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Excreta, Et Cetera II

December 19, 2010

Earlier this year I wrote about research exploring sanitation in low-income urban India that I had been involved in as an external consultant. Playfully dubbed The Potty Project, the study by Quicksand has pursued a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to existing modes of sanitation in a variety of selected slums across India. Lately they’ve been posting their key takeaways from the investigation which have provided some of the comprehensive insights featured below.

Pointing to the different norms around cleanliness inside and outside the home. Noting that provision of clear identity around who owns sanitation facilities is likely to drive more responsible use. Read more.

Highlighting the failure of toilet facilities to account for issues like menstrual waste and adolescent sensitivities. Read more.

Calling attention to the factions which may exist within a community that need to be considered in inclusive mobilising of residents around improvements. Read more.

Discussing how breaking up various tasks around sanitation allows for social interaction which diminishes the sense of delay. Read more.

Noting that users of shared facilities passively co-create behaviours which are established together over time. Read more.

Cross-pollination of The Potty Project insights on OpenIDEO

An aspect of the project which I particularly applaud has been the open sharing of research findings as they unfolded. Co-researcher and social media manager Kassia Karr, who joined Quicksand from Boston, notes that blog posts and tweets extended the reach of observations and created new connections for the team. Senior colleague, Ayush Chauhan, adds that “these channels have been a great way to communicate, in real time, with an extremely diverse community – client, peers and related practitioners – spread across the globe. It’s also been affirming that the findings have found their way into other forums not related directly with the project but in the larger domain of sanitation discussion and have provided inspiration in those contexts.”

A further aspect I commend on the project has been the approach of working visually.

“The interpretive nature of language is often a handicap when the real information lies in the texture of observations and the nuances of behavior – both hard to capture in the written word. Good research must have the power to inspire as much as it has the mandate to inform and that’s where capturing experiences of people through visual narratives – film, photography, illustrated scenarios – opens doors for people to interpret information and bring to bear their own experience and understanding of the context.

There are three areas where visual storytelling brings value to our projects:

+ With clients who are often removed from the context, understanding user issues through the immediacy of films & photography is both informative and unambiguous. Also allowing for wider participation in the process of translating research insights into action.
+ With users especially from an unlettered or a vernacular context, visuals help researchers focus the interactions on issues that may otherwise be hard to articulate
+ As design researchers, telling a story through illustrations and scenarios is more effective in communicating key ideas and abstract concepts that don’t have a precedent.

– Ayush Chauhan, Project Lead and Quicksand Co-founder

Quicksand are committed to extending the reach of design-based approaches and with their close partners Co-Design are presenting the UnBox Festival in New Delhi, February 2011. The main event is across three days of ideas, stories, spectacles and exchange to build momentum around design thinking and inter-disciplinary collaborations. The festival will bring together designers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, activists, educators, artists and others interested in social and cultural change. UnBox intends to work and play across contexts and mediums – workshops, debates, brainstorms, picnics, literary readings and travel. “Together, we’ll rethink and stretch design practice through imagination, provocation and stimulation.” I’m certainly looking forward to joining them there.

Related posts:
Excreta, Et Cetera I
Sanitation, Simplicity & Storytelling


Earlier this month on a fleeting visit to Kenya for Nokia’s Open Innovation Africa Summit I met an array of innovative folk like venture catalyst Emeka Okafor, Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman and mobile novelist Steve Vosloo. But the most interesting person I met during the trip happened to be after the summit was over, when I went on an early morning foray in search of entrepreneurial activity in the slums of Nairobi. I came across Festus Ambche, 38, tending a flourishing half acre plot of edible produce at Mathare.

Festus arrived in Mathare from a family of farmers and saw the opportunity to put his agricultural knowledge to use. He rents his plot from the local council and sells his large variety of produce in the neighbouring slum – direct to residents and also at the local market. He’s also been experimenting with sack gardening and, noting it’s relevance for the cramped conditions of Mathare, has been sharing his learnings with others.

Sack gardening became increasingly popular during the post-election violence in 2007/08 when food prices rose by up to 50% and access from volatile sites like Mathare to regular food sources became a challenge. A number of non-profit groups, school and self-help organisations began to promote the efficient, low-maintenance and low-cost sack gardens as a way of enhancing food security. Spinach, kale, chard, peppers, spring onions and tomatoes could be grown with relative ease for household use. Some families began selling their surplus harvest to neighbours while others grouped together to create micro-enterprises around their collective crops, including nurseries to supply the growing flock of Nairobi’s sack gardeners with seedlings.

