“Toilets consume a lot of water, so I had the idea of producing a small, daily-use product that preserves scarce water and can be part of a water-saving revolution.” Since setting out with this idea back in 2007, Chen Chunhong has faced numerous obstacles, including a lack of business experience, meagre start-up capital and an abundance of indifference and scepticism.
Today, she is the managing director of the Shanghai-based, Yiyuan Environmental Group, a company that produces and markets toilets whose patented technology can save up to 83% of water compared with conventional 6-litre models. The company has quickly grown to employ more than 30 people, with plans to set up a number of subsidiary companies. In cooperation with four manufacturing factories, it now has annual sales of 150,000 units, a ten-fold increase over the last four years.
Chen and her company’s products are gaining increasing recognition both in China and abroad. During the Expo 2010 China Shanghai, the Yiyuan Environmental Group’s water-saving toilets were installed in the United Nations pavilion, and in 2011, Chen was invited by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to participate in the fourth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries. In 2012, she was listed on Fortune China’s ‘40 Under 40’ roll call of the country’s rising business stars, and she has been honoured as a National Outstanding Entrepreneur by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.
Chen also won the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award for the Asia-Pacific region in 2011, becoming the first Chinese woman to win the award since its launch in 2006. Around one thousand women compete for the annual awards which offer a prize of US$20,000 and a year of personalized business coaching to one winner from each of six continental regions. The Initiative Awards coordinator, Cécile Ney, recalls the reason for Chen’s success, “Alongside a solid business plan, it was the social impact and conviction of her initiative that appealed to our juries.”
Despite her success in recent years, Chen remains modest. Speaking to Making It, she reveals that the idea of building a business was not her original intention. “I just wanted to promote the concept and products in support of my father. But it was a hard lesson to learn. What supported me throughout the hardest time was my hope that both the concept and the technology of water-saving can be promoted worldwide through products like ours, so that our Earth will become a better place.”
Yiyuan Environmental Group’s most innovative product is its YYtoilet, which uses breakthrough technology, devised by Chen’s father and patented by the company. As Chen explains, there are three major changes to the structure of the traditional toilet.
“The siphon pipe and water tank used in the conventional toilet are abandoned. The removal of the pipe brings a smooth and fast flush, thus solving possible problems like blockage, and the no-tank design spares the headaches of water leakage caused by tank failure or damaged tank parts.”
Secondly, traditional flushing toilets use a siphon to drain the waste and the water that remains in the bottom of the bowl acts as a seal with the drainage pipe. In contrast, the YYtoilet uses gravity to pull sewage down, which means that a small amount of water, just one litre of water, suffices to wash the toilet clean, and there is a valve to separate the dirty water from the clean and to prevent the problems of sewage back-flow and the intrusion of bacteria, insects and rats.
The third innovation is the use of a foot-pedal instead to the traditional flush handle. Chen explains, “The foot-pedal means you don’t even touch the toilet with your hands, so no cross-contamination issues arise.”
In addition to these features, the YYtoilet system requires no new fittings or adjustments to install and is extremely hard-wearing. Tests to measure its robustness have seen it takes up to 300,000 flushes before any sign of a fault. “Going by average use for one family, that makes a lifespan of 100 years – three times longer than traditional flush-toilets,” adds Chen.
Asked whether she is afraid that her patented technology will be counterfeited, Chen responds, “To patent is not to prevent others from stealing our idea. The patent only states that we are the initiator. Furthermore, in another way, being copied says our technology is good. Especially from a macro-perspective, if more companies would employ this water-saving technology, it would actually bring more benefits to the global environment as a whole. In this sense, copying our idea is a good thing.”
Chen continues, “In China, toilet flushes account for half of a family’s total water consumption. Shanghai has a population of 23 million people. Imagine if all of them used our water-saving toilets. Clean water wastage could be reduced by nearly 270 million tonnes in the whole city.”
