FORGET necessity: frustration is the mother of invention. But it is also a mother of a job to go from good idea to great product. This is one woman’s story, which began with frustration, moved on to fortitude and fabrication, and ended in product design, development and dispatch to retail outlets far and wide.
Early one morning in 2001, Durban clothing designer and mother of two, Desere Strydom finally resolved to stop crying over spilt milk. For the umpteenth time that week, she had watched milk splash onto the kitchen counter as she decanted the liquid from a one-litre sachet into a small jug for breakfast.
Setting irritation aside, she decided that there had to be a way of still benefitting from the more cost-effective packaging option – milk sold in sachets is up to R2 cheaper per litre than milk sold in plastic bottles or cartons – without the mess and wastage.
“I was determined to save money by buying milk in sachets,” she recalls. “But, being analytical, I calculated the waste incurred each year due to spilling (because of the flimsy, collapsible nature of the plastic bags) and was horrified. Something had to be done.”
Strydom, who says she has “always been a bit of a tool chick”, dug out the toolbox and began modifying the basic plastic jug, which she and her family used at the time to more or less effectively to store sachets in the refrigerator. A handful of nuts, bolts and plastic bits later, she had assembled what would eventually become the prototype of the award-winning Clip It milk sachet jug.
But it did not, at that point, occur to Strydom that she had constructed something with commercial promise or value beyond her own home: “It was simply for convenient use by my family,” she says. “But every time I took the contraption out of the fridge in company, it drew comments and admiration.”
Increasingly, she acknowledged that if she and her family found the device so handy, others would too. Eventually, at the insistence of friends and family, Strydom consulted patent attorneys, Adams & Adams, who patented the concept on her behalf.
“I realised at that early stage that, if I was going to do it, it would be best to do it right, deal with professionals and not cut corners,” she says. “Adams & Adams specialises in patents and took care of everything in that regard.”
Determined to get every step of the process right first time, she then approached Durban design company, Sumo Design to help rationalise and streamline the product. A key consideration at this stage was to ensure that the product could be produced at a cost that would be easily covered by the sensible potential market price of the finished product. Manufacturing techniques and materials were also examined and tested.
The outcome was the injection-moulded Clip It sachet jug, which is specifically designed to hold a one-litre sachet securely and at the exact angle for mess-free pouring. Made from food-grade approved polypropylene, the dishwasher safe jug fits neatly into the door of the refrigerator and features a suspension device that grips the top of the sachet to prevent the bag collapsing into jug as it is tipped. The clip is moulded to create torsion by manipulation, thus eliminating the need for other parts, which could potentially come lose or break.
Shortly after she had completed the design of the Clip It jug, Strydom won a Liberty Life/FairLady Business Start-Up Award. Just two days later, the product received a SABS Design Institute Prototype Award.
In less than 12 months, the young Durbanite had gone from frustrated consumer to entrepreneurial designer.
“Despite being a qualified clothing designer, my exposure to product design with the Clip It jug in 2001 made me realise that industrial design was an exciting and potentially satisfying field. And so, as Clip It was born, so was my new career as an industrial designer,” reminisces Strydom.
Enthusiastic about her new vocation and product, she established MSB Design, which “very precociously, is the acronym for My Stunning Brain,” she chuckles.
As she discovered during the years that followed the Clip It jug’s early successes, Strydom stresses that award winning design and product development are only the beginning of the journey to commercial triumph.
Once testing was over and production engineering processes finalised, she and her business partner, Alan Martin – whose Pietermaritzburg-based company, KB Engineering is responsible for production, assembly and logistics – began marketing the product. Despite having established that a significant market existed for the Clip It jug, it was not easy to convince retailers to stock the somewhat unusual new product.
“Getting the jug out there was challenging and has required patience,” she says. “Dealing with retail chains means closing the deal can take as long as a year. It was slow but finally seeing the Clip It jug on the shelves of major stores throughout the country and in Mauritius and Botswana has been worth it the effort and endurance.”
While Strydom invented the Clip It sachet jug to sustain savings and to prevent milk spillage, a significant spin-off is that it also contributes to achieving environmental objectives by reducing packaging.
She estimates that South African households save about R200 a month by purchasing their milk in sachets instead of in plastic bottles. At the same time, because a milk sachet contains 75% less plastic than a conventional two litre plastic bottle, it is, she claims, the most environmentally friendly option available on the market.
“In fact, a milk sachet contains as much plastic as you will find in the screw-top of a two litre bottle.”
The Clip It jug was last year selected as a featured item on the Future of Design Expo at the 2009 Johannesburg Homemakers Expo. The Future of Design Expo “recognises design with a conscience”.
While, according to Strydom, about 74% of fresh milk sold in South Africa is packaged in sachets, the notion of buying milk in bags is more novel in other countries.
In the United Kingdom, supermarket chain Sainsbury’s claims to be leading the drive to reduce the quantity of packaging passed on to its customers. In a long line of initiatives from that country’s supermarkets to deflect criticism that they are responsible for the majority of packaging that ends up in landfill, Sainsbury’s began encouraging customers to purchase milk in sachets two years ago. Basic plastic jugs were given away to promote the practice. Today the chain estimates that 3% of its 24-million weekly customers – that is 720 000 shoppers – have switched to regularly using bags. The company reckons that switching from bottles to bags could save up to 1 400 tons of packaging.
Although many other countries are also increasingly selling milk in sachets, bagged milk has been around in countries like China, India, Poland and Canada for decades.
Indeed, there is nothing new about buying milk in sachets in this country and many others. What is new though, is the fact that the sachet is truly convenient when you combine it with a jug designed – by a frustrated woman on a messy Durban kitchen counter nine years ago – specifically for that purpose.
“Yes,” concedes Strydom. “That’s true. But for me, the Clip It jug is a symbol of what anyone can achieve by being resourceful, creative, determined to do things right and prepared to be patient.”
(First published in Business Day in March 2010.)