Resilient entrepreneurs find success by getting in their customer's shoes
The entrepreneurs I know are a superhuman bunch. They get up early and they stay up late, always working. They are focused and determined. And when they hit a speed bump, they put their heads down and power through. They’re unstoppable.
But being unstoppable has its downsides. Sometimes entrepreneurs are so determined to just keep pushing that they miss the signs that it’s not really working. The most successful organizations recognize this trap, and they set up trip wires to snap themselves out of it.
Evidence Action’s Dispensers for Safe Water project demonstrates this smart habit. Here are ways they navigated their own speed bumps on their path to scale:
A Big Problem
Gaps in sanitation and drinking water services are large throughout Uganda. Only 39 percent of Ugandans have access to a basic water supply, while 19 percent have access to basic sanitation and 2.4 million Ugandans practice open defecation. As a result, many people, especially young children, die from diarrheal diseases like cholera. One of the best solutions is simply adding chlorine to the drinking water. Chlorine kills nearly all harmful bacteria when added to drinking water. This sounds easy enough, but in practice, it can be hard to get the chlorine into the right hands, at the right time, and ensure people use it every time. Chlorine is not durable and expires quickly. When added to drinking water in too high a quantity, it can cause drinking water to have an undesirable taste and smell. Chlorine also doesn’t prevent recontamination.
A Good Solution
To solve this problem, Innovations for Poverty Action and Evidence Action developed Dispensers for Safe Water and deployed dispensers in Uganda, after seeing strong results in Kenya. The dispenser is a simple invention – a blue plastic bucket on a stand with a valve that dispenses 3ml or about half a teaspoon of chlorine. That’s the exact dose needed to treat the ubiquitous, 20-liter jerrycans people use to carry water.
Evidence Action placed these dispensers at the boreholes where people collect water and trained community promoters to remind people to use them. In the pilot, the number of diarrheal cases dropped by about half,; and other health ailments were, better contained. Evidence Action’s first randomized control trial was a success: 50% of the households in the treatment group chlorinated their water for three years. In short, the dispensers worked and communities had built a solid habit of using them.
Getting the Funding
Widely available chlorine meant that families no longer needed to boil their water to make it safe to drink. That reduced deforestation and carbon emissions. And it meant that the communities that Evidence Action served could generate carbon credits to pay for the dispensers and keep the chlorine flowing. But with the significant decline in the pricing of the carbon credit market it meant that they had to again iterate on their model and seek other financing solutions.
With a promising innovation and 1,000 dispensers installed, Evidence Action won a $2 million scaling grant from USAID’s Global Development Lab and the Skoll Foundation. The team set an ambitious goal of 10,000 dispensers in Uganda and got to work.
The Big Question
As the project grew, something strange happened. When staffers took water samples from random households, they found that their adoption rates were tanking. This was an important trip wire, and the team at Evidence Action was forced to pause and rethink.
Should they push forward and hope their adoption rates would perk up again? After all, they had just promised their funders that they would install 10,000 dispensers. Or should they slow down and fix what was broken?
Two million dollars is a lot of money, and entrepreneurs often are often nervous to go back to a funder and present challenges. They feel the pressure of deadlines, agreed deliverables, and what a pause might mean. In this case, what was most important ultimately was respecting the end customer and understanding exactly why things weren’t going right.
Slowing down is a tough call for any entrepreneur, but fortunately they made the right choice. The team took a step back and took the most important step, which was getting in their customer’s “shoes” and to identifyied the key drivers of adoption: regular maintenance to make sure dispensers were almost always working; a reliable supply of chlorine; and a more dedicated group of community promoters to continually remind people to use chlorine every time they filled their jerrycans.
If any of these pieces failed, even briefly, the chlorine habit was broken and adoption plummeted. But as the project expanded, they didn’t always hit the mark on all three. The organization focused on retraining their community promoters, changed their staff structure to ensure faster repairs, and improved their system for chlorine delivery. Previous learning around dispenser location and product format were also leveraged.
A New Phase
With these improvements, Evidence Action restarted the engine. Over nine months, adoption rates improved from 14 percent to 64 percent, which are equivalent to some similar household water treatment and storage interventions. This is a significant improvement, but organizations like Evidence Action can’t rest here;, they will continue to need to pivot and pursue additional interactions in hopes of reaching a 100% solution. What is even more important is that they started to become truly “customer- centric.”. The pivot from expansion to adoption had a huge effect: today, almost 4 million people in three countries use the dispensers on a regular basis.
And now Evidence Action is getting ready to pivot again so it can reach the next level of scale. It is laying the groundwork to partner with national governments and other partners. The goal is to reach 25 million people in Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi. There will likely be speed bumps along this new path as well, but if innovators stay connected to real customer feedback and value they have a better chance of truly changing lives.
What We’ve Learned
The Dispensers for Safe Water project has more to teach us, especially the with the challenges with of tackling real customer value. If you a’re interested, you can read a lot more about that in this meaty case study.
But what I’ve really taken away from this journey is that funders like USAID need to stay flexible while a project scales and we need to work hand-in-hand with our grantees as they uncover new challenges and make important pivots. The process of iteration doesn’t stop with the creation of the perfect product or approach;, often there isn’t a “perfect” but there is “value.”. Iteration and customer-centricity has to continue throughout the scaling process. That takes a little bit of patience, but the results are worth it. I think our customers would agree.
Alexis Bonnell is the Division Chief of Applied Innovation at USAID’s Global Development Lab
Health- Jesse Shapiro
GC- Gayle Girod