This post is part of a 14-part series on entrepreneurship in Africa and the companies who participated in the inaugural Unreasonable East Africa program.

For anyone hoping to improve the health outlook of the poor in Africa, there’s no shortage of problems to address. From lack of malnutrition to malaria to lack of sanitation, it can be hard to know where to start. For the founders of SmartLife, it all starts with water. But water is just that—a start.

It all starts with water. But water is just that—a start. Tweet This Quote

On the surface, SmartLife is a drinking-water supplier. The company is based in Kenya, where about one-third of the population lacks access to safe drinking water. SmartLife sells water in urban slums, to customers who purchase monthly plans or buy on pay-as-you-go arrangements. They can also pay an additional fee (about 1 cent per liter) for home delivery.

But for SmartLife CEO Jack O’Regan and COO Tyler Goodwin, the water sales are a means of establishing SmartLife as a trusted health brand where people will go not only for water but also for products like micronutrient powders for battling childhood malnutrition.

SmartLife started in 2012 as a partnership between two nonprofits—the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and Water and Sanitation for Urban Poor (WSUP)—and the global conglomerate Unilever. With an eye toward creating a lifestyle brand rather than just another clean-water program, they hired O’Regan, an Irish civil engineer, and Tyler Goodwin, an American product-launch specialist. They also hired the non-profit arm of IDEO, the international design consultancy that, among other things, created the first Apple mouse.

O’Regan and Goodwin joined the IDEO team on a nine-month project human-centered design project—a process geared toward understanding individual and communal needs. The goal was to explore the best route for a clean drinking water and wellness brand in Kenya. The team found that normally women made purchasing decisions for the households and that people trusted reliable brands and would pay ahead of time to trusted services. To establish SmartWater, the company tried to create various ways for consumers to interact and build a relationship the brand—in retail settings, on the phone, and through delivery.

SmartLife is operating two profitable stores in Nairobi, serving more than 3,000 customers, and has plans to open up to 200 outlets across urban Kenya, with a workforce of more than 1,500 people spreading its message about health and wellness to over 300,000 customers.

Nate Beard

Author Nate Beard

Nate is a thinker and instigator who occasionally tries to write, sometimes on

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