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Impact Highlights

Design Team

4 designers


Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), Unilever, Global Alliance for Improve Nutrition (GAIN), Aqua for All


8 Weeks


Nairobi, Kenya


Designing a Scalable Water and Hygiene Business

In recent years, Nairobi, Kenya has become an exciting hub for technology and entrepreneurship, with high-speed Internet connectivity linking the city to a global innovation network. However, Nairobi is not immune to the challenges that so many developing countries share. In Kenya, only 61 percent of people have access to clean drinking water; 84 percent of preschool-aged children are vitamin A-deficient; and diarrheal diseases are among the top 10 causes of morbidity and mortality.

Though numerous organizations are working to combat these crises, solutions are often siloed, inefficient, and unsustainable., along with partners WSUP, GAIN, Aqua for All, and Unilever, saw an opportunity to create a social enterprise that would improve access to clean water, personal care products, and health education.


After an intensive prototyping period on the ground in Nairobi, the team launched SmartLife, a scalable retail business and brand that offer clean water and health and hygiene products. SmartLife is now running successfully in several sites around the city.



In an eight-week sprint of rapid iteration and real-time customer feedback, the design team hit the ground running on its trip to Nairobi. The accelerated timeline necessitated a fascinating flip of how we typically run our design projects. Instead of synthesizing its ideas and developing solutions after a trip to the field, the team leaned on its existing knowledge of the problems facing Nairobi’s poor and then dreamed up a handful of entrepreneurial ideas that they could get into the hands of low-income Kenyans to test.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, they came up with three business concepts that they could prototype on the ground. One idea was Live Well, a dummy brand with a logo and brand collateral that could be used to set up a business prototype on arrival in Kenya.


In Nairobi, the team rented an apartment rather than hotel rooms in order to have a full workshop for building and prototyping. Half of the team went into the field to conduct interviews and other research, talking to locals about their water and health needs, market value, and seasonal variations. The other half quickly pulled together their prototype business, and with the help of a translator, they launched a one-day test run.

The team had hired a local kiosk vendor and cart operator to wear branded apparel and sell water in jerry cans that had been adorned with Live Well stickers. They sent their translator around as a door-to-door salesperson, selling hygiene products and talking to people about health and sanitation. The translator came back with key learnings that would help inspire a subsequent version of the business. “It was completely chaotic but fertile with learning experience,” recalls project lead Robin Bigio. After half a day, the team already learned enough to prepare the next rev of Live Well.

Among the challenges, they realized water needed to be ordered ahead to reduce the physical demand of transporting unsold cans and to enable optimization of the delivery route. On the positive side, the team found that the strong branding instantly inspired trust. Nobody questioned that it was good water and multiple customer touch points and physical, stable sites gave Live Well credibility.

Three days later, the team launched the next version of the business in a new location across town, changing the name from Live Well to SmartLife. This time customers actually placed orders at a kiosk and made a down payment for water delivery. “People were willing to give money up front for service that would come the next day, which is unheard of in Kenya,” says Bigio, “We discovered that there was an aspirational side to this business. People were excited about having a great source of drinking water.”

When the market testing was complete, the team visited each of the customers who’d paid ahead to let them know that the business did not yet exist, but that it was coming soon. They refunded the down payments and gave out cans of clean water for their participation.


Upon returning to San Francisco, the team worked on revising the brand and business model to account for logistical factors such as how much water could be processed and transported, how much space it would require, pricing strategies, retail design, and educational materials. Working at a breakneck pace, the team delivered a comprehensive design concept to its partners, along with strategies, brands, and business models. Six months later, the first SmartLife store opened in Nairobi.

Method Spotlight

Integrate Feedback and Iterate

Let the feedback of the people you’re designing for guide the next iteration of your solution.

It’s one thing to iterate in an office or studio, but another thing altogether to iterate in the field. Remarkable agility was required to create several versions of the SmartLife brand in a span of a ten-day visit to Nairobi. The team was fortunate to engage locals who helped realize the vision quickly, taking on sales and distribution roles and aiding in brand visibility.

It wasn’t all perfectly smooth. On the first day of prototyping, the team got up early, went to the central market, and it became mayhem. The guy selling the water cans got shy and ran off; the police said we required a seller’s license; and people didn’t trust the door-to-door salesperson. But each of these hurdles produced a learning that informed the next iteration of the concept.

By the time the team wrapped up their visit, the versioning process had led them to a well-defined business plan and, most importantly, had helped them establish trust from the market they would be serving. When SmartLife went live later in the year, much of the turbulence of the startup had passed.