Reflecting on our Handwashing Innovation Sprint

Menka pic for website updatedMenka Sanghvi, Innovation Management Adviser, reflects on why we need more innovation in handwashing in emergencies, and how our recent Innovation Sprint has helped to nurture creative ideas.




It might seem surprising for an innovation fund to be investing in handwashing. What is there to innovate when it comes to washing hands with soap? We already know it is a proven and cost-effective way to stop pathogens from spreading. Despite this we find over half of deaths in a humanitarian crisis are caused by diarrhoea, which tells us that not enough people are washing their hands after going to the toilet or before cooking. There are so many reasons why this could be. Understanding what is driving this behaviour and responding to the barriers is where the innovation is needed. Getting this right could reduce suffering and improve health and dignity for countless people.


To understand how we should focus our efforts we interviewed sanitation and hygiene researchers, alongside seasoned emergency responders and policy-makers. Based on these insights, we identified three key areas that could benefit from creative new solutions. This research was detailed in a “Challenge Handbook” and we put out a call for innovation proposals. What is exciting is that these three problem areas represent different parts of a system that need to evolve, and as funders, this multi-pronged approach to tackling the problem improves our chances of triggering a systemic shift.


The three areas we have focused on are:

1 Love Clean hands – Changing behaviours through hygiene promotion

2) Re-imagine Soap – Developing soap alternatives

3) Better WASH facilities – Designing better handwashing facilities


Bringing together diverse perspectives

We received over 120 proposal entries from diverse teams globally. Many were proposing solutions that have never been tested in an emergency setting, which while exciting, did make it difficult to decide which ones to pursue. With guidance from our technical evaluators we were able to shortlist 8 teams. Two of those teams decided to work together so we had 7 innovation teams in total.

On 28 & 29 June 2016, we ran an Innovation Sprint in London bringing together our shortlisted teams alongside a mix of expert advisors, supported by our core team here at the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. We were a motley crew of 40 people from all kinds of backgrounds; including marketing, social enterprise, procurement, manufacturing, gender, research and evaluation. The event was held at the Impact Hub Westminster, and facilitated by design and innovation specialists Mensch. The core objective was to tap into the collective intelligence of the room to strengthen and build on the initial handwashing innovation concepts.

The two days were structured to ‘deep-dive’ into each idea, with stimulus to take them apart and piece them together in different and hopefully stronger formations. There was time for suspending judgement and exploring, and time for critical analysis and narrowing down. This required a high degree of ‘letting go’ on the part of the innovators, to be able to make good use of the feedback being shared which was a mix of builds, tips, offers and concerns.

Hot topics

As we were going around the groups and listening in on conversations, it seemed there were some ‘hot topics’ common to all teams:

Many of the ideas took the approach of going back to basics and questioning underlying assumptions and norms. For example, does soap have to look like a bar, or – as in the case of one team – could it be a fabric cloth?  In another case, wheresoap contained a toy, the team were challenging the assumption that fun is not important in emergency settings.

Users must be co-designers of any solution for it to have a good chance of being adopted. Nazeef, an online game for children, mentioned the success they’ve had through working closely with children, which was great to hear. Others raised ethical concerns about testing with vulnerable communities, and the need to manage expectations carefully.

There was a big focus on behavioural change for solutions across all our themes. The words ‘habit’ and ‘nudges’ were the most popular two words throughout the event, regardless of whether the project in question was about puppets, infrastructure or taps. Moving from stable or ‘home’ settings to emergency settings is a time for many behavioural changes, representing both a challenge and an opportunity.

There is a big difference between increasing knowledge about the need for handwashing versus actually changing behaviours. This prompted several discussions around impact evaluation and how to define success for any particular innovation. “How will we know that this is working?” is, as ever, a question that is more complex than it sounds.

As the ideas evolved, the teams reflected on who else they might need in their team. For example, when talking about technologies, factors around distribution, infrastructure, ownership, maintenance, and financing models came up. Vandalism and theft concerns were flagged. Shortage of water is also a common issue. While it was acknowledged there would be no “magic bullet” that solves all problems, teams did start to identify wider capacities they might need to deliver a more robust solution.



Need for flexibility

The teams at the Innovation Sprint were not all at the same stage in the evolution of their ideas, and many would need to be lab tested for effectiveness before taking it to the field and testing it with users. It was important to break down the process of testing and evaluating into stages, and to clarify the level and type of evidence that would be convincing at each stage.

This led to conversations about the need for teams to be open minded and iterative with the development as they gain new insights, rather than trying to stick to the original idea. As funders, we need to be flexible too, especially if we want to encourage risk-taking and feedback loops that might take a funded project in new directions.

During the event we saw how good ideas really can come from anywhere. This may be a cliche, but despite our careful curation and match-making of expert advisors to the relevant team members, many mentioned unexpected “aha moments” they had while speaking to other teams and advisors in the breaks. It is difficult to plan these exchanges, except to create an open and interactive environment that encourages cross-pollination, and we were very pleased to see this happening.

Collective efforts

We would like to say a huge thank you to all the expert advisers and mentors that volunteered their time and expertise as a contribution to the humanitarian effort. It has been wonderful to see the enthusiasm of all those involved and we hope many of the new relationships sparked between participants at the event continue to grow.

Following the event, all the teams submitted their final proposals to us for review. This is far from an easy task and requires input from a wide range of humanitarian and academic specialists, but ultimately a choice will have to made about which teams will receive funding and further support from us.

Even before funding any projects, it is rewarding to see how the Innovation Sprint has accelerated new ideas, connections and momentum for the teams who competed and participated. We hope these ripples continue to spread to include a wide range of actors in more creative and collaborative approaches to improve handwashing in emergencies

Find out more about our Innovation sprint and our shortlisted teams:

Watch team pitch videos about their handwashing innovation idea



Elrha is a registered charity in England and Wales (1177110).

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