Yves Behar & fuseproject
Physical Assets for Adolescent Girls
The Nike Foundation
Physical Assets for Adolescent Girls
We felt this was a terrible name for an important idea: use solid design tradecraft to identify the smallest number of artifacts to reinvent that would make the greatest difference in the daily lives of young girls growing up in war-torn Rwanda. Often the really tough challenges demand and deserve the best design methods, and this design team rose to the challenge effectively.
They focused on four utilitarian concepts: a super stove that would be safe; a robust and low cost sewing machine; an affordable and sterile sanitary napkin; and a useful safe indoor light for nighttime use. These simple ideas can each help to radically alter the ways that young girls use their time, and transform the effects they can have on their families, their villages, and their own prospects throughout their lives.
The design team prioritizing the sanitary pad (critical for helping girls stay in school), then designed several iterations to improve comfort and function. Then they created a sustainable business model, distribution model, production methods, and material choices that would help drive a final design that social sector organizations could scale reliably.
Physical Assets for Adolescent Girls
This project is the first initiative by the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect program to design, develop and bring to market “physical assets” that support the empowerment of girls to break the cycle of poverty. To do this we focused our efforts on designs that were girl specific and showed the potential to reach scale. We developed prototypes for four concepts, and then took them to Rwanda for a two-week immersion and evaluation with girls. Our time in Rwanda led to actionable feedback for our design concepts and insights for reaching scale.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
The “Girl Effect” is founded on the idea that the most efficient and impactful way to address poverty in the developing world is to focus on the safety, education and empowerment of 600 million adolescent girls. Since 2008, the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect has made big strides in raising awareness and distributing funds to a range of non-profits, helping young girls in the developing world. In 2013, we were asked to help them explore a different approach: instead of focusing on charity, what if we designed and produced “physical assets”—tangible products —for girls? And above all, how do we get these assets in girls’ hands to make a real impact?
The first challenge was figuring out where to focus our design effort. What kind of physical assets would be the most effective? Of the many concepts that would benefit adolescent girls, which assets would be accepted and approved by parents and the broader community? Which assets would provide the most impact over time, and can be sustainably produced and distributed?
The conversation about assets for girls typically steers towards social and financial support. When asked, they say (and we saw) what they need: tools for chores, lighting at night, tools to earn money, and solutions for personal hygiene. It was clear what we wanted to achieve, but the question was where to start.
Our effort did not follow a traditional design process. The Nike Foundation had spent years researching girls and focusing on programmatic solutions. We began with an audit of the vast existing research landscape conducted by the Nike Foundation and their partners, but then we allowed ourselves to approach the challenge from a fresh perspective, unhindered by the challenges of designing in the social sector. Point of view was to build something first, and use these prototypes as a catalyst for learning and iterating with girls.
There are many great ideas that design for social good already, but they often struggle to reach scale. What criteria would make our approach different?
1. Our designs were girl-centered: A supporting infrastructure is necessary, but nothing can make an impact if it doesn’t have pull (demand from girls and their families), solve a real problem, and work within the complex context of their lives.
2. We designed for scale from the beginning: We knew we needed to have a product that served girls, but it wouldn’t make an impact if it never reached them. Scalability, simplified production, low price point, high value, and sustainable distribution drove the design of the object as much as usability and need.
Our approach was to look firstly at all the possible ways we could impact a girl’s life with a physical asset, while continually (and creatively) assessing the building blocks of reaching scale: sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, retail and marketing.
Framing: Girls in developing countries have so many needs, and they are all interrelated. To untangle the challenge, we created a simple framework. With Nike Foundation research at hand, we were able to frame the opportunity by understanding and defining who our target girl is, where she lives, who influences her life, and how she spends her time.
With these insights, we created a concepting framework that acknowledged the breadth of her needs, and reminded us that certain conditions needed to be present in order for each category of effort to be effective. From this framework, we chose to prioritize and focus on three opportunity areas.