What started as a way of improving food security has blossomed into a number of entrepreneurial ventures, driving an increased demand for fresh, local produce. Folks I met seemed proud of the independence that their doorstep gardens could provide. Many residents are rural migrants with roots in farming and are rekindling agricultural knowledge they had left behind, via their sack based micro-farms. Meanwhile, for Festus, business is booming – with the community showing more interest in what can be grown closer to home and from trusted sources.
Related posts:
Women Together: Incentivising Savings
Mobile Enterprise

Kibera’s Garden in a Sack: Urban Agriculture Magazine (500KB, PDF)

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Excreta, Et Cetera I

September 13, 2010

I was recently invited to participate as an external advisor, from here in New Zealand, on an extensive research project currently being conducted in India. The exploration is focused on sanitation in low-income urban India and has been dubbed The Potty Project.
The study entails a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to existing modes of sanitation in a variety of selected slums across India. This is expected to highlight specific opportunities for innovation which might include business model, design, technology and/or communication interventions.

The comprehensive research endeavor is being conducted by the dynamic bunch over at the multidisciplinary Delhi-based innovation consultancy Quicksand. Their focus on user-centered design principles has attracted assignments from Google, IDEO, and the United Nations Development Programme. They’re big on participatory methods and the use of visual aids for research. And best of all for me (being so far way from the action) they are smooth users of Tumblr, Vimeo, Flickr and Twitter – to share images, video, methodological musings, interim analysis and anecdotal interludes – both from the field and back in the office. Much of this flows through The Potty Project blog and occasionally we talk more detailed sh*t (literally) between the Quicksand team and various global advisors via Skype. I get the short straw being out on a limb in terms of time zones – sorry guys if I get incoherent by 4am in the morning!

While rigorous research is being done to summarise the key impact parameters, sanitation spectrum and slum topologies – as always there are some peripheral wee gems that are observed along the way. The images above highlight an informal solution for soap dispensing.

Quicksand’s services span research, film-making, product development, exhibition/experience design, education and beyond – but here’s a quick taste from a couple of their other projects in the sanitation sector:

User Experience Research
for Safe Water Strategies in Base of the Pyramid Markets.

The Ripple Effect Film. Quicksand’s documentation became an important medium for IDEO and Acumen Fund to demonstrate the value of design thinking in driving issues pertaining to social development and impact.

Related posts:
Women Together: Incentivising Savings
Disrupting Urination Norms

[All images via Quicksand and The Potty Project]


Late last year I was researching at Mumbai’s extensive Dharavi slum – investigating residents’ management of irregular and unpredictable incomes as part of a global study co-ordinated by Niti Bhan of the Helsinki School of Economics. Some of my field observations and musings were posted on our research blog but as it has now been closed I thought I’d feature one of them here – relating to the merits of local micro-savings schemes.

Prema Salgaonkar (above) has been working with Mahila Milan for over 20 years and now heads a group of local facilitators of a daily savings scheme for Dharavi residents. Mahila Milan means “women together” and provides a vehicle for the empowerment of women via leadership roles and advocacy alongside its pivotal daily savings collection. Prema visits around 450 households each day, of which a third will deposit anything between Rs 5 to 200, with almost all households banking something each week. Such an initiative is ideally suited to the irregular nature of earnings at the base of the pyramid which we have been widely discussing during our research.
The deposits from a number of collectives are formally banked but rather than paying interest Mahila Milan provides community and emergency support in a transparent manner. For many, without this daily visit which both incentivises and protects savings, surplus cash would not even be conceived of – let alone put aside. Savings are readily accessible and members of the scheme can apply for credit if required – though this takes a distant back seat to focus on savings. When loans are requested the local Mahila Milan leaders will assess the need and ability to repay, possibly consulting with neighbours as to the borrower’s situation. Repayment terms are negotiated on a case-by-case basis around the borrower’s earning patterns, with consideration given to the maintenance of some savings alongside repayments. Loans –usually for up to Rs 500 at 2% interest – have helped with school fees, medical bills, home improvements and entrepreneurial start-ups from tailoring services to coconut vending.
Beginning in Mumbai in the eighties, initially Mahila Milan had many more illiterate members and developed a system whereby coloured squares of paper would be exchanged for deposits and kept by the saving member in a plastic bag: red for one rupee, yellow for two, green for five and so on. This way members could always check how much money they had access to and plan accordingly. Now this system has been largely disbanded and replaced with passbooks which members were proud to show us and explain the context of various peaks in savings and withdrawal. Currently Mahila Milan constitutes a networked federation of nationwide woman’s collectives encompassing 60, 000 women.
The system is not just about collecting money but also about daily contact which deepens the understanding of various issues facing Dharavi residents. Contributing to a consensus of community priorities, this information is often passed on to other support groups in the area such as the local community council (panchayat) plus used to inform a number of Mahila Milan initiatives. One of our informants (above) who used the scheme conveyed that even on the days when she has nothing to deposit that its was reassuring to be visited by a trusted outsider with sound financial knowledge and that she sometimes used the opportunity to discuss issues such as how rising food prices were affecting those beyond her own neighbourhood. She notes that watching her savings grow has allowed her to start imagining and planning a better future for her family – with her mother and sister also active members in the scheme. 

