Category: Water and Sanitation -
8 August 2014
By KC Koch
This is the story of a successful partnership between two organizations that share a passion for toilets: an NGO with 30+ years of making markets work for the poor and the largest toilet manufacturer in North America. Eventually, they made more impact together than either organization could make alone.
Combining diverse expertise
The idea of a partnership started back in 2011 at a water and sanitation conference in Delhi. Cordell Jacks, the co-director of iDE’s Global WASH Initiative, and Jim McHale, VP, Research, Development, & Engineering for American Standard, met for coffee. It didn’t take long before Cordell and Jim realized that they had the makings of a perfect partnership.
iDE would bring local expertise of rural supply chains and last-mile distribution in Bangladesh, as well as a host of sanitation market development experience gained from projects in other countries. American Standard would bring 140 years of state-of-the-art product design, computerized fluid dynamic engineering & modeling, as well as global sourcing, manufacturing and state-of-the-art product testing.
Together they had the right combination of skills and knowledge to make a difference for the 2.5 billion people who live without improved sanitation in developing countries.
Cordell remembers the potential of the partnership: “American Standard and iDE are two organizations with complimentary skill sets. Both are dedicated to increasing and improving sanitation globally. Together, we demonstrated that there is a sustainable and profitable business model in the heart of one of the most challenging market conditions in the world. It is an amazing example of impact that can be had with innovative public private partnerships.”
Accepting the challenge
American Standard saw a whole new market in the 2.5 billion people who are typically overlooked by big business. Too many corporations assume the poor have no purchasing power. But the most forward-thinking brands, like American Standard, are starting to take notice of the enormous potential in the bottom of the pyramid (BoP) customers. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, American Standard accepted the challenge to create a new latrine product for poor people in Bangladesh.
A local understanding from iDE
As far back as 1982, Paul Polak, iDE’s founder, walked and talked with small farmers in their one-acre fields. He spoke with them about their challenges and their dreams. iDE is still inspired by Paul’s approach of asking questions first. Today, iDE practices human-centered design (HCD), a methodology that identifies solutions to various challenges by placing users at the center of the design process.
In 2012, iDE led American Standard through the human-centered design process in Bangladesh. iDE was working under a grant from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank (WSP) to implement the “SanMark Pilot project in Bangladesh.”
Tamara Baker, co-director of iDE’s Global WASH Initiative, recalled, “We opened new doors and ways of thinking for each other.” Together they spoke with small producers, salespeople, customers, and merchants. They field-tested prototypes, gathered customer feedback and ideated on product design. They also understood the potential market dynamics that could be strengthened to form a sustainable business model.
Product expertise from American Standard
American Standard joined iDE in Bangladesh for a deep dive to ensure their solutions would be feasible, desirable and affordable. The designer from American Standard, Daigo Ishiyama, provided the big “a-ha.” He noticed something only a fluid-dynamic engineer would notice. Previous latrine products use too much water. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi are accustomed to carrying a very small amount of water into the latrine. When you have less water, you need a smaller trap. The confined space creates a whirlpool effect and provides the needed flush power.
Then, American Standard created an ingenious counterweight trapdoor solution that effectively sealed off the feces from the open air. And, of equal importance, the trap hid the feces from view of the user. Customer feedback revealed that people didn’t know it was possible to not have to see feces when inside a latrine. They were thrilled! The resulting product was named the SaTo pan (pronounced SAH-toh, derived from “Safe Toilet”).
The American Standard team also provided plastics knowledge, the ability to rapidly prototype in plastic, as well as the financial resources and influence to support iDE’s longer-term engagement with domestic plastics manufacturer RFL Plastics Ltd. “Thanks to our partnership, we suddenly saw plastic as a very interesting material for scalable, sustainable products for improved sanitation,” said Conor Riggs, Technical Director – Programs at iDE Bangladesh. “It was the spark that led to other innovations in our program, particularly the development of a fully upgradeable, mass-producible latrine system that includes the SaTo Pan that will go to market in the fall of 2014.”
The case for the BoP
BoP business models can and do work. iDE staff see it daily. iDE operates programs in 11 countries across Africa, Asia, and Central America, that are laying the groundwork for corporations to enter this new frontier. iDE asks private enterprises to think beyond charity. A sustainable business model benefits both the private corporation and the people they serve. Armed with the right insights, private corporations can make an impact and make a profit. These are some of the foundational principles of iDE, which emanate from its founder, Paul Polak.
