The Planet

This Inspiring Project Aims To Bring Clean Water To A Million Kids In Kenya 

by Maxwell Williams

April 9, 2018

Here in Western Kenya, it’s hot enough for Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen to have a ring of sweat around his collar. It’s almost always hot enough here to need constant hydration. Vestergaard Frandsen takes a sip of water from a water bottle and leaps like a lion in front of a murmuring crowd of students in candy-colored blue and pink uniforms.

“Jambo! Habari zenu!” bellows Vestergaard Frandsen to the nearly 1,000 students at St. Teresa Sio Roman Catholic Primary School in Bungoma, a remote county in western Kenya. It’s simple Kiswahili — just the phrase for “Hello, how are you all?” — but it sounds funny coming from the mouth of a Danish “mzungu” white person. Giggles chitter through the student body.

“Mzuri!” (“Good!”) they shout back. Call-and-response is customary at school assemblies in Kenya. Vestergaard turns the floor over to Paul Otiti, a local who works as a field agent in Vestergaard’s office in the nearby city of Kisumu.

Under the penetrating equatorial sun, Otiti powers through a 45-minute water safety lecture, trying to hold the attention of antsy students on the necessity of using filtered water for hand washing and drinking. In front of him is a large blue tank about the size of beer keg called the LifeStraw Community.

Vestergaard Frandsen addresses the students at Waluka Primary School in Emuhaya at the ceremony honoring the millionth child to receive clean water from LifeStraw from their Follow the Liters program. Photo by Maxwell Williams/GOOD. 

“What are some of the diseases you can get from unfiltered water?” he asks the pupils. Hands shoot up, and one girl about 9 years old — her head shaven to prevent nits, just like all students here — shyly chirps, “Typhoid.” I catch some of the other international words as the students rattle them off like cholera and hepatitis. Otiti makes the students laugh with a funny “diarrhea” dance.

But these diseases are no laughing matter for a school that relies on students bringing repurposed cooking-oil jerrycans of water from their homes to school, often directly from streams that contain agricultural run-off and human waste or from rain catchment systems.

“We have too many students miss class,” says the headmaster at Ebusyubi Primary School in Emuhaya. “Every day, so many of our students are sick from the water.”

According to Charity: Water, around 40% of Kenya’s 48 million people drink and bathe with water from unclean sources like ponds, shallow boreholes, and rivers.

When it comes to clean water, there are few options. Iodine and chlorine chemical treatments are scarce and not as effective as other methods.

When the assembly is over, Vestergaard Frandsen and I jump into a car, headed to another school. On our journey, Vestergaard Frandsen explains that purification by boiling is an option, but part of the reason Kenya has been deforested so aggressively in the past few years has to do with a need for wood for fires used to heat water. And the flames from these personal fires add up to big carbon emissions.

One company, Solvatten, has created a solar-powered jerrycan that reportedly heats water to a bacteria-killing 167 degrees Fahrenheit without the need for a wood fire, but in our visits to Kenyan schools, I never came across one.

In other words, the quest for clean drinking water is destroying the Kenyan environment.

Students fill jerrycans at the local borehole in Emuhaya. Photo by Maxwell Williams/GOOD. 

Follow the Liters program

Days here start at about 5 a.m., as I’ve been tagging along, a little bleary-eyed, as the Vestergaard team sets up water projects — and a little play time with the students — at various locations.

Vestergaard is a Switzerland-based for-profit public health company that owns LifeStraw, and Vestergaard Frandsen is the CEO. In the U.S., LifeStraw is an emergent water filter retailer known for its filters that hikers use to decontaminate almost any source of water. It sells bottles as well as the straws themselves, which can be used for people to drink directly from streams and puddles.

Vestergaard and LifeStraw run a program called Follow the Liters, which promises to provide drinking water to one student per year for every bottle sold. The LifeStraw Community water tanks, which hold 50 liters each, are distributed at a rate of about one for every 100 students, and each tank is meant to last approximately five years. The company aims to provide enough water tanks to supply clean drinking water to 1,000,000 students.

This is why were are in Kenya.

Vestergaard and LifeStraw take meticulous data on the population of each school they visit. They are doing a big push, splitting up into teams of five or six members, hopping in SUVs and driving hundreds of miles across the region. The LifeStraw teams set up and demonstrate the filters to students and then to smaller groups of prefects, class leaders chosen to be responsible for the tanks.

On the right is water that has been treated by the LifeStraw Community filter; on the left is what has been removed from the water. Photo by Maxwell Williams/GOOD. 

Challenges in Kenya

It’s important to understand Western Kenya as a place to understand Vestergaard’s impact here. It is a heavily populated region; Kakamega County alone has over 1.6 million people in a relatively small space, and Bungoma County has an additional 1.3 million people.