We were told of numerous success stories like the woman who saved towards buying a second-hand sewing machine which allowed her daughter to leave a gruelling job at a local garment factory to start her own now-flourishing dressmaking business. Another woman with six children and an alcoholic husband saved Rs 5-10 a day till she had Rs 5000 with which she bought a machine to process heavy duty plastic for recycling and now boasts a much higher standard of living for herself and her family. Others access their savings on a short term basis to counter income fluctuations – still signalling a heightened life standard. And significantly most continue with their savings schemes while servicing their loans. 

Micro-credit has been commanding a fair amount of attention surrounding poverty alleviation of late – including voices of caution as have featured in our research discussion. Mahila Milan seeks to strengthen financial assets primarily through savings-led services with micro-loans being offered as a secondary and complimentary service. Last year’s brief article Putting the Microsavings in Microfinance from the New York Times makes the highly relevant point that “only some poor people will benefit from the chance to borrow, but almost all will benefit from the chance to save.”

Related articles:
Dharavi Research Image Selection (Flickr)
Mobile Enterprise + Mobile Phone

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Mobile Enterprise

March 2, 2010

Back here in New Zealand I’ve just been taking my kitchen cupboards apart trying to find a small fitting that seems to have dislodged itself from my pressure cooker – rendering it redundant. Has left me pining for the roving repair-men of India whom I know could sort out my conundrum in a flash.
Come to think of it I’d also like it if these guys graced my neighbourhood with their presence sometime soon as I have an imminent guest so would like an extra pillow and my vaccum cleaner’s been playing up so I just need a cheap broom to get me through to when I manage to have it fixed.
And the gas bottle needs changing soon so would be good if I could SMS this pair to drop by and sort things out. Plus with all the great tomatoes in season I need my knives sharpened so would be timely if the other dude rolled up round now as well.
India’s micro-entrepreneurs contribute to a culture of distribution which is liberated from fixed locations playing a vital role in conveniently providing items of regular consumption at relatively affordable prices. Not limited to informal enterprise, such delivery networks are also utilised by corporates from utility providers to Coca Cola – encompassing both motorised and non-motorised options to service challenging locations from densely populated urban neighbourhoods to rural villages.

Mumbai entrepreneur Deepa Krishnan (who oriented me for my recent Dharavi ethnographic research) comments:

“… Indian consumers are probably the most demanding in the world. We want – no, we insist – on superior service, tailored to our needs, at little or no cost. This of course, is a daunting prospect for anyone supplying anything to the Indian market. But sellers who can understand this mindset and who can tailor their products and services to it, are the ones who will succeed and thrive.”

My buddies over at Box Design + Research in Delhi partnered with John Thackara a while back to compile a rich-media archive of bicycle dependent commerce: Velowala – for the Biennial of International Design at Saint Etienne. [Illustration by Tenzing Dakpa] Alongside a diverse collection of examples they comment:

“The interesting thing about being on a bicycle is that it immediately frees you as an entrepreneur from the shackles of immovable real estate. Velocommerce is all about the mobility of property, and it challenges notions of ownership and private capital.
It is special because it exists at the intersection of entrepreneurship, mobility, sustainability, grassroots innovation, cultures, local economies and decentralized,
last-mile service delivery.”

