SmartLife: Designing a Scalable Water & Health Business

SmartLife: Designing a Scalable Water & Health Business

Case Study By

April 2012–June 2012


Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), Unilever, Aqua for All, and Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

Project Title

SmartLife: Designing a Scalable Water & Health Business

  • design team
  • Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP)
  • Unilever
  • Aqua for All
  • Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.

Our design oraganization designed a social enterprise combining the sale of pure drinking water with wellness products in low-income communities in Nairobi, Kenya. The result of this project ultimately comprised of creating a strong brand identity, called SmartLife, coupled with a high touch subscription service for clean water, hygiene and nutrition products such as vitamins for children.

With nearly 3.5 million people dying each year from water-related disease and an estimated 1.7 million children under the age of five dying, annually, from diarrheal disease, communities all across the world are in the midst of a global water, hygiene and nutrition crisis. To tackle this crisis, we used a human-centered design approach aimed at creating a unified and market-based solution. Through interviews and in-depth contextual understanding, we were able to see firsthand the core issues and rapidly iterate on possible solutions.

Following extensive prototyping, SmartLife was launched in two different Nairobi neighborhoods. We can gauge the success of this social enterprise from quantitatively monitoring the number of households reached and qualitatively hearing customer testimonials.


The world is in the midst of water, hygiene and nutrition crises: Every year, 3.5 million people die from water-borne illnesses, 1.7 million children under the age of five die from diarrheal disease and one of three people in developing countries has vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. For many urban dwellers who do not have potable water piped into their homes, buying water from vendors is a daily, often laborious chore. Globally, there have been mixed results in tackling these challenges. We took a human-centered approach and developed an integrated, scalable and market-based solution.

While this crisis is global, it is particularly evident in Kenya, where only 61 percent of the population has access to clean water sources. Diarrheal diseases are among the top 10 causes of morbidity and mortality and 84 percent of preschool-aged children have vitamin A deficiency. For this reason, we teamed up with WSUP, Unilever, GAIN, and Aqua for All to design a solution that fit within the urban context of Nairobi.

We began in two low-income neighborhoods of the city: Pipeline and Ongata Rongai. During the research phase of the project, people told us time and again that they needed clean drinking water. We quickly identified this as the main driver of the service. Our research conclusively led us to believe that people were willing to pay for water in order to ensure the health and safety of their families.

Image designed a social enterprise providing safe drinking water, hygiene, and wellness products. Designing this solution required looking at both the micro and macro elements of the entire ecosystem. We explored every aspect of the business including the customer experience, the business model, the financial breakdown, and the brand expression. (Photo courtesy of


The social enterprise, SmartLife, combines a system of door-to-door sales with reliable delivery and an in-store, self-service water center. With a selection of subscription options, including drinking water, hygiene, and personal care products, SmartLife provides both the everyday essentials and advanced wellness options. (Photo courtesy of


One of the two piloted SmartLife water centers can be seen here, launched in February 2013 in a neighborhood of Nairobi called Ongata Rongai. (Photo courtesy of


To design SmartLife, ran an eight-week project using the human-centered design approach. Human-centered design is a process that creates a deep empathy between the designer and the individual or community they are designing for. By hearing the needs, aspirations, fears, and desires of the community throughout the research and prototyping phases, we are better able to create innovative and impactful solutions. (Photo courtesy of


During the design process, headed to Nairobi and set up a number of prototypes to better understand what it would mean to create a successful combined water, hygiene, and nutrition business. By testing assumptions about consumer preferences, brand possibilities, sales strategies, and product mixes, we gained great insight about the components we were designing. (Photo courtesy of


The market is largely consumer-focused, but does leave space for business-to-business opportunities.

Public investment in water access—even after the 2002 Kenya Water Act—has been insufficient to scale effective models and meet Kenyans’ needs. The Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation estimates that 41 percent of Kenyans lack access to quality water sources.

Although water kiosks are one emerging means to meet the safe water needs of low-income communities, many kiosk models are ineffective and provide inadequate service: Customers face unaffordable prices, sporadic water shortages and frequent and long trips to fetch water. We saw an opportunity to design a more effective solution (service design, logistics and marketing strategy) that is human-centered and largely consumer-focused.


Development budget: More than $50,000
This project is: Either a retainer relationship nor an in-house on-going monitoring relationship
Production/execution budget: $30,000–$100,000
Source of funding: Client


We always start with understanding the people involved and the context of a problem before identifying concepts and opportunities for design. We then quickly move to building prototypes and testing our concepts in the community.

Community-based insights guided our design process on the SmartLife project. A strong brand identity and multiple customer service touch points would be essential to gaining Kenyan consumers’ trust and loyalty. Furthermore, people understand and strongly value clean water, which reinforced our assumption that the core of the service should be modeled around providing safe drinking water. One crucial piece of the SmartLife design was integrating a customer-friendly service model and a sustainable, scalable business model. With a constant eye toward business design, the team defined nine different components of a business model throughout the research, ideation and prototyping phases. This continued attention to business components—from delivery, payment and product design to revenue models, suppliers and sales force—allowed us to ensure the viability of any solution. The final design for SmartLife merges service and branding with a complete business strategy.


