OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Unpackaged for Good - the micro business refill solution.

Social enterprise helping women in low-income areas to set up businesses selling refillable personal care products in their own communities.

Photo of Catherine Conway
11 10

Written by

Unpackaged for Good will develop the original Unpackaged retail model into a micro business opportunity for women in developing countries, particularly rural communities, disintermediating the supply chain to create social, financial & environmental benefit. 

The problem of single use sachets is two-fold: where no municipal waste services exist, the disposal of sachets leads to serious environmental & human health impacts. Each year approximately 9 million people die of diseases linked to mismanagement of waste and pollutants (20 times more than die from malaria). UNEP (2015) 

Secondly, despite the appearance of sachets providing an economic solution to low income consumers, it is our estimation that consumers are paying over the odds (ml per ml) for the convenience of buying in small quantities and this is something we would like to change.  

However, single use sachets fulfill the needs of low income consumers. Sachets are tamper-proof & easy to transport; buying in small amounts helps to manage tight budgets for low income families; sachets avoid product waste and offer flexibility of products within families, whilst allowing consumers to buy into aspirational brands. 

The aim of Unpackaged for Good is to tackle these environmental & financial challenges with a low barrier to entry solution, whilst still answering the needs of consumers.

1. How It Works:

The Dispenser

The idea is to create a small refill unit that can be stored (securely and hygienically) in the seller’s home, either for sale at the house or, to be transported to a central community location for selling. The unit is designed so that the pumps are retracted when not in use, and the unit is securely fastened both to protect from any accidental spillage/ ingesting of products, as well to protect the economic value held in the product. 

The refill unit will consist of standardised, easy to find jerry cans & pumps. Each pumped ‘dose’ is the equivalent to 1 sachet, removing the need for costly measuring equipment, and enabling those with low literacy & numeracy skills to operate the system. 

The pump dispenses a pre-measured amount, e.g. 10ml. Such a pump will dispense a predetermined amount and, if used by the seller (rather than consumer self-service) this should mitigate against a consumer trying to take more without paying for it. However, the pumps are expensive and need to be carefully designed to ensure they suit the viscosity of the product being dispensed to ensure there are no blockages etc. We have approached a UK pump manufacturer to provide pro-bono expertise to identify the best solution.

The HDPE jerry cans are widely available to purchase new by the manufacturer and will be secured into a simple metal unit created from waste materials (we are looking at rebar - used for creating reinforced concrete) welded locally into a secure unit to hold the dispensers. We are working with product designers to create a simple to follow design that can be produced by one of the many welders that operate locally. . 


The seller’s bulk jerry cans will be refilled by the product manufacturer (or their distributor) who will provide pre-filled, sealed, jerry cans and swap for empties, hygienically cleaning and refilling the jerry cans back in the factory. Refilling the bulk product at the factory will provide a reassurance of quality and hygiene by the company. This model relies on working with a local manufacturer (and/ or their distributor) who can transport the refills to the sellers. 

The Consumer Container

Having looked at the options for materials, it is evident that a small reusable plastic bottle is the most desirable container for ease of use for the consumer; as well as being the most acceptable because it will look like a small standard shampoo bottle (see our attached diagram looking into how far you can take a new system & materials before the consumer rejects it). 

This bottle would ideally be made of rHDPE depending on local availability. HDPE/ rHDPE is the most easily recyclable material in the trial area we are looking at, so would be our preference. The bottle will have a label showing company branding, as well as a reuse message to encourage refilling. 

There could also be an added loyalty system (such as a card or token system)  to encourage refilling but this could only be developed by understanding the local context as to whether such a loyalty system is culturally appropriate. 

Business Model 

Using a pre-existing women’s empowerment development model, we intend to create a micro-business opportunity for women to earn income & a level of financial independence by selling the refillable product within their communities. We believe that this is key to take up of the refillable scheme by consumers in the local community. 

2. Context

We believe that this challenge isn’t one of product design but one of consumer acceptability & behaviour change. We can design a clever reusable packaging system but unless it fulfills the real needs of low-income consumers, and is sold at the right price, it is destined to fail. 

Our experience at Unpackaged shows that you can’t change every element at once (see attached diagram). Whilst the most efficient design might be a clever technological solution; and the “best” product might be organic, chemical free & locally produced; we need to question of how far a new model can be from the current consumer reality before the consumer becomes unable, and unwilling, to buy into it. We understand that the key elements of Price, Brand, Usability & Incentive to Change need to be carefully balanced when designing any new system and it is this we seek to trial. 

Our model, whilst using new plastic containers (bulk dispensers & consumer bottles) is based on a historic way of buying - namely the refilling that used to happen within the beverage industry. By using a model that consumers remember and understand, we increase our chances of the scheme being taken up as it is familiar. 

Local Needs

Thinking of the Hierarchy of Needs - the average low income single-use sachet consumer just wants their family to be clean within the financial resources they possess. That need is being met by the single-use sachets, and low income consumers are unlikely to have a ‘need’ to save the planet when barely surviving on a basic income. 

However, there is a clear need for an alternative to single use sachets, due to the environmental hazard they become due to lack of recycling facilities which impacts heavily on the poor:

  • Each year approximately 9 million people die of diseases linked to mismanagement of waste and pollutants, 20 times more than die from malaria UNEP (2015) 

  • Uncontrolled burning of household waste causes an extra 270,000 premature deaths every year around the world. (Kodros JK et al 2016)

  • Many dumpsites are on the coast (38 or the 50 largest dumpsites in the world are in coastal areas), and spill waste directly into the sea. 