In the not-for-profit realm Worldbike highlight how bikes can transform lives – connecting the poor to markets, schools and clinics via their Mobility for Good mantra. Of particular interest is their project at the Kibera slum in Nairobi to develop bike-based technologies and business models that empower local entrepreneurs to earn a living while simultaneously helping address the local garbage problem. Partnering with UN Habitat and local support groups they are devising a system to collect and transport waste from individual dwellings to central deposit sites, where it can be sorted for recycling and disposal. Elsewhere ColaLife proposes that Coca Cola open their distribution channels to transport compact ‘aidpods’ containing items like water purification tablets and oral rehydration salts. Through piggy-backing on Coke’s extensive mobile networks in less affluent countries, ColaLife would aim to contribute to a reduction in infant mortality, improve maternal health and combat prevalent disease. [Images via Worldbike + ColaLife]
But of course there are ways of impacting issues of poverty via commercial endeavors too. Indian industrial heavyweights Godrej look set to use mobile enterprise networks to reach their customers at the base of the pyramid with their affordable, compact refrigerator. Others entering this space of for-profit solutions aimed at meeting needs of the economically challenged are Tata with their Swach water filter and the French multi-national Schneider with its domestic lighting systems under the In-Diya brand. Given that these companies will need to consider the entire product ecosystem in ensuring access to goods, fittings and service of their offerings – one would imagine they will all be including mobile enterprise in their supply chains to reach customers in both dense and dispersed locations. [Image credit: Outlook – India’s New Retailers]
You can check out more images on my Mobile Enterprise set on Flickr. Meanwhile back at home… I’m looking for a new craft project that gets me off the computer – maybe a visit from this guy could help?

Related articles:
Mobile Enterprise + Mobile Phone
Mumbai’s Pavement Purveyors (CNN)


Indian Grassroots Innovation

February 21, 2010

A quick spot of cross-posting from my recent interview with Anil Gupta which featured on Design Observer this week.
Anil Gupta serves as senior faculty at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A) from where he champions the recognition, respect and reward of those who are knowledge-rich yet economically poor.

Alongside consulting global development agencies he formed the Honey Bee Network in the late eighties which nurtures and cross-pollinates grassroots knowledge, creativity and innovation. Via various platforms stemming from the network – scouting, documentation, validation and dissemination of innovations are pursued while seeking to catalyse knowledge into feasible products and sustainable enterprises.

Meena Kadri
How would you describe your mission across your many initiatives?

Anil Gupta
To enhance the inherent creativity of grassroots innovators, inventors and eco-preneurs while exploring a new paradigm for poverty alleviation that celebrates inclusive development. We focus on devising a knowledge network from village to government level while overcoming the constraints posed by language, literacy and locality. We also facilitate the documentation and cross-pollination of traditional knowledge across India.

Meena Kadri
How do you see these endeavors playing a role in reducing poverty?

Anil Gupta
Most models of development are centered on what the poor don’t have rather than what they have. Some position the poor at the bottom of the economic pyramid, but this does not equate to a lack of knowledge, values and social networks. I prefer to see the poor as a provider than a market — with their limited material resources driving knowledge-intensive, informal innovation. Through providing incubation and development support, patent and intellectual-property-rights assistance, marketing advice and microventure funding, we seek to support the creativity that already exists at the grassroots.

Read the complete interview at Design Observer.
Mitti Cool cookware by Mansukhbhai Prajapati, from Gujarat
Gas-powered iron by K Linga Brahman, from Andra Pradesh
Pressure-cooker coffee maker by Mohammed Rozadeen, from Bihar

Related posts:
Mumbai Markings Enhance Service Design
Mumbai’s Pavement Purveyors (CNN)


One can find ample instances of mobile phones enhancing the lives of those on low and unpredictable incomes at the base of the pyramid across the world. Today I came across a small yet active example of the advantage of mobile connectivity in the context of my current research endeavors at Dharavi in Mumbai.

Jan Mohammed runs a knife-selling and knife-sharpening enterprise, which he operates from his bicycle, to service the Dharavi-Mahim-Sion area. He conducts business by going door to door in these neighbourhoods and often parks up in one of the busy marketplaces during evenings. Since buying a second-hand mobile phone he has been able to attract the business of local restaurants and caterers who provide bulk sharpening work and have become regular clients via the accessibility his phone assures.

The aspect he likes best about his phone is the prepaid payment method. Having a wife and five children back at his village in Uttar Pradesh means that he makes frequent calls home – but when he is low on money and hasn’t topped up his phonecard he can still receive calls ensuring business. In fact he had just last week paid to replace his knife-sharpening grinder so had no money left for phone credit, yet was still able to receive a lucrative call from a wedding caterer to sharpen 75 knives.
Knife-wallas elsewhere in Dharavi who conduct business without mobile phones.