Paul recently expressed his approval of the collaboration that led to the SaTo pan: “Since poor sanitation is a key source of illness in developing countries, I am delighted to hear that iDE has collaborated with American Standard, the biggest toilet manufacturer in North America, to produce and start to distribute a radically affordable product to prevent the spread of diarrheal disease. I am particularly impressed with the price of $1.50, which could make it accessible to millions of people. It is simple, affordable devices like this that make the biggest impact.”
There is still a lot of convincing to do out there. American Standard is a pioneer. Their next horizon? Zambia—where they know it’s not a question of “if” the markets will be profitable, it’s only a question of “who” and “when.”
17 October 2012
photo by David Graham
For the first time in Asia, a sustainable and market-based water filtration business has been registered under the voluntary Gold Standard scheme, and will benefit from carbon offset funding, illustrating that carbon markets can support sustainable technologies that improve the lives of poor populations. iDE’s Cambodian social enterprise, Hydrologic, manufactures ceramic water purifiers which provide clean water to rural households, reduce the amount of wood burned to boil water, create local jobs, and bolster economic development. Hydrologic was recently named winner of a 2012 Ashden Award. Start-up resources for Hydrologic came from several sources including the USAID WaterSHED project in form of grants and technical assistance.
Nearly 40% of rural Cambodians still have no access to safe drinking water. Untreated water and poor sanitation result in about 10 million cases of diarrhea and 10,000 deaths per year in Cambodia, mainly affecting children in rural areas. iDE’s Hydrologic produces and sells ceramic water filters that provide safe drinking water to rural households of Cambodia. By displacing water boiling practices, the filters allow Cambodian households to avoid the unsustainable burning of 18,000 tons of wood per year, saving 41,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually. Thanks to this impressive environmental impact, the project has completed its registration under the voluntary Gold Standard scheme, an award winning certification standard for carbon mitigation projects.
The project has two major features:
• It uses a market based approach: Hydrologic Social Enterprise believes that sustainable business is a powerful way to provide clean water for as many people as possible. It created a market for water purifiers in Cambodia by selling affordable filters to NGO programs, and via shops and rural sales agents. Households benefit from a low cost water filtration technology, and the local economy is bolstered by the establishment of production and distribution facilities.
• Carbon offsets ensure a sustainable business model, as the carbon revenue is directly re-invested into further scaling up project activities.
Hydrologic joined Nexus, a nonprofit cooperative of NGOs and social enterprises that scale up development solutions by leveraging sustainable funding from the sale of high-quality carbon offsets, a concept referred to as “Carbon for Development.” Nexus provided financial and technical assistance with the carbon certification process, and is supporting the commercialization of carbon credits by engaging companies and public institutions on a fair approach to offsetting.
Hydrologic’s sustainable business model and its numerous benefits for the environment have also attracted private sector support. An impact investor, Impact Finance, provided a loan to support the development of the project, and a multinational company, Deutsche Post DHL, has committed to purchase carbon credits originating from the project.
31 May 2012
iDE Cambodia Director, Michael Roberts meets HRH Prince Charles prior to receiving Ashden Award on behalf of iDE/Hydrologic. (Photo: Andrew Aitchison/Ashden Awards)
We are very proud to announce that iDE’s social enterprise spinoff Hydrologic has been named winner at the 2012 Ashden Awards.
The Ashden Awards, given by The Ashden Trust, recognize and reward pioneering enterprises that share the Ashden vision of promoting “sustainable energy for all”.
Created in 2001, the event aims to raise awareness of the huge potential of sustainable energy to both tackle climate change and improve the quality of people’s lives.
The annual awards ceremony was held on May 30th at the Royal Geographical Society in London. iDE Cambodia Director Michael Roberts accepted the award on behalf of Hydrologic. Shortlisted in January, Hydrologic was announced as one of seven finalists for its energy saving ceramic water purifier.
Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, Director General of UNIDO and Chair of UN-ENERGY presents iDE Cambodia Director, Michael Roberts with 2012 Ashden Award. (Photo: Andrew Aitchison/Ashden Awards)
Roberts said: “In Establishing Hydrologic, iDE set out to deliver clean water solutions to base-of-the-pyramid customers, creating social and environmental benefits while at the same time being financially self-sustaining. Our aim is not only that Hydrologic reaches this goal, but also to prove a concept that entices other market players to replicate and improve on what we have done.
