Moving beyond the tippy tap

A woman washes her hands from a tippy tap in Uganda. Tippy taps do their job for sanitation, but we need to be innovative to truly make our mark. Photo by: Dennis Alioni / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The tippy tap is a ubiquitous device in many rural, developing communities.  

Comprised of a suspended bottle or jug filled with water and a lever used to release small amount of water, the tippy tap can take many forms but the function is the same — to provide a convenient hand-washing station. And it serves that purpose quite well. The tippy tap can be created by children, sourced from local materials, and is inexpensive to produce. This and other similar hand-washing devices can be used to spark a conversation about hygiene, but they do not necessarily facilitate the crucial, long-term adoption of hand-washing as a habit.

The water, sanitation, and hygiene sector and the broader development community can and should do better. Now is the time for innovation on this so-called “hardware” side of hand-washing. Now is the time to move beyond the tippy tap. As such, on Global Handwashing Day I want to explore both the ways in which innovation is occurring and cast a vision for how this innovation can be spurred going forward.

First, the WASH sector must learn from the lessons of our colleagues in other areas of development. I have a card on my desk that reads “better design is part of the solution”, and there are other sectors, such as urban planning, that are realizing this truth and from which we can draw inspiration. At the recent TEDxWBG event, Jeff Risom of Ghel Architects described how people-first design of public spaces provides an opportunity to create a canvas that addresses the needs, creativity and preferences of users. The same opportunity is present within the hand-washing space. Hand-washing stations shouldn’t only be utilitarian; they should engage with the user in a way that encourages their use. The Mrembo hand-washing station, developed in collaboration between by the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health’s Sanitation, Water and Sanitation Program and the International Finance Corp. is one excellent example of how user-centered designs can be implemented in the development of a hand-washing station.

Second, we must consider the spaces where infrastructure isn’t conducive for hand-washing. Of course, disasters and emergency situations are what first come to mind. However, there are many everyday instances in which people should wash their hands, but are unable to because of an absence of a hand-washing station with soap and water. Prerna Seth, a graduate student at Columbia University, realized that one space in which hygiene is desperately needed, and noticeably absent, is at mobile food vendors. And so, as she described at a recent hand-washing innovation event, she decided to dedicate herself to the development of a hand-washing station that met both the needs of mobile food vendors in India and was useful to customers. We should continue to think about where hygiene infrastructure is necessary, but not yet present.

Finally, to incentivize innovation, we need to have a better understanding of the current hygiene circumstances in countries where it is most needed. Currently, global household surveys measure the availability of hand-washing supplies at the household level; however, to truly gauge if people are washing their hands outside of the household, we need to measure the availability of supplies in public spaces, such as schools and healthcare centers. As the United Nations agrees upon new Sustainable Development Goals, the inclusion of WASH indicators at the extra-household level will help incentivize further creativity within service delivery.

I recently heard someone say that if we want people to change the world, we must first inspire them. Likewise, if we want people to change their behavior, we must inspire them. Tippy taps have a purpose, but the hand-washing challenge is great, and we must be more innovative if we want to truly make a mark. I know that I am inspired by the creativity and potential for momentum around innovation within the WASH sector, and I hope you are as well. Likewise, I am looking forward to further inspiring ideas and conversations around development’s most entrenched challenges during Devex’s upcoming Healthy Means conversation. Let’s continue to capitalize on these vital skills to ensure that we are empowering the communities in which we work to access the best possible services, for it is only by moving forward in new ways that we can hope to truly address some of the greatest development challenges of our generation.

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About the author

  • Woodburn hanna

    Hanna Woodburn

    Hanna Woodburn is the deputy secretariat director for the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing, where she works on strategic communications and advocacy initiatives. Hanna holds a M.A. in Communication, Culture, and Technology and an Honor's Certificate in International Business Diplomacy from Georgetown University. Prior to earning her Master's Degree, Hanna worked in public policy.