Cape Town’s bid story

The City of Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014 was coordinated by the Cape Town Partnership, in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders and supporters.

What if Africa? Talking toilets with Marika Shioiri-Clark

At TEDxStellenbosch 2011, social impact designer Marika Shioiri-Clark spoke about empathic architecture and her experience working on the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda. One year and an IDEO.org fellowship later, she spoke to TEDxStellenbosch curator Gareth Pearson about sanitation solutions being piloted on the African continent, and what Cape Town can learn from them.

It’s been just over a year since you spoke at TEDxStellenbosch 2011. After the event, you returned to the US to start your fellowship at IDEO.org, which recently came to an end. What have you worked on over the past year?

IDEO.org is great partly because of its breadth – we take on projects across many fields. The criterion is that they will benefit the public good and work to reduce poverty either in the US or worldwide.

Maryke Clarke

As part of my fellowship, I worked on projects as diverse as a design and prototype for TEDx In A Box, a stand-alone kit of parts that enables anyone to host a TEDx event without access to electricity; a public campaign for the Bezos Family Foundation to encourage low-income parents to use everyday tools to build their babies’ brains; and a branding and scaling strategy for Clean Team, working with Unilever and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) to help grow a company that provides in-home sanitation for residents of Kumasi, Ghana.

As in many of the cities in developing economies, sanitation is a big problem across Cape Town's informal settlements. When you dug into the project in Ghana, what problems did you and your team identify, and how did you tackle them?

Sanitation is definitely a major issue in Ghana. For the Clean Team project, we focused specifically on health issues around public toilets, which are currently the most widely used waste method among middle and lower-income residents in the country. Public toilets carry with them a number of issues - unsanitary conditions, high prices and long waits, heavy stigmatisation and shame especially among women, and sometimes danger near the toilet buildings themselves. The Clean Team project instead proposed an entirely different sanitation method - an in-home toilet for families to share. The way the system works is that the family is given a simple toilet that is placed in their home - not connected to any grid, but instead with a replaceable interior container to hold waste - and pays a recurring fee to have the toilet periodically cleaned and the container replaced. Families benefit from increased safety, privacy, and peace of mind, and often save quite a bit of money in the process as well.

A major part of the Clean Team project was the use of branding to change perceptions. Can you elaborate on how branding played a role in the project?

It was very important to us that Clean Team was seen as a sustainable business with a stable and ongoing presence. Many Ghanaians see non-profits and NGOs as easy targets for free stuff, but also as entities that are entirely unreliable. Lots of people we interviewed talked about having been burned before by the last non-profit that came in and made big promises and then disappeared. On the other hand, many large corporate brands - especially those that had been around for a while - were highly trusted and admired. So presenting the image of Clean Team as a reliable corporation that was out to provide a great service, but that was not going to give anyone a free ride, became an important part of the branding strategy. And people are already beginning to love the brand during its current 80 family pilot in Kumasi. The other thing is that Ghanaians have a great sense of humor, so we loved the idea of playing off of that - you are talking about toilets, after all.

What's next for you now that your time at IDEO.org is over? Are there particular issues you'd like to work on in the near future?

I'm excited about next steps! I recently moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and am looking at ways to use my skills in design and architecture to tackle the myriad issues present in the Rust Belt area of the United States. Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh have some really interesting things happening already, but there's a lot of opportunity that I see to make these places vibrant cities that people really want to move to. And I do see lots of potential to use the knowledge I've gained working in Africa and elsewhere to forward a social impact design in the US. I'm planning to start my own firm to address these kinds of issues in the US and abroad - we'll see where it takes me!

Complete the question: What if Africa ... ? What if Africa became a global mecca for design, and a laboratory for locally-based innovation?

For stories of sanitation solutions being pioneered around the world, read:

  • Time to redesign the toilet (link)

For a reportback on TEDxStellenbosch 2011, read:

  • Seven big ideas to shape the future of African cities (link)

Watch Marika's talk from TEDxStellenbosch 2011 here and then read this New York Times opinion piece on the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda. For more great TEDxStellenbosch talks, head to www.tedxstellenbosch.org, and find them on Facebook and Twitter. Text by Gareth Pearson. Image from TEDxStellenbosch 2011 by Johann Swart