Key sources of insight for the SmartLife design team came during the prototyping phase, where the team rapidly created and tested a business on the fly. After researching many possible components of the service model, the team needed to determine whether these pieces could work together as part of the larger business.

With this in mind, the team designed and tested a water, nutrition and health business with three components: a door-to-door salesperson who would advertise, a local kiosk where people could subscribe and purchase the health and nutrition products and a delivery service that would bring clean, safe water to people’s doorsteps. Opening for business for only one day during the field-testing phase, the team members acted as staff—recruiting, fulfilling orders, home delivering and receiving feedback. This proved invaluable to fine-tuning the final service model.


In tackling the widespread challenge of providing access to clean drinking water, hygiene and nutritional products, SmartLife provides an excellent model of social enterprise design. It not only tackles a social sector issue with great need—and therefore great potential for impact—but also provides a solution that is scalable and designed with the community in mind.

SmartLife delivers a service model with flexible offerings that can reach a range of low- and mid-income customers. Some customers prefer the convenience of a prepaid subscription with free weekly home delivery; those with less steady incomes have the option of purchasing products when they are able. Some prefer a more utility-focused plan, called Everyday Essentials, to meet household clean-water needs; others want the option of including personal wellness products, via a plan called Aspirational Wellness. All plans and sales provide community members with high-touch customer service, convenience and an easy mobile payment system through MPESA.

Finally, in addition to the heavy focus on the customer and community, the design was analyzed for business viability and feasibility.


The design challenge posed at the beginning of the project entailed creating an integrated offering of clean water, hygiene and nutritional products. As part of our human-centered design approach, we worked to understand the communities for which we were designing so that the designs would be contextual and effective.

SmartLife aims to reach low-income communities. We created an affordable, convenient and scalable solution that could be implemented and later expanded to increase its impact (and provide healthy solutions to more people).


Water, health and nutrition are by no means new challenges—social sector organizations have been tackling them tirelessly for decades. What makes SmartLife stand out? It is an integrated, scalable market-based solution designed around people and their needs. Its service model was built with flexible offerings that can reach a range of low- to mid-income customers with a number of delivery, product and payment options. Its business model was analyzed and tested for viability. Ultimately, SmartLife is a design that can continue to work and grow within Kenya and around the world.

SmartLife now operates in two low-income neighborhoods of Nairobi: Ongata Rongai and Pipeline. In its first year after launch, it provided water subscriptions and/or wellness products to more than 4,200 customers. Families comprise 90 percent of sales; the other 10 percent are businesses. To date, SmartLife has provided more than 167,000 liters of clean water, with numbers rapidly climbing. SmartLife has received positive feedback from numerous customers, with many members willing to promote and recommend others for the service.

Additional Information

“I had typhoid once, and my doctor told me that it was from the water. Now I boil or put chlorine in my drinking water, but my husband doesn’t like the taste. I would pay 200 KES for 20 liters of clean drinking water.”

“I used to worry about where to get water. Sometimes I skipped bathing and doing laundry. Now that I have a free tap in my home, I bathe and do laundry more often.”

“I’m very happy to put this [SmartLife] sticker on my door, so that everyone can know I’m using SmartLife water and I’m very happy.”

“While many startups spend months developing a comprehensive strategy, plan, and product to achieve post-revenue status, SmartLife was post-revenue in days when the pop-up shop sold 500L of water. It was adopting this spirit of … building to learn that has been most crucial to quickly making SmartLife real in a more permanent way.”

“Most importantly, these decisions of priority ultimately allowed us to quickly push forward on defining the best ways to execute the newest and hardest aspects of the model—delivering a high-touch subscription and delivery service in an area where people aren’t accustomed to subscriptions, quality service, or reliable delivery—and that agility earned from building to learn is what ultimately put the Rongai store on the map by February.”

Juror Comments

“Taking on the need and social complexity of providing clean and disease-free water to Third World countries is a daunting task for anyone — let alone designers. But as seen in this program, designers are the perfect agent of change for effectively addressing the problem and the market-based needs of users. I was particularly impressed with how simple and smart the end solution worked and looked.” —Dana Arnett

“Finding a solution that gets clean drinking water to people in a simple and sustainable fashion is definitely a good use of design time and talent. In my opinion, this design is “Justified” for its business model and product design—less than for its graphic design and brand identity. Though it’s open in only two locations, I wish the team well on scaling this solution to many more neighborhoods and communities.” —Kate Aronowitz

“People matter and giving them control over their own situation is powerful. SmartLife integrates a community by solving their problems in a way that offers not only clean water, but also a system and business in which they all participate.” —Cameron Campbell

“I loved every part of this, except maybe the logo mark. But getting hung up on that misses the point – design that goes beyond the surface and into the system.” —Joe Gebbia

“We reviewed a lot of great business design, but the graphics were rarely high-achieving enough to honor the complete package. The SmartLife design team came closest to delivering graphics appropriate to the business case.” —Jennifer Kinon

“The SmartLife project deserves recognition not for the visual design but for the conceptualization of the larger program. The pilot project had measurable impact, and if the system can be successfully scaled, it has the potential to be a key component in alleviating the water crisis in Kenya.” —Jeremy Mende

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