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“Soap” Operas for WASH Behavior Change

Mobile phone behavior change campaign tied to hygiene products packaging (eg, soap) that encourages customer retention and healthy behaviors

Photo of Charishma Chotalia
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Our contribution aims to use the power of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to promote WASH behavior change among traditionally marginalized populations. IVR presents a unique medium for providing this content based on soaring mobile penetration rates in India and the ability for voice technology to engage with high proportions of the population by reaching across barriers of literacy, language and logistics.

The basic mechanics involve printing a phone number and unique codes on consumer hygiene and sanitation products – namely soap wrappers and toothpaste packs. Consumers are invited to call these toll-free hotlines through advertisements on radio, television, and word of mouth and enter the unique code.  On the first call, the caller will be prompted to enter basic demographic information: gender, preferred language, rural/urban, wealth, education, etc.  During subsequent similar calls, behavior change and brand messaging can be tailored to the specific socio-demographics of the caller, their unique calling history, and factors such as time of day (e.g., hand washing messages before dinner; tooth brushing messages in the evening).

Consumers will be incentivized to buy more of the products and engage with the behavior change content through promotions, rewards and the entertaining content itself (“soap” operas). In this way, we are both able to collect rich data from our beneficiaries but also keep them engaged in behavior change messaging around sanitation and hygiene by gamifying their learning experience. Importantly, we will be testing out various incentives (both intrinsic and extrinsic) at the start of our program to see which ones result in the highest engagement rates, and ultimately in getting people to wash their hands with soap.

This same principle can be applied to any products supplied by social businesses with the possibility of increasing sales, increasing customer retention, and creating greater impact in the communities that they serve. This model represents a low-risk opportunity to test an innovative approach that would merge social mission behavior change campaigns with brand building.

How would you describe the stage of development of your idea?

  • Ready for piloting

How big or scalable is the potential of your idea?

From a technical standpoint, we have the necessary infrastructure to engage consumers across the country with IVR content. We anticipate the business model to be scalable, as the value companies gain through increased sales and customer awareness will outweigh the airtime and content development costs. This campaign has the potential to reach over 100 million people. As the Challenge description states, 769 million people lack access to hygienic sanitation, with the vast majority of people living on less than $5/day. Our concept is focused on low-cost consumer products that are basic necessities and within the cost of living of most people (~Rs. 17 per soap bar). Additionally, the markets for such products are large and competitive, a sign of the reach of our concept as well as the interest it can garner from companies looking to differentiate. For example, the soap market in India is ~$2 billion USD annually, with 5 companies holding between 7-17% of the market share.

Explain the sustainability aspect of your idea

The idea has sustainability built in by pairing WASH behavior change campaigns with brand building. Fast-moving consumer good companies like Unilever and Godrej, as well as social businesses, will benefit from the mobile engagement tied to their products as a way to drive sales and increase customer retention, while contributing to Corporate Social Responsibility priorities. We anticipate companies covering the costs of the intervention, particularly for airtime and content development, given the anticipated business benefits. Another potential revenue model would include advertisements within the soap opera behavior change content.

What types of financing would be required for your idea to be successful?

This idea will require initial funding for the proof of concept before companies are likely to come on board to cover costs. We propose grant funding to cover an initial trial with 2 to 3 social businesses in India. Key Performance Indicators would include mobile engagement rates, WASH related behavior change, and changes in sales and retention rates of the product. If we find success across these metrics, the case for companies to cover costs going forward as well as the ROI for companies to go to scale with such an idea will be that much stronger. For the initial trials, funding will be required for a program manager, content development, airtime costs, printing costs, and mass media marketing (radio and television). We will seek funding both through grant opportunities as well as through reaching out to businesses that may be willing to be early adopters to cover the costs for the trial.

If you are proposing to partner with other organizations, please explain their role and reason for partnership.

We anticipate partnering with fast-moving consumer goods companies (e.g., Unilever, Godrej) as well as SMEs and social businesses that produce and distribute hygiene and sanitation products like soap and toothpaste.

In-country experience

  • Yes, for two or more years

If you have been operating in India, what has been your focus?

VOTO has been implementing projects in India since 2013 and opened its India office in Mumbai in 2015. We are in the process of registering our organization in India and anticipate being fully registered by June 2016. We have the technical capacity to implement IVR and SMS projects throughout the country. Our projects in India include using IVR to gather data to better understand how long vaccine fridges need to stay cold without electricity, and enabling NGOs to quickly provide information and gather feedback from their end beneficiaries. We see ourselves as enablers for organizations seeking to create social impact across sectors including WASH, maternal health, agriculture, financial inclusion, and civic engagement.

Is your organization currently legally registered in India?

  • No

What states or districts will you target/are you targeting within India?

We envision this idea targeting multiple states across India, and would work directly with partners to choose which states to prioritize. Questions that we would ask before deciding on what those districts are include 1) what are the districts with the highest rates of diarrhea and pneumonia?, 2) within those districts, what are mobile penetration rates like? Does every household have access to a mobile phone? What is network connectivity like?

Tell us a bit about yourself.

