Improving the Humble Toilet
Sarah Moore is a mechanical engineer from Seattle, USA with 8 years of design experience in buildings and manufacturing. She recently joined Sanergy’s ranks to work in both product development and process improvement.
With the New Year, I’m excited to ramp up a major design project that Sanergy will be undertaking for 2012. Thanks to a generous R&D grant from the Innovations Against Poverty (IAP) initiative at the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), and in partnership with PATH, Sanergy will be improving our toilet design to better serve our customers.
Specifically, the SIDA program focuses on combating poverty through innovative solutions. We’ll be improving upon the “guts” of the toilet – the squat plate and waste containers – two parts of a toilet design that are often overlooked, but are actually central to the user experience in terms of cleanliness and hygiene.
For Sanergy, it begins with understanding the current situation. I spent a week in December doing a “deep dive” market study in the settlements of Mukuru and Kibera. Thanks to the help of Moses on our marketing team, and Ruth, our new operations field manager, we interviewed current Fresh Life operators and customers and toured dozens of other toilets in the communities.
We gathered a massive amount of data in the form of conversations, photos, and videos – some new product design challenges and some critical reminders of our customers’ fundamental perspective:
- Even a 5 minute walk is considered unsafe for women at night, so we have to seriously consider a design that can be implemented in both our standard public toilet model, as well as a model that can be installed inside a residential plot.
- Can we design a more ergonomically optimized squat plate for women and children, for whom the off-the-shelf version is not ideal?
- The interface between the squat plate and waste containers must be snug and fit only one way. Otherwise it can be put together incorrectly and make a significant mess when it is time to collect the waste from the containers.
- While our customers have other choices in toilets, very few are as clean (or “smart,” as a true Nairobi resident would say) as Sanergy’s Fresh Life toilets.
- Simple, cheap additions like hooks for handbags or air freshener can go a long way in improving the customer experience and drive demand.
The week re-emphasized one of the key truths driving our work: there are other toilets out there, but they are rarely clean or safe to use. Sanergy can make a material improvement in people’s daily lives and serve the needs of the community with a humble toilet.