Can Design Thinking help understand Solid Waste Management Systems? Experiences from Tanzania

July 16, 2020

Design Thinking process. Source

Earlier this year, the UNDP Tanzania Accelerator lab embarked on an exciting collective intelligence odyssey to engage  the Mwanza Municipal Council’s environment department team to help re-imagine the city’s solid waste management systems by using design thinking methods and processes in the quest to  find  solutions that  will upsurge its efficiency. As we began this journey, we were fully  cognizant of the fact that the UNDP country office had  provided technical and financial support to the City Council to develop its own investment guide- a blue print providing  investment information to prospective local and foreign investors for the aim of attracting them to exploit investment potentials in the region in order to stimulate business and enterprise development as well as executing development pathways. This assignment being one of the major undertakings since the Acc Lab was established, we could not wait to see how the unfolding complementarity between the entity and other country office initiatives could bring, especially in waste management.

Mwanza is the second largest city in Tanzania after Dar -es Salaam and one of the fastest developing urban centres in Sub-Saharan Africa, a report by the World Economic Forum placed it on a list of 15 fastest growing cities in the world.  It is located on the spectacular southern shores of Lake Victoria in Northwest of Tanzania. It covers an area of 1,337 square out of these 71.55 km2 (28%) is covered by water and the remaining 184.9 km2 (72%) is dry land. Approximately 86.8 Km2 is urbanized while the remaining areas consist of forested land, valleys, cultivated plains, grassy and undulating rocky hill.

The problem and opportunity

According to the city’s official records, Mwanza city generated 357 Tonnes of solid waste per day, of which 70% comprised organic waste. Despite relatively good collection system, it is faced with numerous challenges including shortage of sufficient transport facilities, low investment in collection system, lack of recycling systems, emerging electronic waste problem and absence of system-based approach for disaggregating solid waste into different components. Furthermore, there is minimal community awareness on good solid waste management practices also unwillingness of some users to pay service fee for refuse collection. Moreover, rapid population increase and urban concentration, financial and technological limitations, fast increasing informal settlements and illegal dumping of waste are among top challenges. At the time of writing the City Council had contracted four private companies (aggregators) and 5 community-based organisations dealing with waste collection.

As we undertook this mission, the key questions we had in mind were; what methods or techniques can we use to invoke novel and creative ideas towards solving the problem (s)? How can we get the users of the system involved in the thinking process? How can we analyse the systems, policies, and procedures in place?, Who are the main actors?, Is technology embedded in the system?, Can we use new sources of data to inform the problem?, Can the players in the system think innovation or rather think different?

Delayed waste collection leads to overflown bins

On design Thinking…

 So, what is ‘Design Thinking’? - In brief; design thinking is an iterative process in which we thrive to understand the user’s pain, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, to create new strategies and solutions. Opposed to “Brainstorming”, Design thinking promotes “Pain storming”, to fully understand the user’s pain. The usual Design thinking phases are as follows; 1) Empathize with your users 2) Define your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights 3) Ideate by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions 4) Prototype to start creating solutions 5) Test solutions

Furthermore, according to Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO- a global design company-

“Design thinking is a human-cantered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

What did we do exactly?

The city’s environment department helped us with identifying the  key actors involved in the waste value chain in the region including; aggregators ( waste collecting companies), community based organisations (CBOs)  involved in waste management, big recycling companies, local recyclers such as bio-briquettes makers, political leaders and users from various wards and of course the city council’s management.

As a UN based Innovation lab our goal is three fold; 1) convening different actors across the innovation ecosystem and especially the ‘unusual suspects’ such as techpreneurs or local innovators that are normally left out in the conventional development programming process, 2) legitimizing new sources of data or information that would otherwise be ignored; and 3) enable wider level adaptation of technologies or new ways of doing business to inform policy or development programming at different levels of government.

So, in this case; a group comprising municipal waste experts, private sector, innovators and members of the civil society and users were invited to take a five days journey through a workshop modality ( as seen in this tweet) to re-visit the existing waste management system in the region, specifically in the wards (administrative unit smaller than a district) managed by the city council. To do this, the group tackled the challenge by going through the following steps.

1)     Empathize- Meticulous highlight of regional level  solid waste management status was done including a highlight of  successes and challenges, on the other hand accelerator lab approaches and design methods were explained. The group went to a solution safari in various wards to observe how the community is coping with challenges related to solid waste management. Despite a relatively good level of waste management - majority of residents in semi-urban wards and islands are not an integral part of the waste collection system and therefore end up using multiple local methods of waste disposal e.g. burning. The group was also able to observe first-hand the intricacies of mismanaged solid waste and later immersed in the community to learn the coping mechanisms employed as local solutions by the community such as re-use and organic waste recycling using traditionally made equipments e.g. bio-briquettes drying box and carbonizers as referenced in this Acc Lab past blog.

2)     DEFINE- In this stage, a long list of possible causes to the problems analysed and synthesised them  to define the core problems as observed to make they observed and later by using various methods such as needs analysis, stakeholder mapping, the futures wheel and headlines of tomorrow exercise, the group forecasted the future they wished  to see without being biased.

3)     IDEATE- here, they split into small groups and generated as many ideas as possible they used various techniques such as Worst Possible Idea and SCAMPER to help them think outside the box.

4)     PROTOTYPE- selection of the best inexpensive and scaled down ideas and prototype them by building cardboard models of their solutions in ten minutes. Examples of solutions that came up included automated waste bins, online payment system, local material recovery facility, trash mapping application and local bio-briquette machinery to mention but a few.

5)     TEST- The last day of the session was dedicated to testing all of these solutions while engaging the  users- even though it was quite early to see the results of  most of the solutions, by far most community members and actors agreed to most of the solutions as a result of this process, as per below testimonies;

‘It is quite gloomy that we spend a lot of resources to transfer organic waste to the landfill, a big percentage of this type of waste could be reduced if recycling was done at home to produce fertiliser’ Mr. Desderius Polle, landfill Manager, Mwanza

‘We need to integrate various technologies in the solid waste management system, this will enable us to save resources, increase landfill lifespan and create employment’ Mr. Fanuel Kasenene, Environment officer, Mwanza city Council

'Hypothesis formulation' a participant presenting group deliberations during ideation phase

It was quite amazing how hastily group developed various ideas to address most of the challenges embedded in the waste value chain. As the mission ended, the group came up with various proposals including; 1) create a viable environment for small businesses engaged in recycling by providing guarantees and supporting processes to improve bankability; 2) attract investors in material recovery plant installation and production of compost fertiliser; 3) employ various collective intelligence methods to understand the problem in semi-urban wards e.g. use of unusual sources of data such as satellite data; 4) encourage learning from successful projects elsewhere; 4) run a hackathon to crowdsource ideas that use technology to improve solid waste management systems 5) convene and elevate local solid waste innovators by building a local Innovation forum.

Using Design Thinking was quite an exciting and engaging process, it also helped us learn the potentials of a circular economy in the sub-Saharan setting such as this. Obviously, continuous engagement with various actors such as the private sector and local innovators will eventually build a strong foundation for a vibrant circular economy in Tanzania. Hopefully, lessons from this session will trigger debate and action on the role of local solutions in addressing wider systemic problems such as those embedded in the solid waste system in the city of Mwanza and eventually the entire country.

For more information about the UNDP accelerator programme visit:

By Peter Nyanda, Team lead and Head of exploration, UNDP accelerator lab Tanzania