VOTO Mobile is a social enterprise with offices in India, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Canada, and the US. Our mobile services help our partners share information and gather feedback by engaging difficult-to-reach populations. We make it easy for organizations to reach their stakeholders through interactive SMS or voice calls (including IVR) in local languages, instantly reaching across distance, language, and literacy barriers. To date, our product has been used by 550 organizations to reach 3 million people across 40 countries. Our partners include UNICEF, UNFPA, Stanford University, and MAMA. The concept submitted is by Charishma Chotalia. Charishma is based in Mumbai and spends her time building out partnerships and program design across South Asia. She has significant experience working in the social sector, including time with UN Women, the Women’s Refugee Commission, and Samasource. She holds a BA in Psychology from Stanford University and a MPH from Columbia University.

Is this a new or recent idea for your organization? How does it differ from what you are already doing?

This is an idea that we have been thinking about for a few years now, particularly in conversations around project sustainability. We have had several discussions with Unilever over the years, and most recently, are exploring working on a similar project with Unilever and FHI 360 in Ghana. This project differs from what we are already doing by targeting partnerships in the private sector. One of the biggest pain points for project sustainability in the social sector is funding. By forming a partnership with private sector organizations, we would be able to keep the project running even after funding runs out.

What are the two or three biggest risks for your idea and how will you manage the risks?

The two biggest risks for this idea are: 1. People not listening to the content. To navigate this risk, we would need to spend the first few months running A/B tests on our material to collect feedback from beneficiaries to find out what would get them to listen. We would need to explore questions about the type of content that’s most interesting, the types of voices that are preferred, what types of incentives work the best, etc. 2. Private sector companies not being interested in partnering. This is where the funding from will be especially beneficial for reducing the risk of the first private sector partner. The pilot will allow us to measure the effectiveness of the intervention (e.g., cost to acquire a listener, engagement rates, stated behavior change, cost to deliver curriculum, change in frequency of sales per listener). It will give us the chance to create a signature use case that will make it easier for other private sector organizations to get on board.

How would you propose to track or record the households or customers reached?

Since we would be targeting people through their mobile phones, we would be able to track the number of people reached by using their phone numbers as their unique identifiers. Through their phones, we would also be able to collect various demographic information as well as self-reported behavior change information.

If you had two years and $250,000 USD in funding, how many households or customers would you reach?

The main factor that will determine the number of people we reach is the amount of money we have to spend on airtime. After covering: 1. Technical fees (IVR platform, monthly connection to mobile network operators, IVR minutes, incentives to increase mobile engagement, advertising) 2. Personnel fees (content development consultant, project manager), and 3. Other fees (travel, accommodation, communication, M&E, and reporting) We would have $127,200 to put toward airtime, which would allow us to reach 181,715 households. The assumptions are that there would be 10 modules, each module would last for 5 minutes, airtime is $0.02/minute, and we expect that not everyone will listen to each of the 10 modules completely. The formula we used, then, was: X = $127,200 / (10 modules * 5 minutes * $0.02/minute * .70 engagement)

How would you propose to invest $250,000 USD if you received philanthropic/grant funding support from

Key Activities: 1. Meet with private sector organizations in the hygiene space and form partnerships with them. 2. Hire a hygiene and handwashing consultant to to develop an edu-tainment soap opera with themes around handwashing with soap. 3. Advertise the program through radio and television. 4. Hire a project manager to run the project through the VOTO Mobile platform, collecting feedback and iterating on the content. 5. Pilot the content in two states in India to figure out the best formula for keeping beneficiaries engaged in the content and committed to washing their hands with soap. 6. Roll out the 10-module mobile-based IVR program more broadly across the two states. 7. Measure baseline and endline results in the two states. 8. Conduct focus group discussions and in-person interviews to improve content and marketing for scale-up.

What type of support beyond grant funding are you most interested in?

We would be interested in promoting this project through the Swachh Bharat campaign and getting help with government engagement. Being able to partner with the private sector and the government would allow us to create a project that is sustainable over the long term and has the large-scale impact we hope to achieve. Additionally, we aim to include human centered design in all aspects of our program and would benefit from building our skills in that area through support from

Does your organization have Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) approval?

VOTO will soon be registered as a Private Limited Company in India (within the next month) and not as a non-profit, so we don’t have FCRA approval in India. However, we are eligible to receive grants from donors because we have 501(c)(3) status in the US through a fiscal sponsor and have received several grants in the past from organizations like USAID and Vodafone Foundation.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lipika

Hi Charishma,

We like your idea of 'soap' operas for WASH behaviour. Our team of Water Rituals are working in Delhi to engage young women from workers' settlements to create interactive content in attractive formats for mobile phones. We would very much like to explore possibilities to collaborate with you. Thanking you in advance and looking forward hearing from you.

Photo of Charishma Chotalia

Hi Lipika,

Thanks for reaching out! I have sent you a direct message so that we can find a time to touch base either this week or next week. Looking forward to chatting with you soon!

Photo of Lipika

Thanks for mailing me. I will write to you for a chat meeting. Looking forward!

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