Soap and superheroes: how the Super School of Five is changing lives

Oct 10 · 6 min read
Students from Ngangula Primary School in Zambia perform as the Super School of Five superheroes. © Sightsavers/ Jason J Mulikita

Five years ago, when we introduced a group of superheroes to ten schools in Kenya, I had no idea where they would take us or how much impact they would have.

Fast-forward to 2019 and 370,000 children, not only in Kenya but in Zambia and Ethiopia, now know how to prevent trachoma, the most common infectious cause of blindness in the world, and are able to protect themselves, their families and others from the devastating experience of losing their eyesight. Yet despite all that has been achieved, in some ways I feel we are just at the beginning. In the next month we will begin expanding the programme in Ethiopia, the country with the highest trachoma prevalence in the world, creating a scalable model that can be incorporated into Ethiopia’s national education programme. The impact of this could be huge.

Trachoma is a neglected tropical disease most commonly found in poor, rural communities with limited access to clean water and sanitation. The disease is easily spread from person to person, yet it’s entirely preventable. The simple act of hand and face washing with soap can help reduce the risk of trachoma in children by 60%. That’s why, in 2014 Unilever and Sightsavers created the Super School of Five, inspired from Lifebuoy soap’s School of 5. This innovative programme features five cartoon superheroes designed by Craig Yoe, the creative director who worked alongside Jim Henson on The Muppets, and his wife Clizia Gussoni. The engaging characters help children remember the five key times that hands and faces should be washed every day.

Teachers from Nansenga Primary School, in Chikankata, Zambia, teaching their class about the Super School of Five. © Sightsavers/ Jason J Mulikita

Around 340 schools and 3,700 teachers in Kenya, Zambia and Ethiopia have used the programme since it began. The impact has been massive — an evaluation of participating schools in Turkana, Kenya in 2018 found face and hand washing increased by 40% after the intervention, a level of change that had been sustained 20 months after the programme ended. Supported by other activities, the prevalence of trachoma in communities where the programme has run has fallen by 30% on average.

Soap and superheroes

The programme aims to form, then reinforce, good hygiene habits. It works because it’s fun, memorable and rewarding, and is based on what current evidence tells us are the factors that motivate children to change their behaviour.

At the heart of the programme are the five superheroes: Hairyback (my personal favourite), who encourages kids to wash their hands after using the toilet; Biff, Bam and Pow, triplets who encourage hand washing before breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Sparkle, the leader of the gang, who reminds you to wash your hands, face and whole body during bath or shower time. The gang has adventures fighting their archenemy Nogood, a baddie who loves germs.

Super School of Five signs outside the Ngangula Primary School in Chikankata, Zambia. © Sightsavers/ Jason J Mulikita

Each child in the programme is given a diary, which they are expected to write in every day for three weeks. Under each day, you will find the five superheroes, each with five bubbles next to it. Every time a child washes their hands and their face they can tick off one of the bubbles. At the end of each day, then each week, teachers and parents sign off to show they’ve seen how many ticks have been entered. Sometimes teachers will encourage participants by giving little prizes to those with the most ticks or by celebrating them in some other way.

Handwashing demonstration at Chinkonkomene Primary School in Zambia. © Sightsavers/ Jason J Mulikita

Everyone in the programme also takes a pledge, committing to washing their hands and faces at the five critical times every day, and they are encouraged to perform this, and a few simple songs, in front of families and others to help spread knowledge about how to stay trachoma free. Over the years I’ve seen kids come up with their own version of the pledge and teachers give out awards for the most creative. Others have held inter-school competitions, encouraging pupils to devise songs about hand and face washing as a way to reinforce, and spread, the messages of the programme.

The cascade effect

In 2016, I was part of the team that helped evaluate the Super School of Five at the two-year point. It was during this project that the power, and potential, of the programme really struck me. We had returned to a number of places where the intervention had long since ended, yet the superheroes and their songs had become embedded in the fabric of the schools. Not only that, each school had added their own creative stamp on the programme, adapting the music and the pledge or creating plays about the characters. And in the communities surrounding the schools, families and others had taken on the messages of the programme, greatly reducing their vulnerability to trachoma in the process.

Expanding in Ethiopia

Now we are on the cusp of expanding the Super School of Five in Ethiopia, where 70 million people are currently at risk of trachoma. The expansion is an interesting and ambitious one. It has been born out of a partnership between Sightsavers, Unilever and Big Win Philanthropy, an organisation that’s primarily involved with child nutrition through Ethiopia’s Seqota Declaration to end child stunting, which means the Super School of Five will be part of a larger nutrition programme. It will be delivered in Tigray and Amhara, two of the most malnourished areas of Ethiopia, which are also highly endemic for trachoma.

Trachoma health education programme at Gangawa school in Ethiopia. © Sightsavers/ Zacharias Abubeker.

The first round of implementation will begin in the next few weeks and will involve 40 schools, 20 in each area. By 2020, this will have built to 287 schools, reaching 173,000 pupils. By this point we aim to have a fully scalable model that the Ministry of Education can then integrate into the national curriculum. We have spent the last few months making some changes to the programme to make it more effective, and will be making further adaptations as we roll out. For instance, the idea of breakfast, lunch and dinner doesn’t always translate; sometimes one meal a day is the best that can be hoped for. So we’ve changed the triplets to represent washing hands after eating, after play and after touching animals. We’ve also changed the superheroes’ names to make them more relatable.

Having been there from the start the Super School of Five, what excites me most about where we are now is the possibility of devising a leaner, more efficient model that could really work at a national level. This is my biggest aspiration for the next two years — and if we reach this goal, the possibility of doing something similar in other countries becomes very real. In the next five years, the power of these superheroes could become very mighty indeed.

By Geordie Woods, Sightsavers’ technical director for WASH and behaviour change for Neglected Tropical Diseases


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75% of blindness could be prevented or cured. We’re working on it, while fighting for the rights of people with visual impairments and other disabilities.

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