Communicating in Kumasi: cleans up in Ghana with Twilio

Connecting a community to make a difference believes that the human-centered design can change lives for the better. Their mission statement isn’t simply a an idea, it’s something they put into practice. flew three employees over 7,000 miles to Kumasi, Ghana to solve a serious public health problem using only design specs and communications technology. The team not only changed the way Kumasi residents communicate, they changed their quality of life for the better.

The challenge

When the IDEO team landed in Ghana, Industrial Designer, Robin Bigio and his co-workers met with local officials, assembly-men and community members to outline their plan. The community of Kumasi, Ghana had a serious problem with public defecation. The first step in addressing their health issue, was changing the way Kumasi residents communicate.

A few weeks before leaving to Ghana, the IDEO team held a hackathon to prototype the app they’d use on the ground in Kumasi. Information Designer, Jon Won, Interactive Specialist, Molly Norris and Robin invited San Francisco developers, designers and hackers to help them design the app.

Robin with community members.

The goal was to give the people of Kumasi a way to communicate their needs, report to city officials, and gather data that could use to build solutions to public defecation. IDEO wanted to build a lasting infrastructure for the city to use after Robin, Jon and Molly left.

Their app prototype was a Twilio Programmable SMS-based reporting app that fed into a Google Spread-sheet. The plan was to have Kumasi residents text the Twilio number where they saw public defecation, log those sites and incidents in the spreadsheet, and create a Facebook page for each site.

The implementation

The Kumasi community supported new way of dealing with public defecation, but they shared their support in different ways than the IDEO team expected.

Robin, Jon, and Molly learned that residents didn’t want to report every incident of public defecation, and instead preferred “flashing” over text because it was free. Flashing is a means of mobile communication where the caller dials a number and hangs up before it rings. The person on the other end receives a missed call, but the caller doesn’t get charged.

The team rebuilt the app, and changed their approach. They placed signs around Kumasi in both English and Twi, encouraging residents to flash the Twilio Programmable Voice number. Once they flash the number, Robin’s app calls them back and asks them to answer a survey reporting where they saw public defecation, when and if they’d like to receive updates on local community meetings surrounding the issue.

A prototype in action.

The open lines of communication IDEO built magnified the power of the Kumasi community. After getting the app off the ground last year, the IDEO team gathered data and feedback from the community which inspired them to launch a new solution, and a new business for Kumasi.

IDEO worked with Unilever, and Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor to develop an in-home, portable toilet for the city. They also created The Clean Team, which employs Kumasi residents as sanitation workers responsible for maintaining the portable toilets.

Adam Reineck says that The Clean Team is seen “not just as a sanitation business, but as a social business and a sanitation solution set on redefining the status quo.”

Learn more about IDEO and their other projects by visiting

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