Ideation: We dove into concept generation in each of the three opportunity areas. From over 60 initial concepts, we down selected to 20, and ultimately 4. Down selection was collaborative and influenced by basic feasibility, viability and desirability criteria.
Prototyping: The four concepts were refined into working prototypes that would give girls the chance to experience the products, share their point of view, and contribute to their design. Our goal was to have girls play with an idea and mold it to how they wanted, not just tell us whether they like it or not.
Research: We immersed ourselves with a two-week deep dive in Rwanda to understand the landscape, validate our initial hypotheses, gain insight into real world conditions, and ultimately generate effective and actionable physical assets for girls. The prototypes (along with concept storyboards, visual instructions, card sorts, and field guides) were used to facilitate discussions with girls, parents and other stakeholders in Rwanda.
We spent three days on each prototype, with two teams in the field simultaneously.
Day 1 focused on the broader ecosystem surrounding the concepts, with market observations and expert interviews to understand the landscape. Day 2 was spent understanding her family and community to gauge acceptance from those around her. Day 3 focused on the girls, with day-in-the-life shadowing and co-design sessions to understand their context and give them a voice in the design. This was our chance to hear their stories, watch them interact with the prototypes, and learn what they needed from their point of view, not from what institutions and experts say they need.
In the end:
43 girls reached
50+ community members and parents
7 interviews with subject matter experts, government agencies (Board of Education, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, school faculty) and social entrepreneurs
5 market visits to small local markets and main markets
3 home visits
Codification: Based on the input from girls, their community, and broader stakeholders, we aligned on a single asset to push forward: a reusable menstrual pad solution. In parallel with design refinement, we are currently developing a range of potential business models, in preparation for a real world trial of both.
The development agenda is often focused on men or very young children. Physical assets that focus on adolescent girls are particularly effective for achieving empowerment, but women and girls have very low levels of asset ownership. Products and services are rarely designed for, marketed to, or distributed to girls in poverty.
Each of our concepts showed potential for empowering girls to breaking the cycle of poverty. Based on the input from girls, their community, and broader stakeholders, we aligned on a single asset to push forward: a reusable menstrual pad. It showed the highest potential for reaching girls and solving a significant need—access to sanitary products.
For most of us, we’re used to dependable, affordable pads that are discrete, ultra absorbent, and relatively comfortable, but to a girl that doesn’t have any money at all, these disposables are completely out of reach. Her lack of consistent menstrual health options leads to school absenteeism, infections and low confidence. She’s forced to squat, use her underwear or scraps of cloth. She washes her underwear and cloth protection in unsanitary water.
We recognize that no physical asset alone is sufficient to singularly break the cycle of poverty. Although it may seem incremental, pads offer a step to improve girls’ lives and propel them towards a better future. It’s about more than just missing school, although that’s a big reason we’re interested in providing menstrual solutions for girls. It’s about confidence, dignity, learning about their bodies, and feeling secure everyday.
In the social sector, great ideas often struggle to find funding and reach scale. We knew that nothing would succeed without a product that worked (with the skills to adopt it and use it) and an operational model to support it. A clear path to implementation was as important as meeting a real need. The reusable pad concept offered a proof point that would build global momentum and demonstrate several paths to market.
After prioritizing the pad, and designing several iterations that improved comfort and function, we also began the work of creating a sustainable business model, distribution model, production methods, and material choices that would impact our final design.
Our business strategy placed the girl front and center—acknowledging that it needed not only to empower the individual girl, but also reach as many girls as possible. This meant developing business models that could grow to scale and also be financially sustainable so the impact would be extensive and organically maintained.
By designing our product and business model simultaneously, we developed a functioning, enduring solution. The needs of girls were represented individually, as well as the economic health of women in Africa. Through this holistic process, we delivered a solution for both the “last girl” and her peers, as well as for limited resource communities and economies across East Africa.