Poverty levels are high, birth rates are high, jobs are scarce, and access to passable roads is sometimes limited. A sugar factory in Bungoma County that had purchased sugarcane from local farmers was recently shuttered when a former politician was accused of running an embezzlement program while acting as the factory’s managing director.

Other concerns include malaria, high rates of HIV infection, limited access to hospitals and clinics, and inadequate access to pharmaceuticals.

Despite its population, it’s still rural — many residents outside of the county seats still live in earthen houses with grass-thatched roofs. Subsistence farming is as common here as it is in Nepal or parts of Northern India. Electricity is often solar powered — solar panels are offered at subscription rates like one might have a cable internet bill in the U.S. — and there are no water treatment plants or piping infrastructures outside of the county seats.

These are typical issues for a former British colony handcuffed by colonizers from developing, often suppressed and brutalized by the English (British government officials reportedly stuck needles in Barack Obama’s grandfather’s fingernails and squeezed his testicles between metal rods when they suspected him of being a Mau Mau freedom fighter), until declaring independence in 1964. Much of the country is on track — Nairobi and Mombasa are sophisticated metropolises — but the rural West is struggling to catch up.

Not all is dire, of course. Life expectancy rates are rapidly rising throughout the country, and while Kenya may rank low on the World Happiness Index (an average 124 out of 156 countries from 2015-2017), if there were a kindness index, Kenyans would chart through the roof. And I personally observe a population with a thirst for knowledge; there may not be jobs, but Kenyans are working to teach the younger generation how to succeed.

But a good education is only possible when the kids can get to school, Viola Adeke tells me. Adeke is an area coordinator for Vestergaard based in Kakamega who studied chemistry and zoology in university before working for UNICEF spraying houses to reduce malaria. “Waterborne illnesses not only keep kids out of school, but often older girls will have to stay home to care for their sick brothers or sisters, compounding the impact of such illnesses,” she says.

Students at a primary school in Bungoma attend a LifeStraw assembly. Photo by Maxwell Williams/GOOD. 

Breaking the cycle

One of the biggest issues facing Western Kenya, though, Vestergaard Frandsen tells me, is that nongovernmental organizations and companies have been involved for so long that the government sometimes has trouble taking over programs.

Edith Egoki, a LifeStraw representative working in Nairobi, calls it “getting used to getting things given to you,” and she worries that western Kenya is entering a generation that only knows outside assistance. How to break that cycle is a key problem for her.

In a two-hour car ride to one-hour boat journey through hippo-populated bogs out to an island school in the middle of Lake Victoria, Alison Hill, the dynamic managing director of LifeStraw, tells me that the sub-county coordinators, like Paul Otiti and Viola Adeke, work directly with public health officers and Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) officers with the intention that the government will continue to move forward with development.

“While we are committing to five years, we are not here to replace the government,” Hill explains. “We are here to support their timeline for infrastructure.”

Hill, who worked in epidemiology in Africa for years before joining Vestergaard — mainly in the field on the AIDS epidemic in Zambia — hopes that by the end of the five-year program, the local governments will have efforts in place to build water treatment plants and infrastructure to reach the rural parts of the region.

“If they don’t have the infrastructure in five years, LifeStraw’s not going to disappear, but we hope things will be closer,” she says, but she understands the limitations of the program’s time constraints. “No development project is perfect; anyone that tells you theirs is is lying. And we don’t see ourselves as a permanent solution here. We’re a comprehensive interim solution to help the government expand their health targets.”

Adeke gives a demonstration about safe water habits. Photo by Maxwell Williams/GOOD. 

One for one

The closest relative to Vestergaard and LifeStraw’s model is TOMS shoes, which has trademarked the One for One business model. In its case, one pair of shoes purchased at regular price translates to one pair of shoes given away in 70 countries.

Like Vestergaard, Toms has boots on the ground, and one of the LifeStraw team members told me about a school they had come across earlier in the day where all the students were wearing Toms. I witness many children at other schools have signs of funza (aka jiggers), a parasitic flea that can cause devastating foot infections. There’s little data about wearing shoes and the staving off of jiggers or if there were cases of podoconiosis — a type of elephantiasis, the eradication of which was one of Toms’ inspirations behind their shoe program — but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that Toms shoes and the One for One model really help.

There’s also something to be said for seeing the effects of these for-profit companies like Vestergaard, Toms, or even Ruby Cup menstrual cups, which gives out reusable tampon alternatives on a buy-one-give-one basis. There are critics who disparage these companies for using Kenya and other countries as marketing tools or are skeptical and write them off as feeding into activism 2.0, but there are palpable impacts to be seen.

LifeStraw employees demonstrate the LifeStraw Community. Maxwell Williams/GOOD. 