  • Uncollected and openly dumped waste is the largest source of plastic waste entering the sea. More than 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year and the impact of this pollution on marine life is of major global concern. (

It is also worth noting the increasing awareness amongst governments in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) of the problems caused by plastic - in particular plastic bags. There are bans on single use plastic bags in 15 SSA countries so it is not unreasonable to think that a future ban on sachets may follow, in which case finding alternative business models is more than a ‘nice to have’ it is essential to manage business risk. Our Zero Waste model fits well with the strategic aims of such countries and we expect it to be met with interest and support. If sold at the right price, our model can ensure low cost provision of products to poor households, increasing their resilience in the face of any future ban. 

3. Project Trial - Operational Plan 

Our aim is to take the basic idea above & prototype as a form of research. Understanding local needs & context, we aim to set up a small scale trial to test and refine the concept. We aim to run the trial for 4 - 6 months to understand usage patterns and gather the data needed to be able to assess the benefits and challenges of a refill system. 

Broadly speaking, this breaks down into the following stages:


Understanding The Current Product & Supply Chain:

  • What is the cost breakdown of each sachet?

  • Map from end to end to understand how relationships within the supply chain work and understand where ownership lies - use this to develop how the deposit return scheme between the manufacturer and seller will operate (e.g. simple - the seller only gets a refilled container when an empty is returned, or complicated - the seller pays a deposit which ensures flow of new dispensers).

Gather User information:

  •  Run focus group discussions to drill down on the reasons behind purchase of sachets. Why do people buy sachets and why do they focus on particular products?

  • Are there any other products they currently purchase in reusable packaging and if so why? What can we learn from these products & systems?

Improve the Design of Our Current Prototype:

  • Identify key features needed (transportable, hygienic, tamper proof etc.)

  • Design out potential problems (ensure product can’t be adulterated, stolen, ingested etc.) 

  • Enable design to be locally adapted (to be appropriate to local materials, terrain, culture etc.)

  • Ensure all elements are repairable at local level in terms of materials & design.

Develop Selling Structure & Micro Business Concept:

  • Consider experiences from other interfaces between large enterprises and micro-entrepreneurs (e.g. sales of mobile phone credit) to learn from effective and well-tried mechanisms that ensure lots of small sellers get the product of a big company out to lots of small customers.

  • Identify pre-existing in-country networks of business support to tap into, to design the micro business opportunity. Wasteaid UK already holds these relationships. 

Develop An Influencing Framework:

  • We have  identified the following key groups who must be engaged in change for this scheme to work:

1) In country - householders who buy the product; Small traders and local business development and livelihoods NGO's and stakeholders. 

2) International (and most crucially) - the companies that want to do it.

3) Local governments and environmental enforcement agencies who want to reduce waste

  • Through the trial we will develop appropriate messages for each group, for example:

1) Consumer - price point at the same quality. Ultimately, particularly for people with very low incomes, this is the only driver.  

2) Business people - profitability and convenience; reliability of access to material; lack of need for up-front investment

3) Manufacturers - reliable way of getting material to customer; can be done at the right cost; risks to reputation of waste problem

4) NGOs/Donors - way of reducing waste; improving livelihoods for individual sellers; improving public health & the environment

  • Work with on the ground behaviour change specialists to design an influencing campaign

Idea Title

Unpackaged For Good

Company / Organization Name

Unpackaged Innovation Ltd.


Where are you / your team located?

London, England

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

Reimagining both the delivery system and the packaging format, this replaces single-use sachets with a refillable bottle & a locally run refill station; creating a zero waste solution to delivering low-cost personal care products which is also a 'low barrier to entry' micro-business opportunity.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Case 1: Single-use sachet for liquid consumer products

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

The pilot community in which we wish to trial this model is Sincu Alagi in the Gambia. The Women’s Initiative Gambia (WIG) is a long term partner of WasteAid UK and operates in an area with a large waste problem including significant sachet waste.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

The output of this trial will be used in 3 different ways: - Go/ No Go in continuing the scheme, depending on proving operational, financial & environmental benefits. This could lead to a roll out of other products & in other communities if successful. - Data will be used to influence existing companies & supply chains. - Creating an open source online business model toolkit of how we carried out our small scale intervention which could be easily repeated in numerous communities globally.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

Becoming a Top Idea would give us access to the financial resources for research & prototyping; as well as giving us exposure to a network of skills & businesses necessary to make this concept a success. By enabling us to show how this can work in a given community, we can create a toolkit that can be used worldwide, multiplying the benefits of the funding offered to us for the trial.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

I have been thinking about the social possibilities of Unpackaged since I set up in 2006. A visit by the Brazilian brand Natura led to this idea – how bulk & refilling are not only opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of single use packaging; but can also can increase income by moving the means of production down the supply chain to community level. I am a passionate advocate of women’s rights and want to use my experience to bring opportunities to women in their own communities.

Tell us about your work experience

I founded Unpackaged in 2006, the first zero waste refill shop. Since then, I have pioneered refilling through various models: market stall, independent shop, restaurant & a supermarket collaboration.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

Unpackaged Innovation Ltd. is a social enterprise – all profits are reinvested in the company to enable our work to grow & scale.

Attachments (1)


Our thinking re the key questions that need to be addressed when looking at redesigning materials & systems.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lauren Ito

Hi Catherine Conway 

We have received your Refinement Phase Submission Questions! Just a friendly reminder that the Phase closes tonight, August 31st at 11:30 p.m. PT. so please update your contribution on the platform before the deadline.

Thank you for all your work this Refinement Phase and for being member of the OpenIDEO Community!

View all comments