“Winning this Ashden Award gives us a significant boost toward ensuring Hydrologic’s success and a magnificent platform for sharing our experience more broadly.”
Since its inception in 2001, iDE’s ceramic water filter project in Cambodia has manufactured and sold more than 230,000 filters, transforming the lives of thousands of poor rural households. The project has been supported by US$ 1.9M in grants from numerous donors. Half of that amount was from WaterSHED, a USAID program that facilitated the project’s transition to an independent social enterprise.
More on the 2012 Ashden Awards:
Read more about iDE and Hydrologic’s nomination at Ashden.org >
Download the full Ashden case study on the project >
16 April 2012
On Friday April 13, iDE was selected as the winner of the Wharton School’s inaugural Barry and Marie Lipman Family Prize for our innovative, market based water, sanitation & hygiene projects. We’re extremely honored to be the first recipient of this prestigious award!
Here’s a short video produced for the award ceremony:
Lipman Prize Winner: iDE
And here’s the official press release:
Philadelphia, PA, April 13, 2012 – The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania announced today the winner of its inaugural Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize – iDE, a social enterprise that has pioneered innovative, market-based approaches to safe water and sanitation access. Chosen from hundreds of organizations worldwide devoted to social impact and building sustainable solutions for social and economic challenges, iDE received $100,000 and bragging rights at a gala marking the event’s culmination last night at the Wharton School. iDE and the two other finalist organizations, KOMAZA, a pioneering forestry social enterprise, and MedShare, a distributor of surplus medical supplies, will all profit from unprecedented, synergistic opportunities with Penn and Wharton.
“The $100,000 is one thing but the partnership with Penn and Wharton is just absolutely outstanding,” said Cordell Jacks, the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) Program Co-Director at iDE. “We really believe that we’re going to change the world with toilets and we think that a partnership here is going to bring together great people, creative ideas and really solve a global public health challenge, something that is very finite and can be achieved in our lifetime. So it’s just really exciting to do this together with the University.”
About the 2012 Lipman Family Prize Winner:
iDE is an international nonprofit organization helping poor rural households in the developing world to access the tools and knowledge they need to increase their income. iDE’s productive water solutions create and increase both food production and incomes, and with innovative drinking water and sanitation technologies, iDE gives rural households the basis for healthier and more dignified livelihoods.
iDE’s involvement with improved sanitation began in Cambodia, which has 16 percent sanitation coverage. Cambodia has the second to worst rural sanitation coverage outside of Africa, at only eight percent. Furthermore, Cambodia loses approximately seven percent of its GDP, USD $448 million per year, due to poor sanitation. iDE Cambodia’s Sanitation Marketing Program (SanMark) recently reached the milestone of 10,000 latrines sold and, in 2011, the organization was awarded a major grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Stone Family Foundation and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) to scale the SanMark approach nationally in Cambodia, targeting an additional 160,000 households. Building further on these successes in Cambodia, iDE has recently secured funding for WaSH activities in Bangladesh and Nepal with a $400,000 UNICEF-funded scoping and piloting project utilizing the model and support of iDE Cambodia to promote both water filters and low cost, sanitary latrines.
About the Lipman Family Prize:
Currently in its inaugural year, the annual Lipman Family Prize has been made possible by a $6.5 million gift from Wharton alumnus Barry R. Lipman and his wife, Marie.
“For more than ten years, I have had a strong desire to impact the non-profit/social responsibility sector,” said Barry R. Lipman, co-founder of California law firm Goldfarb Lipman. “Through a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School, my dream has been realized with the awarding of the first Lipman Family Prize. Penn and I eagerly look forward to annually honoring an organization whose mission is to improve the lives of those less fortunate.”
Administered by the University of Pennsylvania through the Wharton School, the Lipman Family Prize is governed by an interdisciplinary Steering Committee comprised of faculty, and staff from across the University of Pennsylvania, drawing upon the expertise of such entities as the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and the School of Social Policy and Practice.
The selection of Prize finalists involved a Student Selection Committee that reviewed initial submissions and conducted the due diligence process under staff guidance, and a Prize Committee that selected the finalists and chose the winner.
