How many products do you need?

March 18, 2021
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Photo by Gordon Lau, iDE, 2019
iDE Global WASH

A successful enterprise needs to ensure it has the right type and number of products in order to stay in business.

The old adage of “don't keep all your eggs in one basket” applies to business: it's important to have a diversified product portfolio to ensure you have multiple sources of income. However, having more than one product also introduces challenges, including more complex operations, higher inventory costs, and quality assurance requirements. Balancing these elements has become a key element of our business strategy for Sama Sama.

Supply and demand are the key words for any business. For iDE's sanitation sales, demand is often a given as we choose places where people have not had the opportunity to purchase a toilet before, and we ensure that our latrines (the supply) are viable, affordable, and attractive. When filling a need such as sanitation, however, there comes a time when demand for this single product starts to fade and sales and profits start to decline. But we need the sanitation business to stay around to ensure latrines are available for every single household who wants one. What can we do?

The initial approach

After using human-centered design to find out what Ghana customers wanted for safe sanitation, iDE created and went through several iterations of toilet prototypes from April to August 2016. Once this testing was complete and a design selected, iDE began working with private sector concrete manufacturers to train them on how to build the toilet to specification. The complete design — the Sama Sama Toilet — includes the subsurface components (i.e., the pit to collect waste), basic surface elements (i.e., the toilet pan which the user would stand/squat over), superstructure elements (i.e., walls and doors for privacy, and provisions for water to flush the toilet.

What we found when we started selling these toilets is that some customers did not desire or could not afford the full package. We had created the full package in part based on our experience in Cambodia, where we learned that households often would install but not use a toilet until they had a durable shelter installed. We quickly discovered that the context in Ghana was different. Most importantly, we found that many households already had a structure that could be used as a bathroom, and that these households were more likely to invest in a less expensive substructure-only product. Based on these new insights, we revisited our one-product model and began offering a high-quality substructure product in addition to the full Sama Sama Toilet.

G3 2 Fsm Solution @300X

A fecal sludge management (FSM) solution for households whose latrine pits have begun to fill has quickly become a priority for Sama Sama . This service builds directly off of our main offerings and so is the most promising addition to our sanitation business. We began the design in 2019 and by the end of the year had manufactured a sludge emptying truck, the Sama Sama Shitmaster, specifically to service Sama Sama customers and other community members who live in areas where it can be difficult to maneuver the large trucks operated by other sludge removal service providers. In its first year of existence, the Shitmaster emptied 63 toilets, impacting 653 people. We have also partnered with global business services firm ARUP to assess the technical feasibility and financial viability of converting fecal sludge to monetizable products such as compost, biogas, and fertilizer. This will be a key path for Sama Sama to “close the loop” in the sanitation value chain.

The nexus of impact and sustainability

Diversification is important to the sustainability of social enterprise, especially one focused on achieving WASH objectives. In order to supply new products and services that keep the business profitable and ensure that people have the opportunity to buy the things they need for years to come, the business needs a range of WASH products that generate value and impact for our customers. Adding WASH-related products to Sama Sama's basic toilet offering also supports Sama Sama's viability by providing cash flow to support our toilet installment payment plans.

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Program undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.