Are you designing and distributing low quality charitable products? How do you know? Just because your clients may benefit from, and even rely on, products that are free to them doesn’t mean you can give them crap. It also doesn’t mean they stop becoming savvy consumers just because something is free to them. Your products and services may be free to your clients, but in areas like healthcare and water they can also a matter of life and death.
Here are three lessons from two cautionary tales of low-quality charitable products.
Low Quality Threatens Healthy Babies
Low-quality charitable products can threaten healthy babies.
In India, TED Fellow Zubaida Bai encountered a midwife who used a small farming implement to cut umbilical cords after delivery. The sight stunned Bai. After delivering her own child in a modern hospital, Bai spent a year trying to shake an infection. What were women in villages going through?
She made it her mission to offer a low-cost kit of medical tools for delivering babies in the developing world. At first, she was thrilled to find that such a kit already existed. Her excitement faded when she final received a kit. Its contents were unhygienic, did not follow medical best practice, and turned off expectant mothers and midwives. Also, the kits were only available when there was charitable funds to support them.
Bai worked with midwives, mothers, and medical experts to design a better kit. For just $3, which was $1 more than the old kit, Bai’s company ayzh created the Jamma clean birth kit with proper and hygienic tools packaged in a purse that mothers could keep and use. So far, the kit has helped more than 600,000 mothers and babies.
Low Quality Threatens Clean Water
Low-quality charitable products can also threaten access to clean water.
In Ghana, Kevin Starr saw the pioneering work of Saha providing clean water in arid, rural areas. The Saha nonprofit business model, supported by both donations and affordable client fees, was thriving in multiple locations. Saha’s ongoing testing at the water source and in client homes showed that their system consistently delivered bacteria-free water.
In one village, though, the local Saha provider was struggling after two years in business. During that time, three different charity programs came to the village, distributed free water filters, and left. While the filters worked, clients stopped using Saha. That’s not to say the filters were effective at removing harmful bacteria. Eventually, the filters clogged or broke, and there was no way to repair or replace them. If free solutions kept arriving and not working, they would kill the one effective method for delivering clean water.
Three Lessons About Low-Quality Charitable Products
Lots of lessons spring from these two stories, but in the context of this blog, three items stick out.
Both Saha and ayzh invested effort to design products that were affordable, met measurable standards, and appealed to clients. Both organizations designed products with, and not just for, their clients. For both these companies, competing products that were poorly designed promoted infections that were harmful and potentially deadly.
Business model matters
Saha providers charge pennies for clean water, but compete against free water filters. ayzh charged $1 more for their clean birth kit than the competing charity version. Both companies have build business models with products that cost clients more than all-out charity. However, that additional cost fit within clients’ means and assured quality products with ongoing benefits.
Designing affordable solutions with self sustaining business models is the business solution to poverty and the best way to scale.
As Kevin Starr said, there’s an opportunity cost to failure. People in poverty have much less ability to absorb that cost. Solutions for vital services like clean water and health need to work reliably and continually.
Saha’s clean water solution works because it relies on local products and labor, receives revenue in exchange for water, and performs ongoing measurement to ensure quality. Clients don’t get sick and possibly die from infection. One-time interventions with products that wear out can’t match this.
ayzh’s clean birth kit keeps mothers and babies safe from infection. It might sound crass, but this helps sustain the market. ayzh receives revenue for the kit, which ensures ongoing support and product improvements.
Probably the kit’s most clever sustainability aspect is packaging the kit in a purse that the mother could keep. One, the packaging is reusable, making the product more environmentally sustainable. Two, it made the kit more appealing to mothers, sustaining interest in the product. Three, after the birth the purse became a promotional tool when the new mother carried it with her. That helps spread word-of-mouth about the product.
In the end charitable work, like business, requires dedication to a market. Anything less is a disservice and potentially harmful.
Read more about The Business Solution to Poverty.