Let’s design our own solutions! Not FOR the community but WITH the community

By Monte Achenbach, Chief of Party, USAID Transform WASH

When we set out to transform the WASH sector in Ethiopia, I knew it would be a fascinating journey. But, our Transform WASH Design Summit, organized by PSI/Ethiopia and led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) D-Lab here in Hawassa, took us to an entirely new place.

This summit captures the true spirit of the USAID Transform WASH project, a 5-year activity designed to improve the performance of the local market in delivering affordable, quality WASH products and services to all Ethiopians. Why isn’t the market performing as well as it could be? Well, it’s the old chicken and egg conundrum. Demand is low, partly because there isn’t enough supply that meets consumers’ needs at affordable prices. And supply is low because there aren’t enough paying customers to earn suppliers a viable return. A solution has to solve challenges on both sides of the supply/demand equation and build local capacity to keep it going.

Enter the Design Summit and a particularly rich day. The whole idea behind the summit is that offerings in the market are too few, too expensive, and lack innovation to resolve challenges that exist in Ethiopian communities. So rather than simply accept what already exists, let’s design our own solutions! Not FOR community members but WITH them. This is called participatory innovation. How does it work? Bring together experienced design facilitators, representatives of the communities who have deep experience of their own, and get them to learn, design and build things together.

The D-Lab has honed its user-centred design approach into a well-developed process through which participants are facilitated to develop their own solutions to real-world problems. To build a strong foundation for doing this, participants need to practise basic building skills. On this day, we were in a large, well-stocked workshop offered to us by the Government of Ethiopia’s vocational school in Hawassa (an actual workshop for the workshop!).

Transform WASH Design Summit, organized by PSI/Ethiopia
Workshop participants working with tools

The products created in the day’s “Build Its” were simple but fantastic. D-Lab design facilitators and MIT students, specially selected for the Summit from a broad range of relevant backgrounds, organised their teams to create small wonders: a mobile phone charger, a water pump, a charcoal press, a corn sheller, and, most amazing for me, a microscope that works with a mobile phone! One of PSI’s T/WASH business development team members (all of whom helped design facilitators with Amharic translation and team leadership), commented that so many schools in the country lack microscopes, and with this design they could actually build their own.So who were all these people?

Well, to get the best results, the PSI team invited members of local communities who could bring practical thinking into the design mix: masons operating construction businesses; health extension workers, who communicate healthy behaviours to households; teachers and trainers from the Hawassa vocational school; and household members themselves. D-Lab leaders placed these participants into functional groups to design for areas of WASH that we had selected, after weeks of discussion, because they were ripe for innovation in Ethiopia: latrine super structures (the latrine building itself), hand washing, baby WASH, latrines for young children, and transportation of heavy WASH materials and products to rural areas.

Picture for yourself a typical workshop at which most participants are idle, taking notes or sitting back while others lecture or discuss…and few actually do anything. This session, called “Build It” was the polar opposite, and, in all my years working in development, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Every participant was working with a tool: a drill, a file, a saw, a glue gun, a ruler, a soldering iron, a vice.

They were filing and gluing together plastic pieces, measuring bolts and wood pieces, crimping and soldering wires, bending and cutting metal, drilling holes into wood, filing down plastic and metal tubes, placing and screwing down LED lights… creating objects that could actually serve useful purposes. Dust arose, sparks flew, hammering pounded, sawing screeched, and people demonstrated, discussed, and laughed. All of this was the first step toward designing and building their own prototypes based on their own ideas.

From here, we move to day 3 and the process of learning about community needs through observing, asking, and trying. Soon enough the teams will be crafting their own solutions and building prototypes, some of which will become successful products in the marketplace. These products will help customers lead healthier lives AND support a better living for those working in businesses all along the supply chain.

But what was the most remarkable, inspiring thing I observed this particular day? It was to see people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and walks of life, speaking many languages, working so closely and joyfully together to make things that worked and made them happy and proud. Represented in this group were Ethiopia, USA, India, Colombia, Brazil, Spain, and countless professions, ideas and experiences. At the end of it, though, Ethiopians will have the tools to carry this approach forward and continue to design for their own communities. This is what real sustainable development is all about.

At the end of the day, during our daily reflection, one of the masons raised his hand and said, emphatically, “We thank you for coming from so far to give us something so valuable.” It’s only just begun, and what is learned will stay, and it will travel.

Want to learn what happened next at the design summit? Check out Monte’s post about Day 2 here.

Sign up to
Receive Updates

Donate to
Support Our Work