Smart solutions for human and environmental health
Simple, scalable initiatives that enhance day-to-day living offer huge potential benefits for human health and that of the planet. FORESIGHT Global Health asked the founders and CEOs of three innovative startups how their solutions build healthier and more resilient populations and reduce the effects of climate change—and why education is key to their success.
The clean air startup
Smart Air Paddy Robertson, CEO — China
Q: What is the inspiration behind Smart Air?
A: Our founder, Thomas Talhelm, was a student living in Beijing in 2013 when the ‘airpocalypse’ [a period of particularly poor air quality] struck and he was looking for a way to protect himself. Like in many Chinese cities, air pollution is a big problem in Beijing, especially during winter, with implications for human and environmental health. Air purifiers cost around USD 1,000, which is a lot of money for a student and other people on low incomes, so Thomas set about finding a cheaper solution.
Q: How do your air purifiers work?
A: Thomas did some research and discovered all that is needed to construct an air purifier is a fan and a HEPA filter. It is that simple. So, he made his own DIY air purifier for just USD 30, which an air quality monitor showed was just as effective as the more expensive air purifiers. He shared his findings in a blog post, and more and more people started approaching him asking him to make them one. That is how Smart Air entered the market with a $30 air purifier.
The essence of Smart Air is to democratise the air purifier industry to make these products available to everyone so they can be protected from the harms of air pollution in indoor environments. All that has changed seven years later is that we have made our air purifiers a little bit better looking. We also have larger air purifiers that have bigger fans and bigger filters, but they are still just a fan and a filter.
Q: Why does an air purifier manufacturer spend time on education and awareness initiatives?
A: We’re a social enterprise, and we do a lot of work educating people about how air purifiers work through our blog and workshops. There are a lot of bogus claims in the industry—right now the buzzwords are ‘bipolar ionisation’ and ‘UV purifiers’—and we work to debunk the idea that air purifiers need to have these fancy things to work well. In some ways, our ‘product’ is telling people the truth about air purifiers: that they are simply a fan and a HEPA filter.’
We also try to encourage behavioural change to help solve the problem of air pollution. We educate people about broader solutions to air pollution, like riding a bike to work instead of taking the car. We also strive to create environmentally friendly products and reduce packaging waste. For example, the packaging for one of our products is 99% plastic-free and recyclable.
Q: What is next on your journey?
A: So far, we have shipped over 70,000 air purifiers globally. We have partners in six Asian countries, where air pollution is a particularly serious problem, and we have engaged with distributors in the US, UK, Netherlands and several other countries. We are using a franchise model, which means we can scale much, much quicker. In the next few months, we will launch a new USD 30 air purifier, which will be accessible to many more people.
But the biggest impact we can have will be in creating education and awareness about the problems of air pollution and our low-cost solution. We have conducted more than 500 air pollution workshops attended by 15,000 people. This is really how we can scale—by reaching the masses via the internet and raising awareness that a fan and a HEPA filter is all that’s needed for an effective air purifier. Then the knowledge will trickle down, and we just need to make sure people can access our air purifiers.
The women's health startup
Julie Weigaard Kjær, CEO and co-founder — Spain
Q: How does period poverty affect women, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)?
A: Menstruation can be inconvenient and difficult to manage, especially in LMICs. Together with my co-founders, Maxie and Veronica, I did a lot of research into what’s now called ‘period poverty’. After contacting organisations all over the world that work with women, we realised something that I had never thought about in my life as a menstruating woman: if you don’t have disposable income, or access to disposable income, to go to the shop and buy the products you need, menstruation is a huge challenge. It can become something that gets in the way of work, life and educational opportunities, and in many countries, there is a lot of shame and taboo related to menstruation.
Q: How do menstrual cups promote better health and environmental outcomes?
A: We were introduced to menstrual cups and became convinced that they’re the best period products for women. They are comfortable, and you will always have them on hand—you’ll never run out like you can with pads and tampons. Menstrual cups are also much more sustainable than pads and tampons because they require fewer raw materials to manufacture and contribute much less waste to landfills. Single-use menstrual products generate 590,000 tonnes of waste each year in the EU alone. Because they’re reusable and therefore cost effective, menstrual cups are a great solution for women who live in LMICs.