Related articles:
Pavement Purveyors (Flickr)

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What do laundry and lunch delivery have to do with my favoured intersection of communication, culture and creativity? Well, in the case of Mumbai’s Dabbawallas and Dhobi Ghats – quite a lot. Via their respective coding systems, both enterprises are able to track items within their service chain to ensure accurate delivery.
The Dabbawalla service entails collection of freshly prepared meals from the residences of suburban office workers from vast reaches of the city, delivery to their workplaces and the return of empty lunch boxes (dabba or tiffin) to its original home – all for a reasonable monthly fee. Delivering over 200,000 lunch boxes each day to workers who have diverse eating habits (often governed by religion) requires an accurate system – especially as each lunch box commonly passes through the hands of at least six men, in quick exchange, on its path from home to office and back again. Most tiffins are collected by bicycle, sorted into destination groups, then carried together on trains and cycled to the offices of their respective customers. In between they are commonly carried on hand pushed carts and large head-balanced trays – all while jostling with chaotic Mumbai rail and road traffic.
With low literacy being an issue for some of the 5000 dabbawallas, they have devised a coding system using colour, symbols, numbers and a few letters which is painted on the lids of the tiffins to indicate the train lines, hub points and destinations at both ends of the delivery cycle. Each part of the marking can be understood by the relevant dabbawalla as the lunch box exchanges hands through the service chain. In the case that a lunch box gets on the wrong path, the code allows it to be set back on the right track – yielding only one mistake per 6 million deliveries according to economic analysis.
The Dabbawalla’s have been operating for over a century and the business continues to grow at a rate of 5-10% per year. When I asked about the effects of the economic downturn I was told with a smile that “the stomach knows no recession.” Their innovative localised system has been studied by business schools worldwide and covered by international media including the New York Times. As a brand strategist I also note an additional factor that contributes to their iconic status in the city: the dabbawalla’s signature Gandhi cap. This further serves as a recognition device between workers at busy exchange points and failure to wear one attracts a fine from their registered co-operative association.
The Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat is the world’s largest outdoor laundry which processes three quarters of a million items daily from households, hospitals, hotels and schools.
With articles to be washed, dried, starched and pressed coming from distant neighbour-
hoods to this central location – they have also developed a coding system to track and assure accurate return. Many customers dispatch their laundry to local hubs which send in bulk orders to Mahalaxmi. Each laundry hub attaches their articles with a scrap of cloth bearing a code penned in indelible ink – indicating the short-form name of their hub and their total number of articles over the recorded individual item number.
Workers in both systems are proud of the value that their services provide to the megacity. Together they exemplify the virtues of bottom-up innovation and entrepreneurship at play in this densely populated urban centre. Most dhobis and dabbawallas are migrants to the city – but in the words of 65 year old dhobi walla, Jan Mohammed [pictured above]: “There’s no city like Mumbai.”

Related links:
You can see and read more on my Flickr sets of Dabbawallas and the Dhobi Ghats
and I have upcoming pieces on both services being broadcast on Radio New Zealand.


Tuned In

November 29, 2009

I was scoping out Dharavi yesterday for upcoming ethnographic research and came across this pair sharing headphones to catch the India/Sri Lanka cricket match via a mobile phone. The aspiration value of this part-shared, part-private use of a cellphone feature was evident – as onlookers could sense the excitement they were missing, through following the men’s expressions as the game progressed.

Check out images over upcoming weeks on my Dharavi Flickr set.
[Research updates were previously posted on the the now defunct Prepaid Economy blog]


Scarcity Sustaining

August 25, 2009

I’ve been throwing in the odd post to the recently launched REculture blog which explores the informal post-consumption economies of repair, repurpose, recycling and reuse at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP).

“Recycling has an entirely different meaning in the informal economy at the base of the social and economic pyramid across the developing world. Repair, reuse, repurpose and resale of products and packaging forms the basis of numerous small time businesses and services, creating a REculture that sees the potential for innovation and creativity where we might see waste.” – Niti Bhan

The REculture blog was launched by the globally prolific Niti Bhan of Emerging Futures Lab – a multidisciplinary research and consulting team focused on understanding the people at the base of the pyramid in order to improve the success rate of new ventures, products and services across the developing world.

A snippet on REculture from my end:

Advertising Ahmedabadi-style

A Ravivar Bazaar (Sunday Market) is held weekly on the edge of the Sabarmati River which runs through Ahmedabad. Noteworthy is the large tool trader stall which offers re-circulated goods for second-generation consumption. A micro-enterprise that fuels others to repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle.

The stall’s innovation is that by displaying it’s vast array of goods below the busy Ellis Bridge, it acts as a giant self-promoting ground-level billboard for itself. While corporates pay top dollar for hoarding space above street level – BoP entrepreneurs leverage opportune visibility below.

Keep an eye on REculture to shine a light on scarcity being as much of a driver of innovation as the numerous examples we see of abundance being the accelerator elsewhere.