This is part of a series highlighting notable entries to our 2012 Innovation By Design Awards—Ed.
About a year ago, two design students named Alex Cabunoc and Ji A You traveled from their homes in Los Angeles to Cerro Verde, a 30,000 person slum outside of Lima. As students in the celebrated Design Matters program at Art Center College of Design, which focuses on social innovation, they had come to Cerro Verde as part of a special studio called Safe Agua Peru. Their goal? Develop a commercial product that alleviates issues related to water poverty, targeted at people who earn between $4 and $10 a day.
The students spent two weeks in Cerro Verde, working closely with inhabitants to prototype "co-created" products at a break-neck speed. Since returning, nearly half of the students have won International Design Excellence Awards, and a student-made documentary about the trip called Hands in the Mist has been shortlisted for a Young Directors Award at Cannes. Cabunoc and You’s design—a manually powered washer and dryer that costs less than $40 called GiraDora—has drawn special attention.
When they first arrived in the slum, the pair were shocked at the amount of time Cerro Verde’s inhabitants spent collecting the water needed to perform the most basic tasks. "So much time, energy, and resources are used for basic water chores like cooking and cleaning," remembers Cabunoc. "It leaves little time for other activities that might help one get out of poverty." In particular, washing clothes is a major timesuck—it can eat up as much as six hours a day. There are major physical challenges involved with doing a simple load of laundry, too: lugging heavy buckets of water from a clean site, for example, or finding a way to dry the clothes before they get moldy.
The duo knew they had uncovered a huge opportunity for innovation by design. Why didn’t a manually powered washer or dryer already exist? They got to work, building a series of study models based on salad spinners and other similar human-powered devices. But their first finished prototype—a spin dryer—didn’t quite hit the mark with Cerro Verde’s inhabitants, who countered with an idea for an ad-hoc combination washer and dryer. "They felt it added more value as one single product," writes Cabunoc. "This radically changed our design direction."
Their revised concept, developed on-site in the slum, is much the same as their current prototype. GiraDora is a blue bucket that conceals a spinning mechanism that washes clothes and then partially dries them. It’s operated by a foot pedal, while the user sits on the lid to stabilize the rapidly churning contents. Sitting alleviates lower-back pain associated with hand-washing clothes, and frees up the washer to pursue other tasks. It’s portable, so it can be placed nearby a water source, or even inside on a rainy day. It reduces health risks like joint problems, skin irritation, and mold inhalation. Most importantly, it uses far less water and cleans clothes faster than conventional hand-washing. This equates to more free time, explains Cabunoc, and the opportunity to "break the cycle of poverty."
GiraDora could have easily become another forgotten student project, left to languish at the back of a portfolio. But Cabunoc, who is clearly a budding entrepreneur, has spent the last six months pitching the idea to scholars and investors. He and You took GiraDora to Chile for a second test run, integrating user feedback into a second prototype. They were invited to pitch the device at a number of conferences, winning accolades from Dwell, Core77, Dell Social Innovation Challenge, and the International Design Excellence Awards.
Then, this spring, the team received a NCIIA E-Team grant of $19,500—a sum that will take GiraDora from a pitch deck to a real-world pilot program. Over the next year, the duo will travel back to Chile and Peru twice more, to test their business model and carry out long-term durability research. If all goes well, they could be rolling out a pilot program as early as next year, with plans to expand to India after that.
There’s still a long way to go, explain the designers, who say their five-year goal is to reach "at least 15%" of their ultimate goal of 1 million users. What’s the simplest metric they’ll use to gauge GiraDora’s success? "Ironically, when a family has outgrown their GiraDora by moving up economically."