Editor’s Note: Triple Pundit’s RP Siegel visited Kenya to learn more about the LifeStraw Follow the Liters campaign. This is the third post from his trip. Read the first and second pieces here and here. Travel expenses were covered by Vestergaard.
In 2008, Mikkel Vestergaard had an idea. Based on results obtained in collaboration with the Carter Center, which enjoyed significant success in addressing multiple diseases at once (such as distributing bed nets along with measles vaccines), he decided to try an experiment to help address the HIV epidemic that was sweeping across Africa.
One of the biggest problems was the unwillingness of people to get tested. But if people did not know they were positive, they would have no reason to change their behavior. What Vestergaard did was to develop a CarePack consisting of a long-lasting treated bed net, as protection against malaria, a LifeStraw filter to protect against water-borne diseases, and 60 condoms as well some educational material. He then organized a campaign, in which people would be given these CarePacks at no charge, if and when they came in to be tested for HIV.
The campaign was a phenomenal success. In one week’s time, 47,000 people came in for testing. That represented more than 80 percent of the target population of sexually active adults in the area. That was the good news. The bad news was that the number of people identified as positives overwhelmed the health care capacity of the Provincial General Hospital. Unwilling to allow the project to end in failure, Vestergaard worked with the Ministry of Health to construct the Emusanda Health Centre, which was built on a piece of land donated by a local farmer, Matthew Olumatate, who had lost two sons to malaria. The clinic has helped to handle the excess ever since.
Emusanda provides HIV treatment and counseling services as well as maternal and child health care and a lab. It was clear from my visit there that this facility plays a vital role in the life and health of this community.
So, what is it that makes this exceptional company tick, and what is responsible for its tremendous success in humanitarian entrepreneurship?
I’ve already described the tremendous level of innovation that the company has brought to bear — not only in its products, but also in its business models and distribution methods. This has allowed the company to make effective, large-scale distributions of life-saving technology to millions of people in need, at no charge to them.
But there is another element at play here which, I think, elevates this company beyond most others. That is its culture. Its culture is expressed in the way that this group of mostly young people is so committed, so empowered and so passionate about the work they do that they view every day on the job with a sense of adventure.
How does that happen? It’s in the DNA of the company — its willingness to accept a return on investment that might be measured in learning rather than earning. It helps that the company doesn’t have stockholders to report to on a quarterly basis. But the fact is that Vestergaard brought the entire company over to Kenya, some 80 people (roughly half their size today), to participate in the CarePack campaign. That’s because Mikkel, who told me that “we’ve never had to choose between doing good and doing well,” wanted all of them to experience firsthand exactly what this company was all about.
Mikkel told me that, “Companies that don’t understand that they have a bigger responsibility out there, I doubt that they’ll be around 20 years from now.”
On Friday evening, a group of a hundred Vestergaard employees, volunteers and others closely involved with the Follow the Liters campaign gathered at the Golf Hotel in Kakamega for what has become a campaign ritual. Many of these folks had been up all week long at 5 a.m. to head out to schools, hours away over horrible roads, only to return in the evening to attend meetings that sometimes ran until midnight. Still, they were up dancing into the wee hours to the sounds of African, European and American music. Next week they will get up and do it all again, and 301 schools later, the Follow the Liters campaign will be complete.
Image credit RP Siegel
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.
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