Wat’bag—the name refers to a bag of the type found in ‘bag in a box’ packaging and the water it is meant to carry. A sterile plastic pouch system that fits inside jerrycans, it is designed to allow the transport of water while preventing it from getting contaminated by oil, petrol, and bacteria.

It was designed by Chloé Louisin and Nadine Nielsen, two recent graduates of Strate School of Design in France, and took top honours nationally for the 2015 James Dyson Award. We asked them about how the design came to be, and what might come next for the project.

Q: Tell us about your trip to Togo and what you saw there.

We went to Togo as volunteers for an NGO called Urgence Afrique, or “Africa Emergency” in English. Our first mission was to raise awareness about environmental protection in Kuma Konda village.

During our trip we noticed the difficulties people had in getting drinkable water, especially in small and remote villages. Apart from water supplied by NGOs, local people drank rainwater or stagnant water that they stored in dirty containers. That’s why keeping water clean was also a big issue we wanted to work on.

Q: Two years later, you partner with Doctors Without Borders, study the Mugunga refugee camp in DRC and come up with Wat’bag. How difficult was it to do the research remotely?

It wasn’t very easy as we had to pay attention not to misinterpret the refugees’ habits and life there. That’s why we worked in partnership with members of Doctors Without Borders who had field experience and knew the issues of these refugee camps. We also read a lot of local articles concerning Mugunga and watched videos and looked at photos of it.

Thanks to our studies and feedback from Doctors Without Borders, we realized that drinkable water was often carried in jerrycans, for different reasons (due to their size, their resistance, etc.). We were astonished by the uncleanliness of the jerrycans and their toxicity, despite the solutions proposed by the NGOs: chlorine and soap.

Q: Your project was in response to what you found out about refugees and the way they—and others around the world—transport water. Do you see this product also being sold or distributed to non-refugee populations?

Indeed, we worked on a specific problem and we realize that Wat’bag could be applied more widely. In addition, this project could also help all the communities who are concerned by similar issues with drinkable water.

Q: You say the design is inspired by the ‘bag in a box’ packaging concept usually used for wine. How and when did your eureka moment happen?

First we decided not to modify the jerrycans themselves as they were part of the refugees’ habits and were well adapted to the transportation of water. As the real issue was related to health and contamination, we focused our research on the medical and food aspects.

We made the connection with the bag-in-box concept and our project as they both are used to keep the contents “drinkable”. Like with the bag-in-box, we needed to have one part in another part, with both parts having distinct but also complementary functions. The first function is to keep the properties of the liquid and has to be antiseptic and smooth, the other function is to be rigid and adapted to transportation. Solutions can be found when we pay attention to details of everyday life like drinking wine.

Q: How important was it for the solution to be as simple as possible?

It was really important for a few reasons. The first reason is cultural. Rather than coming with a new jerrycan, which would impact too much on the behaviour of the population and would probably not be used, we wanted to find a solution that would easily adapt to the existing elements and to the population’s habits. We also realized that jerrycans were already being used all over the world, and we thought it would be a big waste to replace them.

The second reason concerns NGOs. Wat’bag is easy to transport and distribute, as they can be piled up making logistics easier. It would also be less expensive to produce Wat’bag than developing new jerrycans.

We felt this was a good solution because it reaches all the different goals we set ourselves. We wanted it to be intuitive and efficient, to be well thought out for the population and for the NGOs.

Q: The project was developed in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders and they have selected it for further development. What can you tell us about how that is progressing?

We are currently in contact with some people from Doctors Without Borders including the Water and Sanitation Advisor. We hope that this partnership and discussions will help us to find a way to produce a few prototypes of Wat’bag and to test it in field conditions. The best would be to organize a mission in which we could distribute them to communities that would then tell us what we have to improve.


About Nadine Nielsen and Chloé Louisin
Nadine and Chloé both attended Strate School of Design, where during their second year they completed a one month mission with Urgence Afrique in Togo, assisting with issues related to reforestation and environmental awareness. This shared passion for humanitarian work surfaced again when they had the opportunity to work with Doctors Without Borders for an entire semester as part of their three-year Product Design specialization. This time the focus was on the issue of water distribution in refugee camps. With encouragement from Doctors Without Borders for their Wat’bag concept, they have persisted with the project beyond their graduation year.

For Chloé, design has always piqued her curiosity due to its omnipresence in daily life. She finds design to be a fascinating field that constantly pushes her to analyse human needs and behaviours, but also to look for meaning and order in a multi-faceted context.

Nadine considers that the design profession requires practitioners be in touch with their own humanity, and be capable of empathy and curiosity in order to best address current and future needs. It is for these reasons the profession of designer was appealing to both young women. Nadine was also influenced by her father, founder of Handpresso, who instilled in her a passion for innovation.

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