In Drew Durbin’s first foray into product design he had a killer idea for solar ovens with reflectors made from recycled plastic bags. He founded Solarcycle, built 200 ovens in the United States, and sold them in Mozambique. It was 2008, and he was 22 years old and had already hit on a magic formula for recycling waste into something useful. It turned out, however, that solar cookers were a hard sell, and installing production equipment in Mozambique would be expensive.
Changing tracks, he left the company to three local managers and spent a year developing a better, cheaper, handcart. Now, he heads Anza, which outsources the carts’ manufacture to China and sells them in Mozambique. We asked him about what he has learned in that journey.
Makeshift: Why was it hard to sell a solar cooker?
DD: There was a lot of education involved in making sales. I’m pretty down on solar cookers as a technology for the developing world. It’s one of the ideas that people in developed countries think is a good idea, but it does not jive well with culture and tradition and requires a lot of behavioral change to catch on.
But the company still sells them?
No. The demand wasn’t sufficient. The company goes by Solarcycle Mozambique, to keep the name recognition, but they sell tip taps now. Tip taps, which are pedal-operated hand washing stations, are an ingeniously simple thing. Contamination that causes diarrhea usually happens after people collect the water, not in the water system itself. Tip taps make hand washing easier.
They’re made from repurposed parts like jerry cans and cords from old car tires. People strip out the nylon plies and use them in all sorts of stuff. We used them in our tip tap design, and it caught on. And the frame is made of bamboo. We found that local production, especially when utilizing locally available raw materials or upcycling waste products, can simultaneously create value for the local community in the form of useful quality-of-life-improving or income-generating products and act as an engine for job growth.
Now you’ve founded Anza. Why carts?
They’re an intuitive solution to a deep-seated problem. In an hour, people can do the work that takes them a full day without the cart. In our study, we saw that people were using the extra time to make money. It’s pretty amazing that such a simple product makes such a big difference in people’s lives.
What’s new in the cart’s design?
The wheels are bicycle tires that are laced on like a shoe around a flat metal rim. We’ve designed it without inner tubes so it can’t be punctured, and parts are easily replaced. To reduce the price, the cart is designed to flat pack, which allows us to take advantage of lower cost and higher quality manufacture in China and get it into the field with lower shipping fees. They cost about half the price of what’s available in that market.
You started with an eye on local production and now you manufacture overseas. What changed your mind?
We want to develop as many transformative products as we can for people in Africa. And to do that, we need to make a quality product for a low price. It became clear that we needed to mass produce the cart outside of Africa because they don’t have the means of doing that locally.