TECH BUZZ || GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT BY EVAN THOMAS
Nearly a billion people in the world rink dirty water. Two billion don’t have a sanitary toilet. Three billion
use campfires every day. Governments and
charities spend billions of dollars every year
to address these problems. And there are
big successes in some places, but more innovation is needed.
In Rwanda, most rural villagers drink
untreated water and burn firewood on open
stoves. For the past ten years, our team
has been learning how to address these
challenges. In 2014, we reached nearly
half a million people with water filters,
improved cookstoves, and extensive health
education. In 2015, we are on track to
reach another two million people.
In the last three months, we’ve had a
staff of nearly 1,000 working across the
western province of Rwanda, a 6,000
square kilometer area, distributing filters
and stoves at 400 community meetings and
visiting nearly 110,000 homes. Working with
the Rwanda National Police and the Ministry of Health, we moved 220,000 products
across muddy roads and into homes.
So why Rwanda? Almost 20 years ago
Rwanda suffered a genocide that killed
nearly a million people. Some may still
think of Rwanda as failed state.
In fact, Rwanda today is considered
among the least corrupt countries in Africa.
It has one of the fastest GDP growth rates
in the region, and has the fastest annual
decline in child deaths globally. But still,
pneumonia and diarrhea remain the lead-
ing causes of illness and death among
children in Rwanda.
Our company, DelAgua, is a for-profit
social enterprise using an innovative fund-
ing mechanism to distribute the filters and
cookstoves free of charge to the poorest 25
percent of households across the country.
Our business model involves United Nations carbon credits—generated from the
projects themselves and sold to international buyers. This creates pay-for-perfor-mance system where we are incentivized
to have an impact because that’s how we
The United Nations carbon credit market
is a $120 billion a year industry. More than
90 percent of credits come from just five
countries, and less than 2 percent from all
of Africa. My team was the first in the world
to commandeer this system and apply it to
household drinking water.
This approach stands in contrast to
a typical approach in poverty reduction
programs globally. Typical funders, from
church and community groups, universities, all the way up to the U.K. Department
for International Development, the U.S.
Agency for International Development,
and the World Bank, provide funding for
projects that are intended to improve the
health and livelihood of people in developing communities. These include things like
water pumps and water filters, cookstoves,
latrines, and solar lighting systems.
This funding usually lasts a couple of
years, and during that time the implement-
ers will try to evaluate their impact. If you
can afford it, you might run a randomized
controlled trial to see if the projects are
improving health or other outcomes. But,
Many of us have heard of the idea that a
donation of something like $25 will bring
water to someone for his or her entire life
in a developing country. But $25 donations
haven’t solved this problem yet.
We need new and better business
models, to engage businesses in these
challenges, in a way that can help pay for
ongoing services. We need payments to be
based on performance, and not pictures
and promises. ME
EVAN THOMAS is an assistant professor of
mechanical engineering at Portland State University,
COO of DelAgua Health, and CEO of SweetSense Inc.
It will take new business models, not small donations,
to provide meaningful development.