In the second of our series, we interview the team behind SoaPen, a wearable and portable soap re-designed to encourage hand washing amongst young children reducing the risk of catching and spreading disease thereby increasing their lifespan.
1.SoaPen appears to raise the bar of hygiene awareness just as much for parents as for children. Was this an original motivation?
Yes, initially the idea was to promote the habit of handwashing at home, through a playful interaction between parents and children. We decided to target children of the age 3-6 as this is the age when habit formation takes place. However, after field research and speaking with parents, children and school teachers, we realised that parents belonging to our user group (low-income communities) usually work long hours and hence the most effective influencers for children are their teachers at school.
Further, to this group of children, schools greatly promote craft and art activities and we found this to be a great opportunity for SoaPen to be introduced. We also realised that children take home what they learn at school which in turn educates parents, who can then ensure that the habit sustains even at home.
2. There are clearly different materials used in the development of SoaPen. What are the challenges of getting the balance right ethically and, say, cosmetically for your market?
Through our interactions with chemical engineers practicing in the industry, we know that it is possible to scale the composition of the soap component of SoaPen to be markable and also moisturise a child’s sensitive skin. In terms of packaging, our initial idea was to have the soap cartridge wrapped in a tight roll of paper, which the user would peel to reveal more of the soap, as it dwindles with use. Since the target user group is children starting from age three, we decided to avoid the hassle of having tiny scraps of paper, generated with every use.
We then considered a cardboard casing, as a more durable decomposable option. However, both paper and cardboard are materials that would be completely ruined when brought in contact with water. As water is a major player in the usage of soap, we decided to go with the more durable and waterproof option of using PET. We also realised that amongst our community, PET clearly signals durability and reusability unlike cardboard or paper. Also, sustainably, the PET casing can be reused multiple times and marketing incentives can be given for returning the empty casings after use. Our iterative testing rounds helped us discover and overcome these challenges.
3.What has been the reaction from school and community educators to your prototype? Has the traction encouraged your work or challenged it?
Testing SoaPen out in schools has affirmed and furthered our belief in the effectiveness and impact of this project. The first time we tested out the product with school children aged 3 to 4, we assisted them to the bathroom to assess their reaction. It was heartwarming to see the children rub off every part of the drawing on their hands, and even return to wash their hands for a second time if they found remnants of the soap drawing.
For teachers, SoaPen served as a relief as they could now provide soap to children without having to assist them to the bathroom. They were happy to have a new creative tool to introduce hygiene practices without making them a chore. Teachers innovatively combined SoaPen’s use into their existing curriculum. For instance, one of them drew the shape of the sun and other forms on the children’s hands, using it to teach them shape recognition. It was fulfilling to see students compare their drawings with one another and enjoy the activity more than we had anticipated.
4. Bridging generational and educational divides seems like a great way forward for social innovation. Could SoaPan springboard more life saving ideas connected to families and fun?
Yes. The concept of ‘gamification’ can be incorporated into various products to further their educational impact. Working on SoaPen made us realise the importance of a two-directional ‘awareness flow’ from parents/teachers/elders to children and vice versa, in both urban and rural areas. We believe that a grave problem can be solved much faster by making the solution fun and not-so-serious, and we’re excited to innovate further with this in mind.
5. What impact do you project the prototype having in five years time should it be the Unicef Wearables winner?
We see SoaPen being highly impactful in schools, hospitals and community centres. SoaPen combats a lot of sanitation and hygiene problems that obstruct promotion of washing hands with soap in urban and rural schools in India, for instance, wastage and theft of soap and a lack of hygiene are some everyday issues.
SoaPen’s biggest strength is its power of being a useful tool in creating awareness, and promoting habit formation. Projecting the increase in internet penetration among low-income rural and urban communities, we have also developed a supporting mobile application to train teachers about the need and importance of handwashing with soap even in the absence of health workers. The app further proposes numerous ways to incorporate SoaPen into their existing class structure.
Its simple design is highly scalable and low-cost, which will allow the product to reach as many hands as fast as possible. SoaPen can be recreated anywhere in the world to help promote good hygiene through handwashing in communities across the globe.
"Working on SoaPen made us realise the importance of a two-directional ‘awareness flow’ from parents/teachers/elders to children and vice versa, in both urban and rural areas. We believe that a grave problem can be solved much faster by making the solution fun and not-so-serious, and we’re excited to innovate further with this in mind."