Mindful Design

Five years ago, the Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainana, wrote a spine-tingling, provocative essay called, “Glory.” In it, Wainana shares a series of anecdotes from growing up in Kenya, where he encountered products created and marketed by foreign “benevolent” donors, who “suffer not from poverty or lack of information, but from wealth, vague guilt, and too much information.” So-called “pure products,” that are intended to “solve everything,” and “satisfy the giver, but to the recipients the things have no context, no relationship to their ideas of themselves or their possibilities.”

He picked on the “One Laptop Per Child” program, which “is for the whole brown world,” promising to “change everything.” Wainana held no illusions that the program would fail to bring glory to its creators. He talks about how the International Monetary Fund would smile, creator Nicholas Negroponte would win a prize, and there would be “laptops in small, perfect, NGO-funded schools for AIDS orphans in Nairobi, and many earnest expatriates working in Sudan will swear by them.”

Wainana’s critique is one that has influenced the thinking of our lead designers, Mike Hahn and Nathan Cooke. They have been challenged to design Sanergy’s Fresh Life Toilet to make it a product that, above all, meets the demands of our customers – the 8 million men, women, and children living in slums in Kenya without access to adequate sanitation.

Mike joined Sanergy from consulting on toilet design in East Asia, where he learned that a vocal minority can lead to unnecessary design features. In Laos, there was a rumor spreading from an NGO report about how the toilets that Mike’s team was building needed a vent pipe, otherwise gas would build up and the toilet would explode. Asking around the community, Mike discovered that residents didn’t believe this rumor at all. The final prototype ended up with a vent pipe because of government and NGO pressure. Mike was drawn to designing for Sanergy because it is a business where addressing the customer’s needs is the focus, as opposed to third-parties who aren’t using the product.

Mike Hahn

Sanergy has a very talented team working on the design of our Fresh Life Toilets. Mike is joined by Nathan Cooke, who has been with Sanergy since our beginning. Nathan also teaches at MIT’s D-Lab, where he challenges students to come up with design solutions for the developing world. He encourages students – at the lab level – to “make something simple that works.” Then he prepares them mentally that their prototype won’t work in the field the first, second, or even the fifth time. From his time in Kenya, he has seen that so many things change on the ground, due, for example, to fewer skilled shops or difficulty in acquiring and sourcing materials. Above all, the designer must be flexible and willing to change.

Nathan Cooke

Fundamentally, an improved product depends on valid feedback from the community. Sanergy’s operations are in the heart of the slums. As such, Nathan and Mike and their team of local assistants closely observe user experiences. For instance, through interviews with customers, they realized our first squat plates worked well for men, but did not always accommodate for the anatomical differences of women and children. However, they did not know exactly how women were using the toilet in private. Mike and Nathan got creative and had women use a water gun to demonstrate where they would aim at the squat plate. In turning the feedback loop into a game, they desensitized a taboo topic, and have designed a new prototype that is now in testing.

Mike and Nathan also work closely with those affected by the misuse of the toilet; the waste management team. Sanergy’s product design is adjacent to our waste management operations. The teams talk regularly, build trust, and discuss how the design of the toilet’s interior could be improved. For instance, improvements to the squat plate that prevent urine spillage mean less time spent by waste management in cleaning each toilet they visit. If the product designers can make the waste collectors job simpler and cleaner, then it’s a good bet that the experience is better for the user, too.

Mike and Nathan do almost all their prototyping at the field site, right inside the Mukuru area. This gives them a strong understanding of what materials are available at what cost, and how difficult they are to repair. Inconsistent supply chains, difficult to access materials and costly technologies prevent the scaling of many theoretically great solutions.

Finally, Sanergy is a profit-seeking social enterprise answering to the end user; our operators and customers. That means pressure to improve and get the design right – because if the product is not needed, doesn’t work, is improperly used, or doesn’t get to those people who need it, we’re out of business. Would the same “pure products” Wainana mentioned have survived if they were market-based?

  • I will be looking forward to traveling down to Kenya one of these days, to spend time with the sanergy team. Great work, nice one.

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