A version of this interview was originally published in the first edition of Makeshift magazine.
In Drew Durbin’s first foray into product design he had a killer idea for solar ovens with reflectors made from recycled plastic bags. He founded SolarCycle, built 200 ovens in the United States and sold them in Mozambique. It was 2008, he was 22 years old and had already hit on a magic formula for recycling waste into something useful. It turned out, however, that solar cookers were a hard sell, and installing production equipment in Mozambique would be expensive.
Changing tack, he left the company to three people there and spent a year developing a better, cheaper, handcart. Now, he heads Anza, which outsources the carts’ manufacture to China and sells them in Mozambique. We asked him about what he has learned in that journey.
E4C: Solarcycle, your first venture in Africa, was based on a new solar stove design made from recycled plastics. The reflector was a hard panel made from plastic waste, covered with sheets of the reflective silver sides of potato chip bags. You have since left that business. Could you tell us about it?
DD: It was a very cool, kind of creative design using repurposed materials. It was one of those products that people liked a lot once they understood how it worked. It was a challenge getting people to adopt them, but once they started using them, they liked them a lot. It’s something that could be developed locally, but it would take a lot of money and time to set up the machinery. We brought 200 cookers to start, gave some away at first, then we eventually sold all of them.
We realized throughout the process that the product itself did not have the kind of intuitive demand that we would need to scale the business the way we wanted to. I spun off Solarcycle and it’s now a locally run business in Mozambique.
E4C: And they continue to sell solar ovens?
DD: No. We sold those 200, but we never went through all the steps it would turn it into local business with mass production. There was another product that we saw people using, the Tip Tap. We saw that product and thought it was an ingeniously simple thing. [Tip Taps are hand-washing stations with foot-operated water taps made of a jug suspended from a frame with a foot pedal to tip it.] Diarrhea is usually caused not by contamination of the water system itself, but by contamination by people after they collect it. These tip taps are made from repurposed parts. There are jerry cans, the kind people already use to carry water, it has a bamboo frame and the lashings made from old car tires. People take old car tires and strip out the nylon plies with pliers. It’s used in homes and all sorts of stuff. We used it in our Tip Tap design, and it really caught on. This is a good example of people repurposing parts. People had never seen the design, but once they saw it, they liked it. The Tip Taps caught on and grew quickly because it’s one of those rare products that’s so cheap. Any family can buy a Tip Tap.
To date, the company has sold more than 4000 at the equivalent of $1 each in the last year and a half. There are about 40,000 households in Pemba, the town where Solarcycle operates, so about 10 percent of the homes have them. Anecdotally, people have said there have been real reductions in diarrhea and so forth.
E4C: What were some of the business lessons you learned from that first effort?
DD: You have to be willing, when you’re doing a start up, to see, to adapt. One of the biggest things you learn in development is to get into the field as quick as you can, do a lot of pilots, get a lot of feedback, do a lot of tests.
I’m pretty down on solar cookers as a technology for the developing world. It’s one of the ideas that people in developed countries think is a good idea. And it does address a lot of problems, but it’s one of those technologies that does not jive well with culture and tradition and requires a lot of behavioral change to catch on. The cooker is something that happens over and over again to a lot of people. They get really excited about this technology but it doesn’t gain traction. Solar water pasteurizing is also problematic. There’s lots of education involved in that. What do you do during the rainy season when it’s cloudy every day for six months? Again, it’s challenging there.
The recycled plastic reflectors were such a good idea, though. There are other applications for that technology—you can use them as reflective roofing material to replace tin, which rusts and absorbs heat during the day. They could maybe dry food. And there are other potential applications that I haven’t even thought of. But, really, I’ve just moved on.
E4C: Now you’ve developed a new hand cart for carrying water and other loads, and you formed Anza as a start-up to sell it. Why carts?
DD: I got excited about our cart as a solution to a much more deep-seated problem. And it’s a much more intuitive solution. People realize what the carts do. Our carts can carry six jerry cans or 300 pounds. People see the cart and realize that they can spend less than an hour doing what would take them all day to do by carrying loads on their heads, which is how they usually carry water.
E4C: What impact have the carts had so far?
DD: In our study, we saw that people were using the extra time the carts saved them to make money. It’s pretty amazing that such a simple product just makes such a big difference in people’s lives.
E4C: You went through 10 prototypes and a year of tests before you settled on the current cart design. What took so long?
DD: The answer to that is not very interesting. It takes a long time to develop any product. There are so many constraints. The width of the handles, what kinds of joints, how will it be packaged, how will it be repaired, what materials you will use. The other reason it took so much longer than the cookers is that we developed this hand-in-hand with farmers. You can make a decent cart in a week. But we’re trying to make ones that costs a fraction of what we saw there, and the cost was a big restraint that made it a challenge. There’s a lot that you don’t see in product design.
E4C: Your cart costs about half that of others in that market. How did you cut costs?
DD: The wheels are bicycle tires that are laced on like a shoe around a flat metal rim. The reason we’ve designed it that way is that you’re using bicycle tires they will puncture all the time, so there’s no inner tube. It can be easily replaced in the villages where it’s sold. Early on, we were looking at using recycled materials in the design and moved away from that for cost and scalability reasons. Now we sell a product that’s mass produced in China. The most interesting example is the cart is designed to flat pack, which allows us to take advantage of lower cost and higher quality manufacture in China and get it into the field with lower shipping costs.
E4C: That was an interesting decision. You started with a solar oven idea that was intended for local production and now you’ve opted for China. What changed your mind?
DD: There are a lot of lessons in that for us. We want to develop as many transformative products as we can for people in Africa. And to do that, we need to make a quality product for a low price. It became clear that to do that with the cart, we needed to mass produce it outside of Africa because they don’t have the means of doing that locally.
E4C: Was that your plan early on?
DD: No. Early iterations of the cart had cool, crazy innovations in the design—wheels made of plastic bottles—some really cool stuff. But it wasn’t practical. How could people repair pressurized plastic wheels, for example? They couldn’t. They’d have to buy a new wheel from us. To get as many carts out as possible, you just have to do that in China. In the long term, it could shift to Africa, but not in the short term. Our priorities are moving people out of poverty, and we can do that by providing products cheaply.
E4C: What advice do you have for people who want to do this kind of work?
DD: Work in a developing country and spend time in this context to understand people’s needs. There is so much amazing local innovation. As someone from another country, one of the ways you can add value is to apply your knowledge of something you’ve seen in another part of the world, or on the Internet, or use your skills to create an international supply chain. The reason I do what I do is that I was very lucky to grow up where I did and have the opportunity that I did and I want to make the world a better place. And development work is a way to do that.