Bear Valley Ventures, a grantee of USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) program, is investigating how to radically improve hand hygiene habits in India, through product innovation. Bear Valley and partners created Clean Hands Inc (CHI) to develop new products for the urban poor that can be used by households with substandard or no sanitation and constrained access to water. With support from DIV, they have launched their pilot. 

Where did the inspiration for your approach come from?

The evidence that improved hand hygiene can have a positive impact on health is clear and there’s increasing interest globally in promoting handwashing with soap. But in the settings we are interested in – urban slums – there are many practical reasons why soap may not always be the best solution. Reasons like water being a valued resource people don’t want to waste and soaps lack of portability when people go to the toilet outside the home.

Youth in India. Photo Credit: Walter Gibson

What makes your approach different?

Like many with an eye on public health around the globe we want to improve hand hygiene at scale in a way that’s sustainable. However, our approach is different in three ways. First, our products are exclusively designed to get hands germ free post-defecation. Not because other moments like before food don’t matter but because we think defecation is a missed opportunity – what soap manufacturer wants their brand associated first and foremost with defecation! Products for post-defecation need a different functionality and positioning, and we think it’s  easier to target than eating in low-income settings as it can be made more routine. Second, we aim to get to scale through a social business model, which no one else is trying to do in this area. And third, not only are our product formats novel but we have a product ingredient that sets us apart, Byotrol®.

What are the first steps you you’ve taken to get your pilot of the ground so far?

As the funding kicked in, our first step was to fly straight to India to meet with research design agency Quicksand, our partner. Together we checked out one of our products – a foam that doesn’t need rinsing – with households in slums in Bangalore; met experts with whom we’ll work over the coming year on issues like distribution, positioning, and packaging; and re-worked our plan for the year. In parallel we’re working with Byotrol Consumer Products Ltd, our technology partner, on product formulations, which will incorporate their unique anti-microbial technology Byotrol®.

What have your biggest challenges been so far? What will be your biggest challenges in the future?

There are so many challenges it’s hard to know where to start! On the hygiene side we’re trying to innovate practices people do habitually and unconsciously. They are not driven by a belief that if I don’t clean my hands properly someone could get sick or die. So we’re not tapping into a desire that exists and will have to create one. On the product side affordability and distribution are huge challenges. And as a team we have to make sure that we use everything that happens over the coming year – including the set backs, to learn and move forward to achieve our vision of improving health through hand hygiene where it matters most.