3 Innovation lessons from the Hippo Water Roller story

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To understand what innovation means, walk a mile in their shoes

The term innovation is tossed around a lot these days. Innovation is often defined as breakthrough improvement in technology or processes. The ability to track customer traffic through the LED lights in stores would be considered a recent tech innovation in retail location analysis. An equally valid definition of innovation is “the introduction of something new”. The idea of a “water roller” is not “new”. But, the introduction of the Hippo Water Roller is an innovation that is changing the lives of women fetching water in Africa. We can all learn value lessons of applying something in a new way to solve practical problems.

Why this is important: Innovation does not require inventing something entirely new. Too often, our cultural blinders prevent us from seeing how the introduction of something simple can create huge value in changing people’s lives.

Problem: African women can spend 1/3 of their lives fetching water!

For most of us, water is a given. We merely turn the faucet and water comes pouring out, even heated water for baths and showers. In rural Africa, life and water is not so easy. Clean drinking water often requires treks of miles to wells and bore holes. People literally have to fetch all of their water by carrying it in buckets and cans on their heads.  

African women

Image Credit: Africa

African women carrying “jerry cans” to fetch water to survive.

Fetching water is typically the chore of women and children. They must literally trek to a well to carry back what the bucket will hold – typically about 5 gallons. To fetch enough water for the family often requires at least 2 or 3 trips per day. And, the trek for one bucket can often be 1 to 2 hours. It is estimated that many of the women in Africa spend as much as 1/3 of their lives fetching water. Even more importantly, imagine how little time some children have for school when they must fetch water for upwards of 4 to 6 hours a day.

To put it in perspective, how well would your day go if you had to make two trips of a mile each way, carrying a 5 gal bucket on your head weighing 40+ pounds!

Solution: Large water container that can be rolled instead of carried

A couple of South Africans, Mr. Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, came up with an innovative solution. In this case, they introduced something which already existed, but never conceived of as a new solution for efficiently fetching more water. Rollers filled with water have been used for packing lawns and gardens for years. They are sold by popular DIY stores everywhere in the west. But you can be assured that the women and children with buckets on their heads fetching water in Africa had never seen one, nor did they have access to one as a solution. In short, it was something entirely new in their world and daily life.

Hippo Water Roller

Source: www.hipporoller.org

This new solution is called the Hippo Water Roller. It is essentially a large, round, barrel container that carries 5x more water per trip. When filled, it can be pulled as a roller on the ground, taking the strain off people’s backs and heads. Most importantly, the container holds several days’ water supply so women are not consumed by multiple trips every day.

Three lessons learned from the Hippo Water rollers

  1. Real life means solving practical problems, not breakthroughs

    One of the blinders we put on ourselves is searching for “breakthroughs”. And in the West, those breakthroughs are quite often seen as advances in technology. Real life problems don’t always require technology, or complicated solution. The Hippo Water Roller involves little in terms of technology. The innovation is bringing something that existed in another part of the world to solve a taxing problem of fetching water in an arid rocky climate. Yes, there could be pumps, pipes and even faucets, but how long must the women and children fetch water on their heads waiting for someone with the money to provide advance solutions?

    Don’t strive to invent … innovate by finding practical solutions to problems.

  2. Strive for Occam’s Razor – Find a “Hack”, simpler is better

    I have written previously about Occam’s Razor. It is actually a philosophical principle that given a number of competing explanations, the simplest most often correct. Occam’s Razor might also be applied to finding innovative solutions … the simplest is most often the most practical, cheapest and the one the greatest chance of actually being implemented. Sometimes removing the “usual” solution is the greatest way to take the blinders off to discover something else that can be applied as new.

    The current term is “Hack”. Hacking is the art of innovation by finding things that can be applied in new ways to find practical solutions in business and life.

  3. Cultural bias and experience blinds us to opportunities

    If you go watch YouTube videos on the Hippo Water Roller, the immense value of finding a practical solution becomes immediately obvious. But, if you read the comments below the videos, you immediately encounter cultural blinders and bias.

    Here are some of the comments:

  • This is not anything new, just a plastic barrel that holds water
  • It’s just a drum filled with water that Home Depot has been selling for years to use on lawns … what’s the big deal?
  • Even the Romans used pipes for water … install a solar collector to run a pump to deliver water through a pipe system and eliminate walking.

Obviously, these people have never been to rural Africa. There is no money for pipes and pumps. The rocky terrain is so difficult, there is no way to lay plumbing without massive equipment even if you had pipes. And most importantly, those of us having water running from a tap have not experienced the immense hardship of carrying water on your head for miles to survive. A water roller for the women of Africa is new, and completely life changing.

Until we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, we are blinded by our own culture, values and experience of what is a “breakthrough” that creates value.

How Hippo Water Roller applies to you and your company …

I haven’t used the term “gobsmacked” in quite a while. After seven African Safaris, I was gobsmacked by the Hippo Water Roller and the elegant simplicity of a practical solution. To be honest, I own a water roller for seeding lawns, but I would never have thought of it as an innovation solution creating great value for women who spend 1/3 of their lives fetching water.

Take a couple of minutes to watch the story of Hippo Water Roller innovation.

Hippo Water Roller

Video Credit: HippoRoller

I would encourage you to consider applying the Hippo Roller story:

  1. Share the Hippo Water Roller story with friend and colleagues. Ask them how you/we can apply the idea of finding more “Hacks” … simple solutions for practical problems.
  2. Play the Hippo Water Roller video(s) in a company meeting. Challenge your team to come up with ways of applying “existing things” in a new ways to change the work environment and customer experience.
  3. Challenge yourself personally to find innovators who are finding ways to improve the quality of life for others. Invest some money and time in those making a difference. You might start with the Hippo Water Roller. http://www.hipporoller.org/solutions/

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