Innovating sustainable handwashing practices for Global Handwashing Day

21 November 2017

Admitting something isn’t working as well as you had hoped is challenging for anybody. As an organization, it is particularly difficult. What can you do when an idea that has proven to be so successful in other contexts simply is not being adopted in the communities with whom you work?

This was the situation OneVillage Partners faced with the tippy tap; a cheap, simple and effective handwashing innovation that has seen broad success in countries such as India. For us, it was not that people weren’t using the tippy taps, but communities did not have sense of ownership over them, and this was beginning to show: tippy taps were not being maintained. Given that we strive for ultimate sustainability; this didn’t seem good enough in the long run. As a community-led development organization, all of our ideas come directly from the community members themselves. So, we decided to ask them for their own solution. We asked them to develop their own locally sourced and locally understood handwashing innovations.

We developed an inter-village competition where representatives of the 13 communities with whom we work would present their useable handwashing innovations to a judging panel. Thus the ‘Handwashing Challenge’ was born in celebration of Global Handwashing Day. Through this ‘Challenge’ we aimed to promote effective handwashing, and to create a platform for communities to come together and experience the wide range of options for proper handwashing. Rather than telling people what to do, we allowed communities to develop their own innovations. We hoped that this would inspire a great sense of ownership that would encourage use, maintenance and sustainability.

Our staff guided this process, providing education on the importance of effective handwashing, and reiterating the crucial ingredients to handwashing: running water and soap. From the word go, the communities took to this challenge in unique ways. In order to inspire further competition, we allowed each community a number of weeks to develop multiple innovations, and then brought everyone together to vote on the single innovation they wanted to take forward in competition against the other village’s innovations.

While this was taking place across 13 communities, OneVillage Partners staff appeared on local radio, and began to look for appropriate judges and local stakeholders to sponsor the process. We even made our own radio broadcast so that we could ensure the voices of the participant community members could be heard while building excitement for the event. Meanwhile our front line staff were in the field most days, checking up on the development of the innovations and keeping the hype around handwashing alive!

The community members understood the need for accessibility with these innovations, and the importance of using local materials to ensure that all would be able to take part, regardless of wealth. In addition, if community members were worried to leave their innovations outside their houses, for fear of theft, then the handwashing stations would never be used. Therefore, many of the innovations were developed with bamboo, a readily available local material. The structures were mostly designed to hold little water, as the innovators did not want the water to sit and become stagnant inside the bamboo. In the Sierra Leonean context this isn’t a problem, as most people take a plastic kettle to the toilet. Instead of washing their hands with this kettle, they are now able to pour the water directly into the bamboo. By drilling a hole in the side of bamboo, placed either horizontally or vertically, the innovators were able to create considerable water pressure sufficient to wash hands with soap.

In celebration of Global Handwashing Day, we brought the 13 communities and judging panel together on 13th October. Here the innovators had the opportunity to present their handwashing technologies and be judged in two categories: best innovation and best community adoption. Judges, innovators and staff alike were so impressed by the creativity and attention to detail in the innovations. We were also fascinated to see that three of the most recently partnered communities won prizes, one of whom has yet to implement a project!

We learned so much during this process, both in terms of how to organize such an event, but also about our communities. We heard community members ask how they could use handwashing innovations when out on their farms. We saw that the most effective way to explain germ theory was with local materials such as palm oil. We heard that some community members associated tippy taps with the toilet, and therefore did not want to use them before eating. In one community we saw four times as many constructions of the innovation that was not selected by the community as the winner itself! Given the experimental nature of this project, we were able to be flexible and take all of this learning on board.

We would like to thank all of the innovators from the 13 communities for their exceptional hard work, both in developing the innovations and in mobilizing support from their fellow community members. When community members say things like ‘I came to this meeting, and shall return home with happiness because of the numerous ideas and knowledge received on hand washing practices”, we know that our work has been worthwhile! We look forward to seeing the continued construction, use and maintenance of these new innovations.

Jessica Turner is a Program Associate at OneVillage Partners.OneVillage Partners is a Community-Led Development organization based in Kailahun District in the East of Sierra Leone. OneVillage Partners works as a catalyst to transform rural villages into empowered, self-reliant communities. The organisation partners with villages long-term to improve productivity, quality of life, and the systems and skills that make these changes sustainable.