Quite strange and quite inconvenient. To try to get something from the poorest people of society, the bottom of the pyramid. But this is exactly what the Dutch universities of Leiden, Rotterdam and Delft are doing in their Frugal Innovation project.
But to the employees of the institute Research Solutions Africa (RSA) in Nairobi, Kenya it is not strange or inconvenient at all. This is what they do, it is their core business. RSA is one of the institutes that are running a pilot in the Frugal Innovation project of the three Dutch universities.
‘Look! At this street we did some of our interviews, I recognize it now!’ says Josephat Musebi, one of the three Field Supervisors of RSA. He is standing in the middle of the district Shauri Moyo Estate in Nairobi. ‘I will explain how we work. At RSA we have a database of 1,500 interviewers. First we train the selected ones on this particular project. After this we start as a team of six interviewers. We work together in the same district. Each of them chooses a street and starts counting.’ Enthusiastically, Musebi walks from corrugated iron door to corrugated iron door and demonstrates how it goes: “One – two – three – four – five.” At every fifth door we ask the people if we can have an interview and if there is nobody there, we take the sixth house and after that we start counting until five again.’
As bad as it gets
‘We use questionnaires and talk for about 25 minutes. We ask people about their standard of living and try to find out what kind of electric devices or other tools they use in their household and how they use it. We work in daytime and that is why the interviewees in the households are mostly women. The men are out working or trying to find a job. When we finish our interview we take photos of all the equipment they show us. That is how we work.’
‘We also conducted some interviews in another district close to Shauri Moyo Estate, called Majengo. This county is basically as bad as it gets. The only good thing is: they have two water points and a stone building with some toilets. These toilets are used by around five hundred people. There is electricity at some places and a lot of people who do not have electricity just tap it from there. For the Frugal Innovation project we went to six different household areas, urban and rural. In each area we conducted fifty interviews.’
Musebi moves about, walks and talks in the area like he is one of the residents. Suddenly he recognizes a place where he once joined an interview. ‘You see these people are woodworkers, they have some equipment and they work in their own neighbourhood. And this is the young man we interviewed.’
Interviewee: ‘Yes, I was interviewed by a man called Chris, he was a nice man. He asked me questions about how we get water and electricity, what equipment we use, how much we earn and things like that. It was ok for me.’
Musebi: ‘For this Frugal Innovation project we visit households and small businesses. We find the small businesses in metal work at the biggest metal work market in Nairobi. This district is called Gikomba. A lot of equipment can be found here: small and big, old and new. Some people make their own, other people change their tools. This can be very interesting for the people involved in the Frugal Innovation project.’
‘Interviewing the people owning small businesses proves to be more difficult, as they are all busy. They have to work, of course. But we managed to conduct the interviews we intended for this pilot!’
The overarching question in this Frugal Innovation project concerns the conditions under which frugal innovations are most likely to offer development opportunities for Africa. One of the interlinked research questions addresses consumer preferences and unmet consumer demands at lower levels of the pyramid and considers how innovative value-sensitive design practices could respond to these unmet demands.
Households and small businesses
Aisha Said is one of the research executives at RSA. Together with her manager Jasper Gosselt she coordinates the Frugal Innovation project.
An important part of her job is designing the questionnaires for the households and the small businesses. She also composed questions for some ethnograpics.
Aisha Said: ‘When we see people using a wooden hammer we ask them whether they bought this hammer or if they made it themselves’.
Aisha explains: ‘The universities of Rotterdam, Leiden and Delft are particularly looking for tools and electric devices the poorest people of society use in their household or in their small businesses. They want to know things like which tools are being used, did they buy them second-hand or new, why they use this tools and if there are any unknown instruments where do they come from. Furthermore it is of importance to ask the interviewees if is there an alternative, if this alternative is better, what tools they miss in their household or business and what their wishes are concerning equipment. Innovation in the households is mostly found in lighting, cooking or heating. It can, for instance, be interesting for the Frugal Innovation project to know if people use a stove to cook or gas. We also ask the interviewees if they prefer this way of cooking and, if not, what the reason is they do not change this.’
‘Most (innovative) equipment we collected come from the small businesses’, tells Aisha. ‘We have seen so many tools: screwdrivers, hammers, sewing machines, planes, scissors, saws, molds, keys, iron, wheel balancers, welding machines, clamps, tape measures, chisels, pliers, drills and incalculable more. Most tools are indispensable. Some have been adjusted to the kind of work of the employee, others have been improved. I will give some examples.’
- ‘If a certain tool is not suitable for a specific job, interviewees often find their own solution. Take, for example, this big needle. They enlarged and strengthened the handle with wood. Tailors use it to sew leather shoes and clothes.’
- ‘Sometimes workers weld different metal tools to one utensil to make their job easier or faster.’
- ‘We noticed metalworkers use a piece of train rail as a table to work on.’ This short video shows the metalworkers working and using this rail.
Short video of the metal work market in the district Gikomba in Nairobi
Aisha Said: ‘The Frugal Innovation project is a challenging and interesting assignment! We need the poorest people of society in the project, we do our research at poor gloomy places. We collect all our findings and sent them to our client. I am sure they have a lot of information that will help them to continue their interesting and important work.’
Since 1996, Research Solution Africa (RSA) has been conducting quantitative and qualitative research in several areas. ‘People choose our company because we are transparent, because we stand for quality and reliability and because we also dare to advise against to our own advantage,’ CEO Jasper Grosskurth says.
Jasper: ‘The Frugal Innovation project is something special. It is renewing and bold. I do not know any projects similar to this. I have been involved from the beginning and think the universities that support this innovative way of thinking and working are brave. Looking at the results we can conclude that there really is something to develop here. I believe this is a promising project, but we must keep in mind that this is only the start.’
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