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Hippocratic Oaths and Hippos

A rethinking of the MBA, and a redesign of a water transport device for developing countries.

Good news this week for MBAs like myself who believe that business skill can be used to do good: we came across a trend towards more ethical MBAs, after last Spring’s Harvard MBA class signed a sort of businessperson’s version of the doctor’s traditional Hippocratic Oath. Since then, schools across the country are adding ethics courses to the curriculum, and MBAs are being encouraged to see the degree as a tool for effective management, not just a ticket to a high paying job.

It isn’t yet clear to me exactly how (and if) ethics can be taught to MBAs, however, I’d like to explore this further in future posts. But right now I’d like to turn your attention to an inspiring MBA who is harnessing her business expertise to bring water to developing countries, by helping to spread a simple design, which addresses the root causes that are trapping families and entire communities in poverty.

The Hippo has been in existence for 15 years, originally designed by two South African men and currently produced in South Africa, to facilitate the safe and efficient transport of water in the developing world. The original design cost $100 per unit, and holds approximately 24 gallons of water. For families in South Africa and many other parts of the developing world, water must be fetched multiple times throughout the day, the traditional methods (gerricans and buckets) only holding about 5-8 gallons at any time. The Hippo’s volume and ease of use allows households to spend less time fetching water, and more time going to school, running businesses, and with their families.


The Hippo has a particularly strong impact on women:

Research shows that women when women have extra time, they choose to spend it on activities that boost family income and well-being. In addition, women with even a few years of basic education have been shown to have smaller, healthier families, are more likely to be able to work their way out of poverty, and are more likely to send their own children to school. Female education is accepted as an effective strategy to break the cycle of poverty.

In 2008, we identified an opportunity to improve the design for greater shipping efficiency and a lower price point. The rotationally molded plastic barrel had slight design flaws, and its lightweight hollow form made it expensive to ship to anywhere outside of South Africa. In the summer of 2008, we partnered with Engineers Without Borders San Francisco to undertake the re-design and re-engineering of the device.

After user testing and multiple iterations of prototyping, the final re-design emerged as a two-part “capsule” version of the iconic original. Because of its two-part form, the re-designed Hippo could be nested and stacked, potentially even shipped with a water filter in the hollow area between the two parts. A simple yet sturdy gasket seal was engineered to ensure water tightness. The new version of the Hippo Roller improves shipping capacity by over 200%, and may also provide opportunities for distributed manufacturing in other parts of the world.

Learn more at their site or see their latest news on Facebook.

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AndreaSep 16, 2009

Comments on this post


This is great work and it would be nice to see this being used in India as well where women have to walk miles to collect water and bring it back on their heads, one container on top of another that can climb up to about 3-4 vessels of water.

Tara at 5:03am on Thu, Sep 17th.


What a great idea. I’ve never seen this before and was wondering what organizations are working to get this out to the masses?

Jeana Lawrence at 8:22am on Wed, Nov 4th.


  1. Another Trip to the Wello -- BlogLESS: A Blog about Design Ethics on Mon, Sep 13th

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