Iwash and material adaptation

August 18, 2021

Iwash promotes open source knowledge for water sanitation aimed at sanitation agents and organizations operating in areas with reduced resources. In the last months, I flew to Tamale, Ghana to prototype and test some of our designs and communication material. After a couple of days to settle and get accustomed to the heat and the new working environment, the project coordinator Jasper and I roamed around to find the prototyping material that we needed. 

I wish I could say: we looked for the materials, we found it,  we made the prototypes. This was not as easy as I naively thought.
View from one of the shop on the main road

The not-so-bright reality was that we spent several days looking for the materials, often coming back to the same shop, and ending up with incorrect material or more expensive than we could have bought.

I will briefly discuss 4 difficulties that we encountered, and give a couple of tips when searching for new materials in Ghana. 

1. Common materials in one country can be rare in another one

In Iwash, our designer Damien designed our booklets based on the desktop research of the available materials in Ghana. However, providing a comprehensive understanding of the available material in a specific town can be quite a challenge.

The most difficult parts to find were the piping parts, we often heard 'we don't have this' or "try somewhere else". Yet, if you explain what you want to build, the sellers of these shops are very creative and think along with you. The most vivid memory of our shoppings in Tamale is of a lady explaining to us that most of the selling material was based on piping for house consumption and for that reason there were mostly two dimensions 1/2 and 3/4 inches pipes. However, not all of the material was available in one dimension. So, together with her, we created our first design, also called the Pipe-Frankenstein. Surely, It was not the best good-looking pipe, because we had parts of diverse dimensions and materials (metal and PVC), but at least we managed to build it.

A picture took when searching for the materials in Tamale

2.Understanding which shop contains the material

Finding materials as a foreigner in another country has been a challenge, for two main reasons: 1) there is no one-big-shop where you can buy everything that you need, in Tamale we found small shops located on the main road; and 2) your own culture plays a big role in spotting the right shop to buy the material. Often, when we think about a product we think about where to find it based on our culture and experience, so we had to unlearn our purchase- compass.

Jasper and I spend an entire day stopping at several shops just to understand what the shop would sell. After finding the correct shops we marked them on a map to be sure to easily come back when necessary.

Shoot took from inside the shop

3. Find materials that connect with one another 

Another issue we faced was finding material that could work together for our designs. This is a common problem for any prototypes, however, in developing countries, this issue could be slightly more complicated for a lack of resources and materials. In the foot-pump, we opted for PVC glue for gluing the tire which is a rubber polymer as we could not easily find the proper glue, however, the results were mediocre and we ended nailing down two pieces of wood over the tire to add pressure to make sure the glue could hold.

One of our ladies that helped us in making our first prototype

4. The cost of the material

The purpose of Iwash is to provide accessible knowledge on water management, so we had to keep in mind that accessibility is also a matter of money. In Tamale, we found diverse surrogates that could work, and we adapt most of the design to make it as cheap as possible. With this said, specifics parts tend to be very expensive, we went to several shops to find for example check valves, the average cost was around 40-50 cidies which is around 5-7€. This is a considerable amount of money if we compare it to an average salary of 100€ or other piping parts (10-20 cents). Unfortunately, for this issue, we could not find any easy fix, if not to target our more expensive designs to larger use by larger organizations.

Our most expensive prototype (around 40 €)

Besides our difficulties, I have some tips and techniques we improved along with our search.


1. Map

Identify your shop-friends, and write down where they are, it is good to think about if the seller can help you think about your design and if they are open to supporting you in finding the material.

2. Do check-lists rounds

Before buying anything spend at least half of a day to 'stroll' and check what type of shop you need and where you can find the best products. This will help you to have a clear understanding of what you can do or you cannot do with the design.

3. What you bought dictates what you will buy next

When you have some parts bring them to the next shops, so you will make sure to find the correct material that fits together. It will be maybe a bit strange, but it is very helpful to reduce the risk of buying material that does not fit together.

4. Go visual to co-create

Bring pictures of the pieces you need and the Iwash booklet with you to show to the seller of the shop. Often they will not have what you need but they will think along with you! 

When back at the office we recognised we boght the wrong material

Last note of this post:

Our designs have been produced to be as specific yet as generalized as possible to adapt the design with creativity to any environment. 

I tested our design only in Tamale, Ghana and it is very important to test the designs in a wide range of countries and to collect examples for diverse types of environments. This next October our designer Damienmarc is going to support the engineering students of Kumasi, Ghana to redesign some of the Iwash solutions and adapt them to their environment. Besides, findability and material adaptation, he will touch topics related to design for social acceptance, usability, and technological adaptation.