“This is the beginning of a long partnership with iDE, KOMAZA and MedShare as new members of the Wharton and Penn community,” said Thomas S. Robertson, the dean of the Wharton School. “The possibilities of these cross-sector collaborations are powerful and we look forward to our ongoing role in fostering sustainable new solutions for the advancement of society as a whole.”
For more information on the 2012 Lipman Family Prize and to view videos from the March 2012 site visits to the three finalist organizations, visit www.wharton.upenn.edu/lipmanfamilyprize.
22 March 2012
I’m sitting here at Green Spaces Denver, campaign headquarters for our Water4Food 2012 day of service in honor of United Nations World Water Day, which this year is focused on food security. As our readers know, that’s iDE’s main focus.
There’s a lot of excitement and momentum from volunteers showing up to help spread the word in our local community. We’re going out and hitting the streets with postcards, stickers, tee shirts to share facts like these:
Did you know that it takes 635 gallons of water to produce one hamburger? Or that 397 gallons of water are needed to produce 35 oz of cane sugar? The truth is, without water there is no food. Water scarcity already affects every continent and more than 40 percent of the people on our planet. This year’s International World Water Day focuses on the critical relationship between water access and food security.
iDE, along with Card Gnome, Green Spaces, and our event sponsors, brings Water4Food 2012 to the Denver area to raise awareness for this issue and money to prevent famine for families in West Africa.
What can individuals do?
- follow a healthier, sustainable diet;
- consume less water-intensive products;
- reduce the scandalous food wastage: 30% of the food produced worldwide is never eaten and the water used to produce it is definitively lost!
- produce more food, of better quality, with less water.
There’s still time to volunteer! If you can spend a couple of hours taking stickers and information sheets to Denver area businesses, sign up at volunteer.water4food.com. All volunteers are invited to join us at the Water4Food 2012 party tonight at 5:30pm at Green Spaces.
Purchase a Water4Food 2012 greeting card plan at Card Gnome, and 50% of the proceeds will provide families in the Sahel region of West Africa with the tools and knowledge needed to create and sustain a sustainable income from small plot farming, enabling them to increase food security and lift themselves out of poverty.
Your plan allows you to send 25 cards throughout one year. You choose the perfect card from Card Gnome’s selection of thousands of cards for all occasions; write your personal message and Card Gnome mails it for you. You can even schedule cards for delivery a year in advance.
With the purchase of a card plan, you gain a ticket with a guest to the party at Green Spaces tonight. Just show up and we’ll have your name on a list along with others.
If you would like to donate directly to iDE, please click here.
There are many ways to get involved in this issue, no matter where you are!
Visit the U.N.’s World Water Day site (www.unwater.org/worldwaterday/) to find World Water Day events all over the world, downloadable informational materials and more.
Twitter: Join the conversation using #Water4Food and #WorldWaterDay and give a shout to @CardGnome and @ideorg or any of the other great sponsors listed below.
Facebook: We love sharing water4food information and you can visit our pages to access videos, pictures, blog posts and other items we’ve been sharing recently:
Green Spaces greenspaceshome.com
Silver Bullet Water Treatment, LLC silverbulletcorp.com
Colorado Water 2012 water2012.org
Colorado Public Television 12 cpt12.org
Elephant Energy elephantenergy.org
Inspire Commerce inspirecommerce.com
Edge of Seven edgeofseven.org
Ellen Bruss Design ebd.com
Conscious Coffees consciouscoffees.com
Sticker Giant stickergiant.com
Rage Unlimited rageunlimited.com
Runa Tea Company runa.org
I’m incredibly inspired by all of these volunteers who are taking time out of their busy days to help us tackle this issue. Thank you to our sponsors, partners staff, volunteers, and news media who are working hard to spread the word on this very important day.
12 January 2012
iDE has just been named one of the top ten international organizations working in the field of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) based on a survey of experts in the field. The list was compiled by Philanthropedia/GuideStar, an information service specializing in reporting on U.S. non-profit companies.
Philanthropedia asked 116 WASH experts (funders, researchers, nonprofit senior staff, consultants, and others) from 90 organizations to identify nonprofit orgs that were making the biggest positive impact in the field. A total of 106 organizations were reviewed.
In their anonymous reviews, the experts cited iDE’s focus on “systemic change through market development of pro-poor technology as foundational to its widespread impact”. One expert wrote that “iDE doesn’t want to be a long-term service provider. In its best work, it refines a pro-poor technology, develops a market for that technology, supports business development to provide the technology, and then backs out to let the market drive the availability of the technology.”
