Pots with Purpose – 2016 Acara Fellows
*This piece was written by Johanna Christner, a 2016 Acara Fellow. Here she reflects on her time piloting Pots with Purpose*
Pots with Purpose began as a class project for a Grand Challenge Course at the University of Minnesota, was further developed for the Acara Challenge, and eventually became a recipient of an Acara Innovation Fellowship. Pots with Purpose was developed by a team of undergraduate students and carried forward by members of the original group: Ben Schram and Johanna Christner.
Our proposed solution was to train female consultants in the community of Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum, about the importance of clean drinking water and proper hygiene, and have them act as educators and salespeople. Modeled after the Mary Kay and Avon business model, in our venture’s direct sales model the consultant would work on a one-to-one basis with the matrons of each household, educating about the importance of safe drinking water and proper hygiene. The products for sale — modified clay pots, bleach solutions, and small refillable bottles of hand sanitizer — would aid in the household water treatment and hygiene practices. The clay pots are modified with a narrow neck and opening to decrease the chances of contamination; the bleach solution sanitizes water by killing disease causing pathogens; and the hand sanitizer decreases the spread of pathogens from people’s hands.
Because our venture was developed in a classroom in Minnesota, we knew we needed to obtain first-hand experience of the situation and the community we were hoping to work in. After being awarded the Acara Innovation Fellowship, we started to plan our one month trip to Nairobi, Kenya to study the water, hygiene, and sanitation context of the urban slums. With the help of our faculty advisors, the Acara team, and the support of our donors, we were able to send one of our team members, Johanna, to Kenya in July 2016.
During this planning stage, we were on different sides of the world — Ben in Minnesota and Johanna studying abroad in India — and we discovered the many difficulties of working on such a project internationally and on a purely remote-basis. Despite internet and communication issues, we were able to schedule meetings and tasks and succeed in planning the trip.
While she was there, Johanna met with many organizations working in the realm of water, hygiene, and sanitation in the slums of Nairobi. Through these partnerships, she was able to learn about current efforts to encourage water treatment and proper hygiene practices. In addition to talking with organizations, Johanna was also able to conduct several interviews with residents, teachers, and school-children in the slums of Kibera and Dagoretti.
While at times this venture in Kenya was frustrating, we learned to persist and adapt our study to the realities we were confronted with. We also learned that assuming we could design a project for Kibera as a whole was flawed as there are 9 different villages, each with different existing projects and unique community needs.
While we are re-evaluating our venture, we have decided to take a pause from moving forward with Pots with Purpose. Our findings from our month in Kenya showed us our initial proposal would not have worked, but that doesn’t mean that our experience with Pots with Purpose was meaningless. We learned the importance of flexibility and adaptability when doing research, and that, especially when working in a foreign country or a different culture, it is perhaps the most invaluable skill to have. There were many times we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory, being frustrated and uncertain about our project. However, the ability to persevere and be flexible allowed us to see more of the facets of the problem than we would have otherwise. If we could give any advice to fellow entrepreneurs, we would encourage building a network and continually evaluating. It’s important to constantly examine your venture to make sure it is the most beneficial and effective solution to whatever problem you are seeking to solve. Also, especially to those who are seeking to work on issues in foreign countries or in unfamiliar communities, make use of the locals. You will never truly know the situation of another community, so the people of that community are invaluable resources. Often people know what their own problems are and must be involved in every step of the creation of a solution in order to be truly sustainable.
This experience has been invaluable for us. We have made numerous connections and have learned much more about public health initiatives and projects than we otherwise would have as undergraduate students. We are extremely grateful to Acara and our donors for providing us with the opportunity to explore this venture and to develop ourselves and our careers.