This is great, Caroline—thanks for starting the conversation!
In my work with IDEO.org I've worked on several commercial sanitation projects, including the development of Clean Team with WSUP (which Andy mentioned above), a recent project with Sanergy, and another current project with WSUP in Zambia. Each experience designing commercial sanitation approaches has brought new learnings, but here are a few reasons I'm excited about the potential for the private sector to play a bigger role in improving sanitation.
People already pay for toilets
Both Clean Team and Sanergy offer their customers a service that's priced competitively with public toilets in their area. Public toilets are very rarely free, even when government- or charity- operated, so the question of whether or not people should be expected to pay for commercial sanitation should really be, "Shouldn't people have the option to choose which toilet they're paying for?"
Sanitation is about more than health
With IDEO.org's human-centered design approach, we always start with developing an understanding of our end-users—what do they aspire towards? what do they need? how do they want to feel?—and design solutions accordingly. Although most people are aware of the health benefits of improved sanitation, that's rarely what motivates them to take action. In our work with Sanergy, for example, we found that convenience—not price or quality— was the primary factor in a person's decision of which toilet to use. And with Clean Team, the aspirational ideal of an in-home toilet is what makes it an easy sell. Designing products, services, and marketing around what motivates end-users—not just the public health benefits—is an approach that businesses like Clean Team, Sanergy and iDE, mentioned above, have done well at.
Commerce offers direct feedback
I'm sure we've all seen many abandoned government- or charity-built toilets in our travels—when they break down there's often nobody to report it to, and no clear incentive for anyone locally to maintain or repair them. Commercial solutions, on the other hand, have a direct feedback loop with their customers— a Clean Team customer who cancels their service (there have been very, very few of them, I'm proud to say) sends a clear signal that something wasn't working for them, and the team on the ground seeks to remedy it when possible and integrate the customers' feedback into further refinements of the service.
People trust businesses
Just a couple of weeks ago, as we were discussing brand names and logos with potential customers of the pit latrine emptying business we're designing in Zambia, an older man let us know how excited he was that a business was coming to help. He had received help from NGO's many times before but the NGO ran out of funding and had to end their program, leaving him stranded and frustrated with a full pit latrine that he didn't know how to empty. This man implicitly trusted branded businesses to follow through where NGO's and governments had let him down before—something that I've seen across many projects in many industries.
Ultimately, of course, business isn't the only answer to sanitation challenges, but I'm excited to continue designing human-centered commercial sanitation solutions wherever they make sense. It's proven very fruitful so far, and there's a big, big market still to address...