Improving Sanitation through Empathic Design: Meet Jasmine Burton, a PSI Global Health Corps Fellow

By Maria Dieter, External Relations and Communications Assistant, PSI

Each day, the youth of today find innovative ways to combat injustice. In the world of global health, some of these young people can be found as fellows in the Global Health Corps, which was founded by Barbara Bush to combat some of the injustices she found while working with children affected by AIDS in South Africa and Uganda. This year, PSI is lucky enough to have two GHC fellows working in Zambia.

Jasmine Burton, a recent graduate of Georgia Tech, has joined Society for Family Health (a PSI network member) to work on issues of sanitation in southern Africa. Jasmine is hugely passionate about the global sanitation crisis, and hopes to use her time as a GHC fellow to affect positive change in global health. She has already made a phenomenal impact on global sanitation: while still an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, her senior design team designed the SafiChoo mobile toilet, which has been endorsed by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Center for Disease Control.

PSI’s Maria Dieter recently chatted with Jasmine to learn a little more about what motivates her to drive sanitation innovation. Please see tomorrow’s blog post to hear from Jasmine’s co-fellow in Zambia, Lute M’kala.

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You have an incredible background in global health, specifically in sanitation. SFH is lucky to have you! What motivated you to choose global health?

In 2011, as a freshman at Georgia Tech, I was inspired to do something about the global sanitation crisis at a women’s leadership conference. I learned from a Georgia Tech alumna and one of my current mentors, Susan Davis of Improve International, that nearly half of the world doesn’t have access to a toilet; of those people, women and girls are disproportionately burdened. Specifically, I learned that pubescent girls in the developing world frequently drop out of school as a result of their schools lacking toilets. As a product designer and woman in higher education, this reality angered me so much so that I left the conference and called my mom to say “I know what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to design toilets.” This declaration about my destiny was made at the wise age of 18 and was fueled by my design education. I was learning that many product designers design trend products that are fashionable for five to ten years, but that are then thrown away. I knew that I did not want to design something that would be thrown away when a new style becomes trendy. Three years later, I had the incredible opportunity to design a toilet for the Kakuma refugee camp as a part of an interdisciplinary senior design capstone at Georgia Tech, and that led to the birth of the SafiChoo toilet.

 Why do you want to work in Zambia?

In addition to being beautiful and friendly, the Zambian government and NGOs are making huge strides in improving WASH infrastructure and to end open defecation for all regions of the country. With projects supported by UNHCR, CDC and the World Bank, I was immediately attracted to the opportunity to live, work, learn and grow in Zambia during such a dynamic time.

Kenyan locals

Getting to know the locals in Naivasha, Kenya.

Arriving here around the time of increase load shedding has been challenging. However, the electricity challenges in Zambia have forced people and organizations to use more creative problem solving solutions in order to continue doing their great work, which has bred a growing community of young entrepreneurs here as well. I love being surrounded by young global change-makers that aspire to use business acumen to create impactful solutions that can be rapidly iterated and scaled.

What did you know about PSI/SFH before being chosen as a GHC Fellow?

Before being chosen as a GHC Fellow, I knew very little about PSI and SFH mainly because I was only focusing on developing relationships with WASH NGOs and toilet design; however, now that I have officially begun working at SFH, I have realized that much of the work that is being done here is complementary to the WASH space and is very relevant to my overarching passions for women’s empowerment and social justice work.

I am excited to bring my creative expertise in the forms of graphic design, video editing, web design and more to SFH to help creatively brand and rebrand reproductive health and family planning initiatives through human-centered design principles. Similar to WASH work, reproductive health is often times seen as a “taboo” topic, resulting in people being afraid or uncomfortable talking about it. I believe that if you cannot talk about something, then you cannot improve it; therefore, my mission for WASH and during my time at SFH is to help normalize this conversation in an effort to invite all people into the dialogue and empower them to make the most educated decisions for themselves.

In 2014, your senior design team won the Georgia Tech InVenture Prize competition for the design of an inexpensive mobile toilet. Could you tell me a little more about the toilet?

The original SafiChoo toilet design included a sit-squat toilet seat, which enabled people of all abilities to use the toilet, and a three-part drawer system that separated the different consistencies of waste so that it could be repurposed in the community. We were able to pilot our design the Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya last summer under the auspices of Sanivation and in tandem with the CDC and Norwegian Refugee Council. We learned that the drawer system and seat were not intuitive for the users; therefore, now, we have a much wider toilet bowl and have a bucket-based waste collection system all of which has been designed to improve the overall user experience via empathic and human-centered design principles. I have since founded a social startup called Wish for WASH, LLC to house the development of SafiChoo and that is intended to bring innovation to sanitation through culturally-specific research, design and education. SafiChoo is currently being manufactured as a production prototype in Atlanta, GA, and our Wish for WASH team plans to bring a couple toilets to Zambia to get feedback from users in various provinces here.

SafiChoo_and_Jasmine

SafiChoo_toilet_1

According to UNICEF, 2.6 billion people lack hygienic sanitation facilities and 768 million people drink unsafe drinking water and, of these people, women and girls are disproportionately burdened by poor sanitation and water inequities.

Your work has focused specifically on improving women’s health via WASH infrastructure. Tell me a little more about how women’s lives can be improved this way.

According to UNICEF, 2.6 billion people lack hygienic sanitation facilities and 768 million people drink unsafe drinking water and, of these people, women and girls are disproportionately burdened by poor sanitation and water inequities. These statistics represent the societal deficiencies that are comparable to the mission of PSI/SFH as it relates to women’s empowerment, access to preventative care, and education. Women and girls are perpetually disempowered around the globe, but most evidently in the developing world; they are often times deprived of educational and career opportunities due to the lack of menstrual hygiene products, properly designed WASH infrastructure, and water accessibility since many women spend most of their days fetching water.

Teenage years are hard enough without feeling perpetually ashamed and embarrassed about menstruation and puberty because of the lack of privacy, properly designed toilets, and menstrual hygiene products. This leads to a host of both mental and physical issues that ultimately culminate in a plethora of young girls dropping out of school. As a millennial woman who has been blessed with the opportunity to achieve higher education, this reality is simply unacceptable for me. This reality called me to act. This reality changed my life.


You can follow Jasmine on Twitter @jasminekburton or @wishforWASH, and on Instagram @jazzayfresh.

To hear a little more from Jasmine about sanitation through empathic design, watch her TedxAtlanta talk:


To see the SafiChoo toilet “in action,” watch Jasmine’s video from the Georgia Tech InVenture Prize competition: