she had been swindled out of 100,000 by a student. She borrowed from various people and eventually put together a sum of cash to pay her staff.

"I am not a clever person and I never knew the road ahead could be that difficult and that I would be on a cliff. If I had foreseen that, I would never have chosen this road," Chen said.

There were numerous twists, turns and bumps in the road. Without a business background or experience, she had to figure out a way to do business, just as she and her father had invented a toilet, through trial and error.

It was suggested she open franchise stores and she started in a construction materials market. Sales were slow and the market closed in six months.

In 2009 opportunity presented itself. Chen learned that Hongkou District had an industrial park for energy-saving and environmental protection businesses. She decided to settle there.

The park operator was impressed, purchased 100 of Chen's toilets and installed them in the park. She made a small pile of money and was recognized by the district's commerce commission. She was sent in a business delegation to Israel, which has a severe water shortage. There her toilet was a hit and she started getting orders.

In Shanghai she started cooperating with property developers and concentrating on projects such as community renovation involving new plumbing and her toilets.

Enters competition

When Chen decided to enter the Cartier Women's Initiative competition, her idea was to encourage more people to save water and emphasize traditional Chinese wisdom of living in harmony with nature. Her technical, computer English limited her ability to communicate and answer questions, but she was not scared off.

She recited her presentation and found an interpreter to help when she was asked questions by the jury.

Her motto: "Never let anything stand in your way while you are proceeding on the road," she told Shanghai Daily.

Chen has not only improved the environmental science and engineering of toilet making, she has elevated making the ceramic toilet bowls to an art. Patterns such as blossoms are painted on the toilet and some are inlaid with gold.

Though ceramic arts have a long history in China, Chen wants to find a better, more sustainable raw material for her toilets.

"A toilet will be abandoned after 10 to 15 years, and nonsustainable materials will harm the environment, so I'm searching for something more suitable," she said.

Now Chen's company has around 30 employes. She has a factory in Guangdong Province producing around 15,000 YYtoilets a year. During the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, her toilets were installed in the United Nations Pavilion, the Life and Sunshine Pavilion (dedicated to people with disabilities) and the SAIC-GM Pavilion.

Chen, who is married, compares her toilet to her "lover" and calls it "a beloved companion."

"I am a lady who is willing to dedicate all my life to the water-saving toilet revolution," she said, adding that she hopes her toilets will be used across the globe.


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