Chen’s success is testament to her perseverance and determination. Hailing from a farming family in a village near the city of Longyan in south-west China’s Fujian province, Chen was obliged to leave school early and support her father by taking work in a succession of tough factory jobs. She later taught herself English and finance and qualified as a professional teacher.
In 2007, she quit her job, sold her apartment and set off for Shanghai to try and promote the water-saving toilet technology. Only her husband supported her bold move. Her father, who designed the technology in the first place and whose dream she wanted to help fulfill, was angry about her decision to stop teaching.
Against the odds
In Shanghai, she struggled at first, lacking capital, connections and support – all of them indispensable for starting a business in a new, competitive environment. With no money for advertising, Chen took on the work of promotion by herself: she talked to people on buses, and she displayed her products on the roadside, anywhere that she could attract people’s attention. With no money to employ workers, she delivered toilets and installed them for customers by herself.
In 2009, she got a break when she discovered an industrial park for energy-saving and environmental protection businesses in the city’s Hongkou district and relocated her business there. Chen recalls, “When I first set up my office in the industrial park, the building was still under construction. But the worst thing was my limited capital meant I couldn’t afford the rent. I had to convince the industrial park managers to let me install my toilets in their buildings without cost and, in return, I didn’t have to pay rent for half a year.” This deal paved the road for the business’s stability and eventual growth.
Chen named the company, Yiyuan, which is the combination of two Chinese characters: ‘yi’ meaning fairness and ‘yuan’ meaning water source. By giving the company this name, she wanted to make it clear that it would be a champion of fair and responsible use of water.
According to MA Jian, the National Programme Officer for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in China, Chen is something of a green industry pioneer in China. “Currently, the development of green industry in China is still in its early stages. But the country’s large population and its consumption of resources create a great demand for green industry. Thus, the Chinese government is giving ample recognition to the need for and the importance of developing green industry, and is providing special support to green companies.”
Chen is one of the beneficiaries. The local authorities have installed Yiyuan Environmental Group products in different government projects, including schools, hospitals, hotels and low-cost housing. The company is also a registered central government procurement provider.
Chen is well-aware of her role as a green entrepreneur. “China is a developing country with a large population and a large consumption of resources. Promoting green concepts is of vital significance in today’s Chinese society. It will be Yiyuan’s permanent responsibility to save water and reduce sewage discharge in order to maintain a harmonious co-existence between Man and the Earth.”
Chen’s trail-blazing experience has been recognized by UNIDO, which has recently invited her to join its Green Industry Platform as a member of its Technical Expert Committee. As Heinz Leuenberger, Director of UNIDO’s Environmental Management Branch, explains, “We are very pleased to have Chen on board because her commitment to research, resource efficiency and innovative technology makes her a natural catalyst for green industry. As China plays a large and increasing role in global manufacturing, energy demand and consumer spending, it is important to have more businesses moving toward the principles of green industry, and resource-efficient and cleaner production.”
Recalling her early days in Shanghai, Chen admits that, compared with her male counterparts, it was more difficult for her to start a business, but thinks that the current two to one ratio of men to women entrepreneurs will change. “With women’s role in the economic sphere increasing, the female force in entrepreneurship can’t be ignored anymore. I believe our society should work together to create a better environment for women’s entrepreneurship.”
As to how this can be achieved, Chen has some clear ideas. “First of all, women’s burden inside the family should be reduced. Men should be encouraged to share in-house responsibilities, such as caring for the elderly, children and housework, thus giving women more time and space to use their talents.”
She continues, “Secondly, more women’s entrepreneurship funds should be established, so as to provide direct financial support. Thirdly, policies in favour of female entrepreneurship should be implemented. We should set up training institutes and hubs for female entrepreneurs to share their knowledge and experiences. Lastly, governments and organizations, like the United Nations, should work together with the media to create a generally more encouraging atmosphere for female entrepreneurship.”
• Interview by ZHONG Xingfei.