Financed by carbon

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Vestergaard is that, like Toms, it is a for-profit company.

It’s a philosophy both Hill and Vestergaard Frandsen believe in deeply, and though they don’t disclose financial records, Vestergaard says they work in tandem with governments, and the team members here are all dedicated to the betterment of the Kenyan countryside.

Their corporate philosophy, Hill says, is unique. “Most corporations are corporations first and then get a CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] program going; we put CSR first and then the company.”

Vestergaard has been dedicated to Kenya for nearly 12 years. Originally a uniform maker founded in 1957, the company has made a permanent pivot to global health causes. It has transposed its textile expertise to PermaNet, a mosquito net infused with insecticide; it has done studies and opened HIV/AIDS clinics; and it has pushed for the destigmatization of HIV/AIDS so that more people will get tested.

“We had to bribe people to get tested in 2011,” Vestergaard Frandsen told me a few days before he donated the brand new Emusanda Maternity Ward, an extension of the HIV/AIDS clinic in the town of Lurambi, to the local government. He offered a LifeStraw filter, 60 condoms, and a PermaNet. Vestergaard was able to test 47,000 people within seven days and found higher rates of infection than were previously recorded.

The testing is considered a breakthrough in the AIDS epidemic in eastern Africa, allowing governments to understand the extent of the issue and helping to make sure the people who know they are positive understand the importance of being safe. Since then, the clinic has been instrumental in education programs and treatment in the region. Later, as we drive through the area, Vestergaard Frandsen points out a shop selling caskets on the side of the road.

“At the height of the epidemic, there were a lot more casket sellers,” he says.

Vestergaard even partnered with the Carter Center in 1998 to create filters that helped nearly eradicate cases of guinea worm disease, in which the microscopic larvae of the guinea worm is swallowed. Within a year, that larvae can grow into two-foot-long string-like worms that emerge slowly and excruciatingly from blisters on the body.

The Follow the Liters program isn’t Vestergaard’s first effort with LifeStraw; it provided smaller filters called the LifeStraw Family to over 877,000 homes in Kenya.

“For that program, we leveraged carbon finance in an effort to test a pay-for-performance model for safe water programs,” Hill says. “As carbon markets became volatile just a couple years later, we realized it was not financially sustainable in the long term so we decided to move into a retail-funded model that could both support the existing households and also expand to cover the gap for safe water while the children are in schools. To date, we continue to provide repair and replacement services to the original 877,000 households in addition to operating our school’s program.”

Hill is adamant that for-profit is the future of ethical development, but it’s not without pushback.

“We’ve made a lot of enemies,” Hill says. “We’re a company that likes to break the ceiling in showing that development can be done more responsibly and efficiently, and the NGO community doesn’t like that. It starts a discussion around ‘pay for performance’ that they’re not ready for yet.”

What Hill means is that there’s more incentive for a for-profit company to work hard to at least break even, whereas NGOs will often receive outside funding but may not have as much motivation to run an efficient program.

Recent media coverage has highlighted complications some NGOs have faced. The BBC reported that looking into NGOs in Malawi turned up widespread inefficiency, and a 2016 report by Reveal highlighted how the country’s partnership with Planet Aid was essentially a scam run by a quasi-cult. The Harvard Business Review ran an article in 2013 declaring that NGOs spend an average of 80% more than comparable for-profit multinationals on tracking their own finances.

Moreover, Hill has issues with companies like Stella Artois, which donates proceeds from their sales of a Matt-Damon-approved chalice to Water.org, which offers micro-loans of about $300 so that people who don’t have access to water can buy water catchment systems or tap into existing water supplies. She doesn’t have a problem with the concept, but that the lack of efficiency is a big waste of time and money. And that is apparent to the younger generation, Hill says.

“We understand millennials and Gen Zs,” Hill says. “At some point, consumer bases aren’t going to accept companies doing the bare minimum.”

Students drink glasses of clean water after the assembly. Photo by Maxwell Williams/GOOD. 

Ripples of hope

Speakers blast Swahili pop music at the celebration of the millionth child in Waluka Primary School in Emuhaya.

Before the safe water demonstration, students and teachers stream out onto the grassy hillock, dancing. An eighth-grade group of girls performs a water safety song, interpretively dancing a typhoid stomachache to the rhythmic lyrics. Each member of the local government gives a long speech, as is the custom for such commemorative events. Memorial trees are also planted by the stream.

There’s a little more fanfare, but it’s not over the top.

And then, because water safety is at the heart, Viola Adeke leads a full LifeWater Community demonstration.

After all, it’s all about the kids and the water they drink.

Top and share photo by Maxwell Williams/GOOD. 

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This Inspiring Project Aims To Bring Clean Water To A Million Kids In Kenya