For more than 15 years, iDE has pioneered innovative, market-based approaches to safe water and sanitation access. These approaches exploit the comparative advantage of private-sector, NGO, and government stakeholders to reach large numbers of poor households cost effectively and in short timeframes. iDE has successfully applied these approaches in promoting water filters, latrines, hand pumps, and behavior change in rural Cambodia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. In Cambodia, for instance, iDE’s sanitation marketing program recently enabled local enterprises to sell 17,400 latrines without subsidy in a one-year period, won the International Design Excellence Award, and was inducted into the World Toilet Organization Hall of Fame.
To read more about what experts in the field have to say about us, click on the Expert Reviews section on our organization profile here.
Learn more about iDE Cambodia’s WaSH program here.
More here on the history of WaSH at iDE.
21 November 2011
From iDE CEO Al Doerksen, on World Toilet Day 2011
In one of my former lives, I (and my family) spent three years in India. Our work took us all over the country, both urban and rural areas. I still remember driving the country roads in the dusk of early evenings, and seeing sari-clad women walking along the road with brass containers in their hands. They were headed out to the fields to the privacy afforded by the darkness so they could finally, at the end of the day, perform their daily ablutions, as they were called. Somehow they had waited the entire day before they could finally seek relief.
Talk about defecation, taking a crap, or taking a shit is not polite dinner-time conversation. It may not even be polite for a blog seeking readers who appreciate a measure of respectability. But that is part of the problem. Even though most of us hope for the regularity which allows for a daily movement of our bowels, it is not usual to discuss it. And the fact that we don’t talk about or even acknowledge that we did or didn’t crap today has contributed to not addressing the problem of one billion people who still defecate in the open every day! We are going to have to start talking about this so we can get on to addressing the issue.
iDE has been involved in sanitation marketing in Vietnam and Cambodia for several years, and successfully so, but I wasn’t always been convinced that iDE with its income creation mission should be involved in water & sanitation programs. I have changed my mind. I’ll tell you why.
It’s a health issue. Open defecation and unsanitary latrines are a huge source of fecal matter in food which then leads to diarrheal disease. Never mind the inconvenience this causes adults, diarrheal disease kills more than 1.5 million children a year! It’s incredibly sad to lose a little person in this way! The grandfather in me can easily identify with this pain.
It’s a women’s issue. Women should not have to suffer the indignity, the inconvenience and the personal safety risks associated with open (field) defecation. They should also not have to wait until nightfall to deal with their daily physical routines.
It’s a children’s issue. Chronic diarrhea can hinder child development by impeding the uptake of essential nutrients that are critical to the development of children’s minds, bodies, and immune systems. Reduced incidence of diarrhea has the effect of increasing school attendance, especially for girls.
It’s an economic issue. In a recent policy statement, the Gates Foundation estimated that the economic benefits of improved sanitation can reach $9 for every dollar invested by increasing people’s productivity, reducing healthcare costs, and preventing illness, disability, and early death. For an organization like iDE with a focus on creating income opportunities, this is huge.
It’s a market opportunity. Several years ago, iDE Vietnam engaged in a project to help local suppliers construct and supply low cost latrines through the local market place. A post-project evaluation conducted 3 years after the close of the project showed that high latrine sales rates continued even though the project was long over. More recently, iDE Cambodia working with an IDEO product designer developed a simple, award winning “easy latrine.” In the first year after this was introduced to local producers and marketers, more than 10,000 units were sold and installed (and are now in daily use). These units sell because they align with the value structure of our customers.
iDE is gratified to report that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Stone Family Foundation, and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program have recognized iDE’s leadership and proficiency in sanitation marketing with $6 million in grant funding to expand our work in Southeast Asia. We are poised to also move into Nepal, Bangladesh, and several African markets.
19 November 2011
Lack of access to sanitation is a major problem affecting the developing world. Poor sanitation is a major cause of diarrheal disease, lost labor productivity for adults, missed school days for children, and additional financial burdens for families requiring medical treatment. In Cambodia alone, diarrheal diseases account for 17 percent of deaths in children under five. The World Bank recently estimated the annual economic loss due to poor sanitation there to be $448 million a year, which is equivalent to 7.2 percent of GDP.
