To some, Madagascar can conjure fairytale images of unspoiled landscapes filled with characters from Dreamworks movies. A lot has changed in the 88 million years since the island broke away from the prehistoric African subcontinent. In recent decades the republic state has gone through several economic and political crises which has left Madagascar one of the poorest countries in the world. Approximately 69% of the population lives below the poverty line threshold of one dollar per day.
Today, the majority of the population live in cities creating unique challenges in maintaining essentials such as sanitation. Most communities in Madagascar have open street sewers and the country’s many lakes are the natural soakaway for this run-off and also the main source of water for washing, cooking and drinking. Water is a scarce resource that is collected and carried by hand from these lakes. Without a sewerage system, toilets are rare and often dump straight into the street sewers, with plastic bags forming a stopgap for many that get discarded on the street, or worse tossed into the lakes. All a bit grim, right?
This is the problem LooWatt are attempting to solve.
Their solution is a waterless toilet system that encapsulates the waste into a compact biodegradable plastic tube which is sealed shut after each use and contained with a barrel. This keeps the waste from contaminating the water supply and streets, whilst preserving the water carried for drinking and cooking.
When full, these barrels are collected and taken to a facility where they are processed into bio-gas electricity and compost. Collectors need to visit locations where full barrels need to be taken away and a empties installed, transporting the waste back to the processing facility. Streets are narrow dirt paths so collections are done by hand using push carts. This system of waste collection is where the software comes into play.
Previous attempts at such a system failed as the collectors had little incentive to always take the waste to the processing facilities on the edge of town – the waste would often get dumped enroute, so accountability was going to be a key factor. Efficiency of communication and organisation is the other benefit software can bring, ensuring smooth daily operation as the project scales, reducing the admin required and increasing the likelihood of adoption in new locations.
The solution was to use an SMS driven system for the toilet owners to notify LooWatt that a collection was required. This SMS is caught by the system, and based on the current capacity of the collection team put into a daily schedule for each collector, planning their working days to make use of the most efficient route. Collectors are paid for the day based on completing jobs in their planned schedule. Accountability is handled by use of QR codes – empty barrels, refills and toilet locations all have unique codes that must be scanned in order. Full barrels are weighed at the time of collection and the weight verified by treatment staff at the end of the day. The QR codes allow for checking into locations and tracking of inventory at each location, together they form a complete map of activity across the organisation that is required for compliance, recording efficiency and accountability.
One of many process flows from the team at Acrea
Working closely with the LooWatt team we created the UX and design for the mobile application that would be developed and used by collectors, waste management staff and shopkeepers selling refills. To design the backend infrastructure we involved our friends at Acrea in Zurich, who devised the data structure and flow of information required in the system to build a robust and scalable solution. Area also helped with the business logic, technical architecture and used their resources to get the MVP built and deployed. We worked closely with them on the concept to reach our final solution.
There were several interesting challenges with this project, some of which we had not encountered before;
- A largely illiterate user base.
- Mobile data was not prevalent.
- The cities are not well mapped and properties often do not have addresses.
- Limitations of a phonegap application that allowed a local web development resource to maintain the software.
- User base for testing were 5,600 km away.
Designing for an illiterate audience involved a heavy use of iconography and photography to clearly indicate what the next step in their workflow needed to be. Locations were largely identified with images the collector would use to ask for directions (extremely common in a place with few addresses) and build a working knowledge of the properties on their regular routes. Data needed to be synced when back at base, allowing a synchronisation of the app and server once returning to a wifi base station at the collection facility.
The today view we structured largely like a to do list a collector could work their way through. The app would sync on load when a connection was available and automatically provide the task list for the day in what the algorithm thought was the most efficient order.
The order is only suggestive and jobs could be done in any order as it a was apparent the situation changes once on the ground as collectors are flagged down and hailed in the street. Such lessons taught us not to overload the collectors with automated suggestions and allow for rollover into following days to grant the flexibility the situation demanded.
We couldn’t possibly design such an important application without verifying our design decision, and so once we had developed a wireframe prototype we sent our lead UX designer on the project to the community where the initial rollout would be taking place. There she was able to undertake research, user-interviews and test the prototype we had created.
We learned a lot from this experience and made adjustments to our ideas based on the results from the field. Mabel shadowed the collectors on their daily routine to understand their workflow today without the app, arming us with knowledge of how best to create the new experience without its introduction being overly disruptive. We loaded interactive prototypes into test devices and performed user testing sessions in the field.
Upon returning back to the UK and the team here we assessed the findings and set about iterating the concept based on what we had learned. The biggest changes were to the central today view and the steps involved to process a barrel exchange on location, something that needed greater instruction via the use of illustrations.
Upon making the updates we finalised the UI details, completed our prototype and got everything prepared for the build of the application front-end.
The app has been in use in Madagascar during preliminary tests and is already showing a marked improvement across all the project success metrics. We have a mid-term review to undertake and look forward to making optimisations based on data from longer term use. It’s been a great project to work on and the whole team both in the UK and Madagascar have been great clients to work with. It was a real privilege to work on a project that has the potential to have a marked impact on the lives of people in need – the feel-good factor amongst our team has been wonderful.
“Every Interaction’s input was invaluable in helping get our product to market and making it usable for the users on the ground. We got the MVP ready on time and budget and look forward to iterating the product as we learn.”
– Polly Gardiner, CEO
View the case study | Read more about LooWatt