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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!

Photo of James

Do you know the demographics about what age group has the most cell phones/cell phone usage. If the younger generation could get targeted by this, so it becomes the "cool" thing to do, it could really help influence the use of IVR. As the younger generations grow with this, there would be the risk that they outgrow it, but there would also be the possibility that it becomes common practice. What types of incentives were you thinking to provide and would it be economical? 

Photo of Charishma Chotalia

From the work we have done in various countries (including India), mobile phone ownership tends to be highest among adult males. That being said, there are certainly several ways to target the younger generation with WASH behavior change information that we could test. 

On the incentives front, we would spend the first 3-6 months testing out various incentives - both intrinsic (explaining personal, family, community benefits) and extrinsic (discount on next bar of soap, airtime, etc). Through these tests, we would identify which incentives seem to work best in getting people to engage with the content and ultimately change their behaviors. We tend to prefer intrinsic incentives, and have seen positive results with that approach when done properly.

Photo of Christopher

Why would someone call the number? Is there a certain incentive? How much would the soap cost?

Photo of Charishma Chotalia

Hi Christopher,

Thanks for your questions. I'll do my best to address your questions below:

1. Why would someone call the number? We would advertise the number through radio, TV, and on-the-ground partners. In those advertisements, we would mention that people would have access to entertaining content that would simultaneously provide them with important health information. Through several rounds of user testing, we would create an IVR-based program that beneficiaries actually find to be both entertaining and informative.

2. Is there a certain incentive? We would spend the first 3-6 months testing out various incentives - both intrinsic (explaining personal, family, community benefits) and extrinsic (discount on next bar of soap, airtime, etc). Through these tests, we would identify which incentives seem to work best in getting people to engage with the content and ultimately change their behaviors.

3. How much would the soap cost? We would work with our partners (the soap manufacturers) to determine a price point.

Photo of Emily Getty

Prioritizing your target districts will be important strategically as you want to hit the target markets with the most potential for growth. I would be looking for a more strategic answer than "working directly with partners to decide."

Partnerships and roles. It will be important for you to specifically choose partners based on target markets. Vaguely stating "fast moving consumer goods companies" is not enough. Who are the companies and partners you want to target? Why? How are you going to do it? Which company/partner will be important for pulling in others? Who are the influencers?  

What is the real incentive to a consumer to participate? What do they get for providing the information? How do you get the right people to participate? Not just bored old ladies, and curious children.

Photo of Charishma Chotalia

Hi Emily,

Thanks for all of these great questions, and for pushing us to go that extra step in thinking about the implementation of this project. I'll do my best to address each of your questions here, and would be happy to chat more on the topic with you at anytime:

Prioritizing target districts: While we would work with partners to decide on priority districts, there would be several questions that we would be looking to answer before deciding on what those districts are, including 1) what are the districts with the highest rates of diarrhea and pneumonia (both of which are illnesses that result in the deaths of millions of children under the age of 5, and whose rates could decrease significantly by handwashing with soap)?, 2) within the districts with the highest rates of diarrhea and pneumonia, what are mobile penetration rates like? Does every household have access to a mobile phone? What is network connectivity like? I won't list out all of the questions here, but essentially, there would be a host of research involved on our end to make sure that we choose communities where we would be able to have the highest impact.

Partnerships and roles: The partners we would want to target include companies like Unilever and Dettol (large soap manufacturers). I would consider Unilever to be very important strategically, and we have engaged with them in conversations before around similar ideas. 

Incentive to consumer: We would want to spend the first 3-6 months testing out various incentives - both intrinsic (explaining personal, family, community benefits) and extrinsic (discount on next bar of soap, airtime, etc). Getting the right people to participate is definitely something we'll focus on quite a bit, which will require the help of local NGOs that are working in the districts that we decide to target.

Photo of Katerina Katsinis

Hi Charishma- 

This is a great idea. The first thought that came to mind was how you plan on getting people to call and if you see this as one of the largest hurdles? 

Photo of Charishma Chotalia

Hi Katerina-

Great question! We plan on advertising the program through radio and TV ads, which is a method we have used successfully in the past with other projects. We might initially also look into partnering with local NGOs that are working in the communities that we're targeting so that they can help us in spreading the word. While I don't see enrollment as the largest hurdle, I do think that our content will have to be engaging enough to get people to keep calling back. We plan to run a lot of tests with our content to collect feedback initially, so that we can get the formula just right - informative, yet entertaining.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Charishma, interesting post! Any chance you could find an image to go along with it? Images help grab attention and tell a story with higher impact. You should be able to use the Edit Contribution button on the top of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.

Photo of Charishma Chotalia

Thanks for the recommendation!

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Charishma, we've added new Refinement questions to your original idea submission form. To answer the new questions, hit the Edit Contribution button at the top of your post. Scroll down to the entry fields of the new Refinement questions. Hit Save when you are done editing.