Existing markets for rural sanitation in the developing world are woefully underdeveloped. Low demand and weak supply chains hinder the availability of sanitation products and services. Publicly funded sanitation projects often make extensive use of hardware subsidies with disappointing results; typically, only a fraction of the subsidy reaches the intended target group, and recipients often do not use or maintain their latrines over time.
For a number of years now in Asia, iDE has been at the forefront of Sanitation Marketing developments to address these challenges. iDE recently completed a pilot project in Cambodia that exceeded expectations by enabling 9.6 percent of the rural population to purchase sanitary latrines in eleven target districts over a 16-month period.
Now, a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made it possible to expand these achievements on a national scale, improving the sanitation conditions of tens of thousands of rural households while stimulating vibrant and sustainable sanitation markets. Over a three-year period, the Cambodia Sanitation Marketing Scale-Up Project will build on the original pilot project by working directly with some 90 local enterprises, encouraging them to invest their own resources into addressing the demand for sanitary latrines.
The project will enable 115,000 households in 60 districts of Cambodia to purchase affordable sanitary latrines. Other outcomes include:
• Improved latrine designs for two “challenging environments”
• Sanitation financing mechanisms for consumer households and supply chain enterprises
• A research and training center to become a global dissemination platform for Sanitation Marketing experience
The total cost of the project is estimated at $6,942,199. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded iDE a grant of $3,987,717. Other key partners in the project include the Stone Family Foundation, the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program, PATH, and the Royal Government of Cambodia.
Sanitation Marketing has emerged as a highly effective approach for rapidly and sustainably improving rural sanitation at scale by connecting consumers with products that they want and can afford. Evidence from a number of recent projects demonstrates that stimulating private enterprises to address the untapped rural sanitation market can have a revolutionary impact on the uptake of sanitary latrines—with associated health and financial gains for rural households.
The Sanitation Marketing model leverages the advantages of private sector entities, civil society, and government to reach large numbers of rural households in short time frames. Donor funds are not used to provide direct subsidies for hardware or installation. Instead they are invested in laying the foundations for demand-driven, self-financing market systems.
Broadly, Sanitation Marketing applies iDE’s market-based poverty alleviation approach to the related problem of inadequate sanitation. First, we develop a deep understanding of the target group’s needs and aspirations, and adapt or design affordable technology options to meet those needs. We strengthen the capacity of local enterprises to manufacture and deliver the technologies, conduct social marketing campaigns to encourage the purchase and proper use of the technologies, and coordinate with NGOs, microfinance institutions, and government agencies to extend scale and to reach poorer households.
27 July 2011
From Paul Polak’s Blog, guest blogger Kali Friedmann gives an overview of the Design for the Other 90%, with some ideas about how to (and how not to) design for the developing world:
“Design for the Other 90%” Comes to Denver
By Kali Friedmann
The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt “Design for the Other 90%” exhibit has arrived at RedLine Gallery in downtown Denver, showcasing products designed explicitly to fit the needs and circumstances of the world’s poorest customers – the “other 90%” who are bypassed by current design processes.
The exhibit, organized in part by International Development Enterprises (iDE), showcases products from an array of designers, engineers, and organizations focused on development, including the Design Revolution (D-REV), the non-profit technology incubator co-founded by Paul Polak. D-REV is an outgrowth of Dr. Polak’s vision of fomenting a revolution in how companies design, price, market, and distribute their products, to produce radically affordable income generating technologies for customers living on less than $4 a day.
Products like D-REV’s Jaipur Knee (a simple prosthetic knee that costs $25 to make and retails for $80) and low-cost ceramic water filters from iDE and other organizations, help illustrate the types of technologies that – at the right price and combined with appropriate mechanisms for marketing and distribution – have the potential to leverage the power of the market to reach large-scale impact.
Kamal using the Jaipur Knee (YouTube)
True to RedLine’s mission of merging art, education, and community, these low cost technologies are displayed throughout the gallery along with the creative responses of seven local artists to poverty, waste, and the challenges of design for development. One such work, created by RedLine resident artist Viviane Le Courtois, emphasizes the disparity between the bottom 90% of the world’s citizens in dire need of practical design solutions, and the top 10% who are served by the majority of designers and live surrounded by excess. The product of several weeks of work, many gallons of Elmer’s glue, and the waste from a covey of Le Courtois’ friends, it is a round thatched-roof hut made entirely of shredded junk mail.
