“You’re going to Kenya to design a water bottle?”
I heard this incredulity expressed a hundred different ways from friends and family as we prepared for our research trip this summer. And sometimes the follow up question - "Can't you design something from here?"
When John from H2OpenDoors suggested that a water bottle would be a useful addition to the SunSpring water system in Kenya, I knew we needed to invite the community into the design process.
The best thing about H2OpenDoors is the way they maintain empowerment as a foundation of their work. Everything they do is about putting resources and capabilities in peoples hands so they can change their own circumstances for the long term. It's not about a temporary fix or a bandaid. It's about opening the door for new opportunity.
Good product design must be similarly community-driven. The design process is a powerful problem-solving tool, but to create positive change, you must create room for individuals to guide their own solutions.
On this clean water project, that means spending the time to figure out how our skills and resources can be best used to help further the mission. It means understanding what material, what capacity, and what carrying solution make the most sense, so what-ever product we make doesn't end up useless or frustrating, tossed aside as one more piece of garbage. It means being sure that a water bottle is the right product first place and being ready to change directions in case we learn that it's not.
To best fulfill H2OpenDoors mission to 'create dignity and self-reliance,' we must treat this community with the thoughtfulness and respect that we would any customer, not a destination for cast-offs or excess inventory. And so - we went to Kenya for a design project.
Women’s Empowerment in the Maasai Mara
When I think of Ello as a company, it’s always been a place that embraces and celebrates women. More than 60% of our team is women, each one of us bringing creative ideas and a unique perspective which in return continues to help the company thrive.
As we began to learn more about H2OpenDoors, our charity partner, we were amazed by everything they are doing to help communities around the world. Once they began explaining the details of their upcoming project in the Maasai Mara and how it would have an additional element of implementing women empowerment, we knew this was something we wanted to be a part of.
This particular water enterprise will be run by a women’s council, something that had never been done before in the community. The council is led by a woman named Mary, who has become a standout figure in the education system in the Maasai Mara. Aside from being a teacher, she has dedicated her time to training local women in new skills that can help support their families outside of the domestic household. Mary hand selected a group of women from the village for the women's council, who she felt confident would be able to propel the new water business forward. The majority of the group has never held a job outside of the home, but are eager to take on the challenge.
As someone who loves to see women thrive, it was incredible to be able to experience their first day of training at the new site. Sometimes we take for granted the privileges we have in our own country, whether it's our access to education or our ability to pursue careers that interest us. Many women around the world will never be able to experience that freedom. Which is why being on site while these women were learning how to run and maintain the system was such a special moment and I'm so honored I was able to be a part of that journey.
It's incredible how much plastic washes ashore on the Kenyan coast. Cleaning up bottles and bags is a daily activity that requires full time attention by people not even responsible for creating the problem. One morning while we were there, over a 2,000 pounds of plastic was removed from the beach!
Not only is the magnitude of incoming plastic surprising, the government doesn't provide an outlet for recycling the waste which leaves few options for disposal. Although there are creative uses like building materials using this plastic (show picture of Umra’s wall?), much of it is stored in unsightly piles around town or burned. These blazing plastic mounds were a shocking scene for us Chicagoans because the practice is prohibited in most of the U.S. as it's known to release dangerous chemicals which cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems, and they’re potentially carcinogenic.
There is hope, however, if Kenyans can build on the momentum of the recent successful plastic bag ban and create limitations on the manufacture and use of disposable plastic bottles. The income gap typically creates a polarity on government policy proposals but people across the board have embraced the bag ban and its positive effects. There’s much work to be done but the passion and power of the local people we met made it clear that improvement is inevitable. Our involvement there surely was an incremental step in the right direction and both sides of the partnership feel more inspired than ever.