“Talk less and listen more” – Chat with Teammate Sophia Stylianos

This month in our teammate spotlight, meet Sophia Stylianos from Sanergy’s Product Development and Design Team. Sophia is an outgoing teammate, who is passionate about designing products that solve sanitation challenges and promote environmental conservation in Nairobi’s informal settlements.

Sophie and John
Sanergy teammate Sophia Stylianos

She is a Princeton in Africa Fellow and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. She loves playing soccer and exploring new places.

She explains to us what her work entails and what she has been up to lately.

How did you first hear about Sanergy?

I came across Sanergy through a recommendation from one of my university classmates, and I joined the Sanergy team through the Princeton in Africa fellowship program.

Tell us more about your department and your role.

Sophie creating a potty prototype out of fiberglass
Sophia builds a potty prototype out of fiberglass

Our department, Product Development, is part of Sanergy’s Growth Labs. We are charged with creating new sanitation products while simultaneously improving the current ones. Our goal is to improve our users’ experience.

My role as Product Development Associate is to help in the design and manufacturing of various products that improve sanitation in the community.

Tell us about your typical day at work.

Because our projects are very multi-faceted, it is hard to describe a typical day at work. Time can be spent doing anything from brainstorming with co-workers ideas at the workshop, to interviewing Fresh Life users in the community, to traversing Nairobi’s Industrial Area in order to procure the best tools and materials for our projects. I also work closely with teammates from a variety of teams on improvement strategies for our Fresh Life Toilets.

What has been the most challenging project you have undertaken so far?

Developing a shower product for our clients following several requests from plot owners. It is one of my current projects, and the greatest challenge we have is to establish ways of treating the environmentally harmful grey water that drains from the showers. Our team is working together to research, test, and refine different design solutions to address this challenge.

What has been your most rewarding project?

Designing the squat support for our Fresh Life Toilets. This product aims to provide extra support to the users of the Fresh Life facility who have difficulty squatting, specifically our customers with disabilities. However, the support will also improve the experience of other users such as pregnant women and the elderly.

Earlier this year, we showcased and tested the squat support in Mukuru, and it was very successful. We received a lot of user feedback, which has informed our latest prototype redesign. We will soon launch the newest version in the community.

What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

Sophie interviewing a group of community members in Mukuru about the squat support prototypes
Sophia interviews a group of community members in Mukuru about the squat support prototypes

I really enjoy working from Sanergy’s Mukuru office and working in the community for whom the products are designed. Engaging with this community is the most effective way of making informed decisions with respect to product design. In addition, working in Mukuru gives me the opportunity to learn and practice Swahili and ‘Sheng’ phrases every day. Now I can effectively engage with the community and easily negotiate in Kenyan markets.

Tell us about an invaluable lesson you have learned while undertaking your design projects?

Persistence: it takes several designs and redesigns to get to the ultimate, perfect end product. We tested five different squat supports and then combined the best elements from each for the latest design. We are about to test it in the community.

Do you have any advice to share with fellow product designers?

Listening is key to finding out user needs and translating them into product features and improvements.

What has been your most memorable experience in Kenya so far?

Sophie speaking with beneficiaries in Kakuma about sanitation
Sophia speaks with Kakuma residents about their sanitation needs

In October last year, my teammate, Vadim, and I had the opportunity to visit and conduct sanitation research in East Africa’s largest refugee camp, Kakuma, which has been operational for twenty years in the Turkana Region of Kenya. It was very interesting to learn about the different sanitation solutions — such as the pit latrines — used in the camp.

Managing the waste of over 180,000 people is no simple task, and the week we spent in Kakuma helped guide the design direction of Vadim’s waste transfer station project for emergency relief.

Another memorable experience was a visit to Tsavo West National Park where I camped with Kenya’s beautiful “Big Five” animals, including elephants and lions.

What are your plans in the near future?

I hope to have successfully launched the squat support product increasing access to existing Fresh Life Toilets as well as complete the design phase for a treatment system for the shower product.

In addition, I hope to hone my Swahili skills and eat my way through Nairobi’s best nyama choma joints and Indian restaurants!

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