On the exhibit’s opening day, reporter Ryan Warner from the Colorado Public Radio program Colorado Matters met Dr. Polak at the gallery for a walk-through interview. True to form, Dr. Polak provided both a clear description of the design process required to create meaningful and effective tools for development, and an honest critique of the difficulties inherent in doing so.
Dr. Polak highlighted the importance of talking to customers and building not only radical affordability into design – a primary and thoroughly non-negotiable requirement – but also taking into account the much less obvious cultural and lifestyle factors of the communities being served. Failure to take into account details about social structure, cultural preferences, and the subtleties of life at the local level often results in the failure of the project as a whole. As an outsider, this requires a deep cultural understanding that can only be attained by spending time on the ground listening to the needs of users early on in the design process. A full explanation of Dr. Polak’s 12 Steps for Practical Problem Solving can be found in his book, Out of Poverty, but the first three are crucial, and, while they seem obvious, are often overlooked:
- Go to where the action is.
- Talk to the people who have the problem and listen to what they say.
- Learn everything you can about the problem’s specific context.
For example, there’s the Q Drum – a doughnut-shaped water transportation vessel that can be rolled to and from a water source with a rope tied through the center. Sounds great, looks cool, but, 1) at more than $70 per unit it’s too expensive for poor customers, and there’s no way for it to pay for itself, 2) the ropes tend to wear out quickly, and it’s unusable without a way to pull it, and, 3) the opening in the container is too large, making the water vulnerable to contamination from hands reaching inside or dirt finding its way in (80% of the contamination of bad water occurs during transportation between source and end-user). These sorts of problems can only be understood and solved by designing for affordability, spending time on the ground with users, doing a lot of listening, and continually iterating in response to feedback.
Developing countries are littered with well-intentioned but eventually useless products ostensibly designed with poor people in mind, but without their consultation or true knowledge of their needs. A classic example in this category is the PlayPump, a product that is not part of the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit. Designed like a manual merry-go-round, as children run and spin on it the device pumps water into a storage tank for later use. Harnessing the power of children at play to pump water for the village conjures up a lovely image of a type that often appeals to Western donors. As a result the project (run by PlayPumps International) received tremendous press coverage and raised over $60 million dollars to build 4,000 pumps in villages in Southern Africa.
Yet in just a few months it became clear that the project was an abject failure. In the absence of expertise or funding for maintenance of the devices, technical malfunctions were never resolved, and water ceased to flow. After a period of initial excitement, children for the most part lost interest and stopped using the toy, leaving women to spin the PlayPump themselves. Imagine a seventy-year-old woman, after a full day’s work, having to single-handedly spin this large toy that replaced her simple hand-pump just to get the water she and her family need. It’s this type of problem, rooted in the failure to connect with the customer, which designers working for the bottom 90% must avoid by beginning the design process on the ground, listening to the people for whom the product is being created.
By contrast, the treadle pump created by iDE has proven to have a higher output of water than the work put into it. As a result of that efficiency, of its low cost (around $25), and an effective marketing and distribution system involving troubadours singing its praises and local artisans manufacturing and selling the pumps, over 3 million units have been sold throughout the developing world, helping many millions of people increase their incomes by cultivating higher-value, off-season fruits and vegetables. It’s affordable, reliable, leads directly to increased income (and pays for itself several times in the first year), and it’s so efficient it allows men, women, and children alike to pump water without breaking a sweat.
Which brings me to my one and only point of contention with Mr. Warner: I was witness to the fact that at age seventy-seven, Dr. Polak was able to consistently and almost effortlessly operate the treadle pump, and simultaneously talk about it without skipping a beat – much less “appearing out of breath.”
The Cooper-Hewitt Design for the Other 90% exhibit will be at RedLine through Sunday, September 25th, 2011. RedLine is located at 2350 Arapahoe Street in downtown Denver.
Click here for the full interview with Paul Polak that aired on Colorado Matters Wednesday, July 13.
14 July 2011
“Design is creative problem solving. Art is creative problem solving.”
So says iDE founder Paul Polak in a new interview with Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner. Paul gives the reporter a guided tour of the just-opened Design for the Other 90% exhibit–along with a demonstration of a treadle pump in action!–while covering such topics as how iDE came about, the role of design in improving livelihoods in developing countries, why we don’t give products away, and what a collection of affordable technologies is doing in an art gallery.
You can stream the full interview here.