Producing Porridge for the Poor: Human-Centered Design at Work in the Slums Surrounding Nairobi

July 9, 2012: Stories From the Field. Guest blog post by Laura Arendacs, Meghan Coleman, and Liz Gicharu, co-founders of Timamu Food Solutions, a student-run venture improving nutrition in East Africa’s urban slums. Through a market-based approach to chronic child malnutrition, Timamu is developing nutritious porridge flour designed to address the hidden hunger of micronutrient deficiencies in babies’ diets – namely Vitamin A, iron, iodine and zinc.

Team Timamu exploring the urban slums surrounding Nairobi, Kenya

Team Timamu exploring the urban slums surrounding Nairobi, Kenya

As students in the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA Program, we learned how to develop innovative business models. During this summer’s practicum in Kenya, we are focusing on product development for our fortified porridge flour. To do so, we are using the concepts of Human-Centered Design to understand and incorporate the needs, hopes, and aspirations of our target market into our product.  The HCD Toolkit was popularized by International Development Enterprise, and offers new tools to understand a community’s needs while encouraging innovative solutions and financial sustainability.

Our goal is to first determine what mothers desire in the foods they buy for their young children. Through in-depth interviews, product attribute card sorts, taste tests, and in-context immersion, we have been able to more effectively connect with our target market, understand where gaps exist in current product offerings, question our own assumptions, and find inspiration for solutions-based thinking.

Getting to Know Kenyan Mothers

Elizabeth Gicharu getting to know the target market.

In-Depth Interviews: In this phase, Timamu collected stories to understand the needs, dreams, and behaviors of the people we aim to serve – mothers living with children aged 6 to 59 months in urban slums. So far we’ve uncovered some interesting take-aways: First, we’ve learned that on average, households live on 217 Kenyan Shillings (US$2.59) daily, 70% of which is spent on food. Additionally, mothers cited more and higher quality foods for their children as one of the greatest desires for their family.

Experiencing Porridge Preparation Firsthand

Meghan Coleman experiencing porridge preparation firsthand.

In-Context Immersion: Intentional immersion in the living environments of our customers – in places where mothers live, work, and socialize in the urban slum called Mukuru kwa Njenga – also has provided compelling insights.  For example, business transactions are very relational and trust has to be built personally between individuals through time spent in the community. Working with our key contact and local resident Jayne Njambi has been instrumental in breaking down barriers between our team of outsiders and the village members.

Taste-testing Fortified Uji Flour in Kenya

Team Timamu conducting taste tests of their fortified uji flour product in Kenya.

Taste Testing: A taste test at this stage allows us to incorporate consumer feedback from the outset of product design.  While the first taste test revealed that 80% of the mothers preferred the traditional uji flour made from pure millet to enriched porridges with rice bran, significant themes emerged. We confirmed that adding rice bran adds an additional five minutes to cooking time. In addition, strong adverse reactions to the taste of the porridge with rice bran indicate the necessity of additional additives such as sugar and citric acid to mask its flavor.

Determining Important Product Attributes

Laura Arendacs observing a Kenyan woman determining which product attributes are most important to her.

Product Attribute Card Sorting: The card sorting exercise helped us to better understand the most important characteristics mothers require when purchasing uji flour. We asked respondents to categorize a variety of product attributes into three buckets: Must Have, Would Like to Have and Not Important. Although product attribute preferences varied, the single attribute of calcium in the form of milk was consistent across our sample.  Interestingly, calcium had not been a proposed ingredient in our porridge mixture. Since mothers already associate calcium with improved health and nutrition, Timamu will include calcium moving forward to leverage these perceptions.

Using this HCD approach has enabled us to engage our customers at a deeper level and fully anchor our design process around their needs. If you have suggestions or are interested in following more of Timamu’s journey, please visit our blog at

This entry was posted in Global Orientation, Highly Applied Curriculum, Stories from the Field, Sustainable Enterprise. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Producing Porridge for the Poor: Human-Centered Design at Work in the Slums Surrounding Nairobi

  1. Kathy Thomas says:

    This is a very interesting project! Being a dietitian, I was completely interested in the attitudes and reasons behind the supplemental additives that the team has suggested. With the onset of newer protein packed grains such as Quinoa, Farro, Kashi, etc, I was wondering if you have considered these as an option? They are easy to grow in these areas. Great work and thank you for shedding light on this topic. I look forward to seeing the results.

  2. Pingback: My Favorite 5 Posts from 2012 | Make a Difference

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