We’ve all heard it before – more people in Africa have mobile phones than have access to sewerage (according to the 2017 Afrobarometer survey, at least).

It’s not that useful a comparison when you think about the difference in cost, installation and infrastructure requirements of a toilet compared to a mobile phone, but it’s still a revealing statistic about the ubiquity of mobile technology. So why not use these telecommunications networks in the effort to increase access to safe sanitation services?

Combining toilets and tech makes a lot of sense; that’s what organisations like Gather and mWater are doing, encouraging ‘the sector’ to breach data silos so that information about sanitation gaps is accessible for everyone and – crucially – usable. WSUP have used platforms like mWater for data collection for years, and more recently we’ve been working on ways to bring that kind of digital firepower to small-scale private companies who provide sanitation services in some of the cities where we work.

One of these projects produced a prototype mobile app called ‘Pula’; the result of bringing together designers, sanitation experts, business specialists and business owners in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia.

Pula was a response to common issues reported by business owners who offer mechanical emptying for tanks and toilets, like having to call their drivers multiple times to relay information about customers, and not knowing where their trucks were at any given moment. For small companies that operate on small margins, this kind of information could mean the difference between being a profitable enterprise or not.

The design process behind Pula was intensive and user-focused; the team followed the Design Sprint template developed by GV, so each proposed app feature responded to user requirements in a manner that they liked. Design Sprints were held in each of the four countries, resulting in a Minimum Viable Product that was then put through its paces in real-world tests with mechanical emptying companies in Maputo and Lusaka.

Practice note - Design, Prototype, Test: using Design Sprints to develop an app for sanitation service providers

These tests revealed that the MVP itself needs more work – fundamental issues with its core design and usability means that it will have to be retooled and retested before being rolled out to a wider audience.

Topic Brief - Integrating mobile tech into sanitation services: insights from Pula

We’ve learnt some lessons from the Pula project that will inform how we approach the integration of mobile tech in the future:

  • Design Sprints meant that timelines and budgets could be reduced without having to sacrifice repeat user input and testing.
  • While the Design Sprint process itself was a success, in retrospect just focusing on one city would have been better rather than trying to build an app based on insights from four different countries.
  • Within that one city, building a relationship with one company would have meant that the app could be tested consistently over much longer time frame.
  • Focus on one problem at a time – the Pula MVP eventually only had two main functionalities: an address book feature and a truck tracking feature. But even these were reported to be too complex by target users. Producing something that solves one problem is better than something that doesn’t quite solve multiple problems.

Sanitation business involved in this project remain interested in the idea of Pula and to make it work, a simpler version of the app will need to be developed that could better respond to their requirements.