Working with Food and Human-centred Design
Since 2012, Food for Education has been operating in Nairobi. Wawira Njiru, Founder and Executive Director of this social enterprise, embraces Human-center design in her everyday practice
Food is a medium that can enable a lot of different projects. This acquires a particular meaning when the people involved come from disadvantaged situations, such as poor people from the Global South. As this topic has become more and more relevant, different organisations and institutions have raised the need to use different approaches to develop projects for this specific audience.
One brilliant example is the Philantrophy university, run online and supported by Berkeley Haas, in which both philanthropy is seen as a unique asset and new concepts - such as Omnipreneurship - have been forged. Another example is Amplify, an organisation that in collaboration with Ideo.org organised several calls to action with a big social impact. One of Ideo.org's major contribution in this context is surely the Human-centred design methodology, which is being used by companies and institutions internationally to design their solutions.
In early 2016, Amplify and Ideo.org unveiled the list of winners of a challenge dealing with urban slum communities and their resilience to the effects of climate change. One of the winners of that challenge was Food for Education, a Nairobi-based social enterprise run by Wawira Njiru.
Method Pliant engaged in a conversation with Food for Education's Founder and Executive Director, to understand the role played by food and human-centred design in her company.
What is Food for Education?
Food for Education is a social enterprise that provides nutritious meals to vulnerable school children to improve education outcomes. We provide heavily subsidised meals to children in public schools and cover the costs of the subsidies through food businesses in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
We started our operations in 2012 by providing meals to 25 children and have increased that number reaching almost 2000 children. We are expanding to more schools and have a target of reaching 1 million children in 10 years.
Food for Education has been part of the Amplify program. Can you tell us more about it?
Food for Education was one of 8 Amplify challenge four winners last year. Our solution addressed the question ‘how might urban slum communities become more resilient to the effects of climate change?’ We had been running a community restaurant for a few months as a way to generate money to sustain our feeding program, but the profit margins were low and we were struggling to engage our target market and subsequently couldn’t increase the number of children we were providing meals to. We submitted our idea which was ‘School-run restaurants which turn profits into school lunches in Kenya’.
Through the Amplify process of beneficiary and expert feedback, we refined our idea to target better our potential market and looked at ways to partner with other local and government organisations, to expand and add value to our program.
After winning, the implementation phase has consisted of a 3-month prototype phase and a year-long pilot phase which we’re currently in. We’ve had the opportunity to collaborate closely with the Ideo.org team to test various assumptions about our business and feeding program, run experiments, work closely with our users and learn better what is important to them and how we can meet their needs. Working with the team at Ideo.org has been a privilege for us: we are a small organisation working on the ground, and we learnt how to use human-centred design to better deliver services to our beneficiaries.
In what way the Human-centred design approach influenced your idea?
Through a human-centred design approach, we were able to test various food businesses and improve our food subsidy scheme. We have increased our profit margins and we are therefore able to provide much needed meals to more children.
Few organisations will fund you to run experiments and test what works and what doesn’t, but through Ideo.org’s funding partner DFID we were able to run experiments to test various food businesses such as food delivery, catering, food pop-ups and the restaurant which we had been running.
The lessons from these prototypes have been invaluable to us.
For example, we were able to learn that we had been creating a product for the wrong target market and could serve more people if we concentrated on food deliveries instead of running a restaurant. We pivoted to a food delivery business and incorporated food pop-ups and catering services and this has led to an increase in our profit margin. As the business aspect of our organisation has grown, we have increased the number of children accessing our school feeding program. We were able to do this by improving our food sourcing and through higher profit margins reduced the cost of a meal for students to $0.15 to $0.10. This has made our program more accessible to more students and currently are reaching 2000 students compared to 300 before we started using the human-centred design approach.
In what way is this methodology still influencing your everyday activities?
Human centred design continues to influence our everyday activities because in every process, we run experiments. From the most effective ways for customer acquisition, food delivery and how to expand our feeding program and offer better value to our students, we are always brainstorming and experimenting solutions to problems.
Prototyping for an entrepreneur is an extremely valuable and liberating process. It enables us to deal with failure better, recover from it and move forward with lessons learned. This is faster and more effective than investing a lot of time and money into one solution then realising it doesn’t work. It also makes work a lot more fun and interesting because we are consistently learning and trying different solutions.
For example, we have run simple experiments like giving fruit with their meal to students to see whether this will boost numbers and have found that simple things like giving a banana or mango as dessert can increase student numbers by up to 30%.
Human-centred design continues to guide our work as we expand to ensure that we are providing services in the most effective way to our users.
What is the biggest challenge in working with food in Kenya?
The biggest challenge is the luck of consistent supply of food locally and regionally. Most farmers in Kenya are small-scale farmers and there are very few commercial farms. During drought seasons, like the current one, food prices are inflated by over 200%, raising the cost we have to cover for subsidies and making it more difficult for families to access nutritious food. Often, the lunch we provide will be the most nutrition packed meal that the students will have and therefore it has to be heavy in protein which is necessary for muscle and cell growth in children. Protein is generally expensive and therefore during short supplies, it becomes even more difficult for us to provide this.
Broken food systems that disenfranchise farmers and little investment into agriculture continue to be a challenge on our country and continent. A lot of food is imported instead of grown locally and there are definitely opportunities to grow the agricultural sector’s resilience to weather changes and improve our local food supply.
What is the role of the food supply chain in reducing prices for the students lunches in Nairobi?
The food supply chain is extremely critical in lowering food prices. In Kenya, farmers often sell their food to middle men who bring food to the market at double or triple the prices giving little value to the farmers and inflating the cost of food. At Food for Education, we have worked to cut off the middle man in our supply chain and access food directly from farmers where possible.
This works well for us with vegetables but is still a challenge for maize, rice, flour and legumes which we often buy from suppliers who import them regionally because of little supply locally.
Sourcing vegetables directly from farmers has helped to lower our costs and therefore our cost of production increasing our profit margin for the business and lowering the cost of subsidies for student meals.
What is the biggest goal you achieved so far?
Growing our business to target more customers and increasing our profit margin and growing our school feeding program to target 2000 students through a central kitchen and transport model up from 300.
What’s the next challenge you plan to embrace?
We are working closely with other partners on the ground - including the Ministry of Education - to expand our work. In the next year, we are looking to begin the construction of a central kitchen that will have the capacity to provide over 100,000 meals and pilot this with up to 10 schools through a transport model. We are learning from India’s Akshaya Patra, (a company that provides 1.6 million meals a day) and are using these lessons to scale to our goal of providing meals to 1 million children a day in 10 years.
We are also looking to scale our business operations to other cities in Kenya, to reach more customers and make profits that we convert to school lunches.
By using human-centred design, our approach continues to be innovative as we create new solutions to problems that have persisted for generations.