Social entrepreneurs are driven by passion. We are people who have bold ideas to solve huge challenges, and have almost singular vision to the execution of our idea. Our products are our babies--we know every dimension, every line of code, or every component because we have spent many long evenings debugging, tinkering, sketching, and wholly immersed in the creation of something we believe to be truly innovative. We believe that are products will have large scale impacts and solve big problems. The trouble is, we may be so dedicated to our solution that we don’t dedicate enough time to fully understanding the problem. We may be so focused on the product as the solution, we don't gain enough perspective on the issue to really understand what is needed to address it.

This is often a hard pill to swallow, particularly for engineers such as myself, who like to see a product as a solution. But, to build a successful social enterprise, we need to divorce ourselves from the products we are so passionate about, and focus on an empirical assessment of what the problem is we are trying to solve.

Evidence Action’s Dispensers for Safe Water program is an example of how a careful understanding of the problem allowed us to continuously iterate and innovate, and develop the product we have now. Our project started as a research study in 2006, where researchers from Harvard and Berkeley starting looking at why so few people used WaterGuard, the brand name by which bottles of dilute chlorine are marketed in Kenya by Population Services International.

The benefits of WaterGuard were clear and known to the communities. Epidemiological studies estimate that chlorine can achieve a 40% reduction in child diarrhea, a top killer of children under five in western Kenya. Yet despite the fact chlorine was readily available, affordable, and effective, use was incredibly low. When our project stated in 2006, only about 10% of people used the product, despite years of social marketing.

The research team investigated options on how to change this. Their goal was to drive up the adoption rates of chlorine through any means possible. The investigation was conducted through a randomized control trial in which a large group of households were divided into five treatment arms:

  • Control group who could purchase WaterGuard in their communities;
  • Coupons for WaterGuard that removed the price barrier;
  • WaterGuard in their homes for free that removed the price and inconvenience barriers;
  • WaterGuard in their homes, with additional marketing message that removed the price, inconvenience, and forgetfulness barriers;
  • Chlorine distributed using a dispenser installed at their point of collection, removing cost, inconvenience and forgetfulness by providing a strong visual reminder and social incentive to use.

The results showed that the groups that received the chlorine for free at the point of collection had a six-fold increase in use over the control group. Critically, the dispenser group maintained the high adoption rate two years later, even when the novelty of the new product had worn off.

Three Generations of Dispensers

Three Generations of Dispensers

Only when we thoroughly understood the problem and identified the key barriers to use did we begin to design the dispenser hardware itself.

We knew it needed to be a. free, b. easy to use, c. located directly at the water source.  This informed our design. So rather than inventing a technology and building the market as so many social benefit projects do, our product was created out of a keen understanding of customer behavior, barriers, and demonstrated demand. The Dispensers for Safe Water program continues to innovate the product and supply chain design, and we do so though evidence-based decision making from solid evidence.

By removing the “product” from product design, we as innovators are forced to take a step back, and thoroughly examine the problem at hand. By remaining technologically and methodologically agnostic, we can gain critical insights into the problem and allow the evidence to drive the decisions. And this, in turn, allows us to take those insights and really target key drivers, so that when we do start the product design process, the resulting products are grounded in evidence and have a ready, demand-driven market.

Ashley Thomas is based in Nairobi and leads Evidence Action’s engineering, supply chain and innovations team. She has worked as a product designer in Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia and the US, and specializes in designing products and supply chains for large-scale dissemination in East Africa.

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