Ending the cycle of sickness

Mitch Horrocks conducting research in Uganda

Mitch Horrocks conducting research in Uganda

In summary: 
  • Mitch Horrocks is a Bachelor of Design (Honours) in Integrated Product Design student who has spent months living in Uganda developing a stovetop extension to reduce water-borne illness in rural African communities
  • Now back in Sydney, Horrocks is perfecting the dimensions of his prototype in order to make production as cheap and easy as possible for rural African communities

Mitch Horrocks is a hands-on designer. So it comes as no surprise that for his final-year honours project, he spent months living in Uganda developing a stovetop extension to reduce water-borne illness in rural African communities. 

“The idea of creating something for rural African regions is something that I’ve thought about for a while,” explains the Bachelor of Design (Honours) in Integrated Product Design student, who has volunteered in Uganda many times since high school.

But it was his degree’s focus on user-participatory and user-centred design that really inspired Horrocks to research how he could use these ideas to create products for the developing world. He found that products introduced into developing countries often fall short of their intended goal because of differences in cultural norms, overlooked skills gaps or any number of complex reasons that international organisations don't take the time to consider.

"It's important to listen and solve problems the community identifies,” affirms Horrocks, “rather than the problems that we see, because they live very, very different lives to us."

Field observations form Mitch Horrocks conducting research in Uganda Field observations form Mitch Horrocks conducting research in Uganda

The identification of a need for clean water in these villages stemmed from a 2015 trip to Uganda, where Horrocks travelled to a variety of tribes with different languages and cultural norms. 

"It was really good," he says. "Everyone was really helpful and I managed to do a lot of good research – through surveys, interviews and focus groups – just trying to understand their day-to-day lives.

"There's no running water, no electricity and very little reception. But I didn’t limit my focus solely on aspects like sanitation or agriculture. I just sort of looked at the broader view of everything, just in case I missed something by being too narrow."
 
Reflecting on his findings after this trip, Horrocks developed the idea of a "cycle of sickness".
 
This cycle begins when children drink un-boiled water and fall sick with dysentery, typhoid or cholera. Mothers with sick children often need to take days away from work to visit the nearest hospital, which means the family can’t afford to buy additional charcoal or firewood to boil their water. And the cycle starts again.

Mitch Horrocks conducting research in Uganda Mitch Horrocks conducting research in Uganda

Horrocks explains, “There’s a knock-on effect from this cycle ¬because attendance for school drops when kids get sick, plus their parents can’t afford the school fees, so they don’t get a proper education and end up being farmers like their parents.”

While there are water stoves on the market, through his research Horrocks learned many women couldn’t afford them or the necessary fuel. So he began investigating the idea of a product that would boil water in a way that could be integrated into the already well-established routine of cooking.  

The solution? A stovetop extension to sit over the family’s food pot that would hold an additional pot for boiling water using the same heat from the meal cooking underneath.

During a visit to Uganda this year, Horrocks spent several weeks in the Kinyantale Village observing the women’s daily cooking routine before developing his product. He then enlisted a metal working company in Kampala, Uganda to create a few prototypes before returning to the village to test out his design.

Now back in Sydney, Horrocks is perfecting the dimensions of his prototype in order to make production as cheap and easy as possible for rural African communities.

"I’ll never be able to have the opportunity to do something like this as a designer ever again,” says Horrocks. 

“I definitely went into my final-year wanting to spend time in those areas and have the opportunity to create a product that wasn’t just from some guy who thought he knew what Africa needs, but someone who's actually been there for a while and understands it. It’s been a really good opportunity to create something that I believe can actually make a difference."