We developed and designed a menstrual cup called Ruby Cup in 2011. We wanted it to be a business from the get-go and not a charity so we wouldn’t be relying on donations. That’s why we came up with the ‘buy one, give one’ model. We sell the Ruby Cup online commercially, then we donate one cup for every cup sold.
Q: How important is education to the adoption of the menstrual cups?
A: When the business was launching, we moved to Kenya for three years. We really immersed ourselves in the field—we talked to girls and women to understand their problems. What we saw was a massive lack of knowledge about menstruation. So very quickly we adjusted our model to include education and support for women. We work with local organisations that have a presence and have built trust in the communities where they work. We have created a curriculum about menstruation, the female anatomy and how to use and look after a menstrual cup.
Girls and women that receive our cups tell us they have this feeling of freedom, of independence, because now they do not have to ask for money to buy pads or they do not have to use rags or things that are shameful. They have a cup that is their own.
We are never just sending the cups alone to our users, as we know that if you do not have the training, follow-ups and support in place, most of the cups will go to waste because the end user will be too scared to try it. When education programmes are carried out according to our recommendations, our cups have an adoption rate of 80-90% among end users.
Q: How have you scaled your distribution for greater impact?
A: So far, we have donated 114,000 cups to women in 16 countries across Africa and Asia, and we have also launched programmes in Europe because period poverty is an issue everywhere where women struggle with income or vulnerability. We now work with big NGOs like CARE International and PSI as well as smaller grassroots organisations. The scalability really depends on our partner portfolio. If we can find good partners that have the capacity to manage distribution, we can scale. The more cups we sell, the more cups we can donate, and the better the environmental and health impacts.
The clean cooking startup
Kennedy Afia, founder — Nigeria
Q: What sorts of problems do Nigerian households encounter with common cooking methods?
A: Indoor air pollution caused by burning solid fuels like charcoal and firewood for cooking is associated with serious health problems and even death, especially among women and children, as well as serious environmental impacts. In rural areas of Nigeria, many people are still using these methods of cooking. And for households that have gas, they are often caught out when the gas in their cylinder finishes unexpectedly, such as while cooking a meal. I came up with the idea for Rapid Gas when my mum was cooking on a Sunday morning and ran out of gas before the meal was finished cooking.
Q: How does your solution help when households run out of gas?
A: We have developed a gas cylinder smart metre that tracks and monitors the fuel level of gas cylinders remotely. It will sit on top of the gas cylinder and connect to a kitchen interface, wirelessly sending data from the cylinder to the kitchen interface so the user knows how much gas is left in the cylinder.
Before a customer runs out of gas, they are notified that the level of gas is running low and invited to place an order for a refill. The initial cost of switching to gas can be very high, so we offer smaller 3kg and 6kg cylinders. To cater to rural communities without good internet, we are using Bluetooth technology.
Our main target group is low- and middle-income people living in rural and semi-rural parts of Nigeria who are accustomed to cooking with charcoal and firewood. We hope that our product will help them switch to gas, which is a cleaner and safer cooking method. From my research, I have not seen a similar solution that is trying to solve this issue in Nigeria.
Q: What are some of the challenges in delivering your product to consumers?
A: Not everyone is familiar with gas cooking. What we are trying to do is encourage a ‘transition in energy mix’, where we teach people about clean cooking and the benefits for the natural environment. As a result of our campaign, a lot of homes have switched from charcoal and firewood-based methods of cooking to gas. First, we needed to help them see the need for cooking gas as many of them did not understand the benefits.
Q: Do you plan to expand outside Nigeria?
A: Our gas cylinders are already on the market, and we have about 500 users in Nigeria that are buying cooking gas as a service from us. It has been a big achievement to see local communities in rural areas embrace cooking gas. We plan to launch our tracking technology [smart metre] in the first quarter of next year. Later in 2022 we hope to expand in Nigeria, and in the future, we are hoping to be the leading brand in the industry in Nigeria and across Africa.