LifeStraw Turns Dirty Water Clean

lifestrawIn many places in the world, the water that is readily available is not safe for human consumption. But purification can be expensive, time consuming, or impractical. LifeStraw is a water filtration straw designed to be used by one person for up to 1000 liters of water, the expected amount of water a person should consume every year. Water is sucked through the straw and the pressure from suction moves the water through hollow fibers that remove 99.9999% of all waterborne bacteria and 99.99% of parasites.

This product is the brainchild of Vestergaard Frandsen, a Swiss company devoted to “disease control textiles.” Vestergaard also invented LifeStraw Family, a household water filtration system that provides the same filtration as the LifeStraw but also filters out 99.99% of waterborne viruses. Time Magazine awarded LifeStraw “Best Invention of 2005” and the product won the 2008 Saatchi & Saatchi “Award for Changing Ideas.”

LifeStraw products was created and produced in line with one of the Millenium Development Goals (MDG) of 2000 which set to reduce by half the number of people who did not have access to clean water by 2015.  Although this MDG was reached in March 2012, many countries in Africa remain far behind the rest of the world.

Distribution and partnerships

According to an interview with Elisabeth Wilhelm, Communications and New Media Specialist of Vestergaard Frandsen, end users of Vestergaard products in the developing world do not have to pay for them, instead they are often gifted the products through a health program or because of an emergency situation. The majority of distributions are executed through the roughly 200 partnerships Vestergaard Frandsen has with various nonprofit agencies, faith-based agencies, governments, corporations, Ministries of Health, and other aid agencies.

Many have been given away after major natural disasters, including the Pakistani floods of 2011 and 2012, the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the Japanese earthquake of 2012. Other emergency distributions have been in order to assist victims of displacement after civil wars or other major violence. However, the tracking of usage post-distribution in these emergency situations is extremely difficult.

LifeStraw units have been distributed in Kenya in non-emergency situations and targeted residents with the most need. The distribution was executed in large part in partnership with the local Ministry of Health. According to Ms. Wilhelm, these distributions could not happen without local partnerships.

Vestergaard Frandsen is not a nonprofit organization or a corporation, but instead, a “profit for purpose.” The homepage of their website states:

We operate under our own unique Humanitarian Entrepreneurship business model. This ‘profit for a purpose’ approach has turned corporate social responsibility into our core business of creating life-saving products for the most vulnerable.

Just how does this approach work?

Carbon for water

Vestergaard Frandsen started a carbon offset program which allowed them to donate approximately 900,000 LifeStraw Family units in the Western province of Kenya. This helped provide clean water access to approximately 4.5 million people in the region, approximately 90 percent of the population, the same amount that did not have adequate access to clean water. Vestergaard paid for the entire program, approximately $30 million dollars. However, the company has the potential to earn revenue in the form of carbon credits. These credits are awarded when it can be proven that a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has occurred. What does water have to do with carbon, you might ask? One of the more affordable and reliable ways to purify water is to boil it – but boiling is energy intensive. Avoid the boiling, avoid the carbon.

Vestergaard is earning carbon credits because the families who received the LifeStraw Family units no longer have to cut down trees to use as firewood to boil water and make it safe to drink. Each emission credit represents one ton of carbon dioxide that will not be released into the atmosphere. The program has been registered and approved by the Voluntary Gold Standard, a leading international certification system which tracks companies voluntarily wanting to reduce GHG. The carbon credits are then sold to buyers who are interested in reducing their carbon footprint or increasing their economic stewardship.

A movie titled “Carbon for Water” was shot in one of the villages who received LifeStraw units to show how Vestergaard is donating their products, but not as charity but rather “smart business.”

10-year plan

The western province of Kenya was chosen with help of the Kenyan Ministry of Health, due to success with previous health programs in the area. This project is eight times larger than any other project with the Voluntary Gold Standard. Ms. Wilhelm explained that 2,000 Kenyans were identified by the Ministry of Health to receive training from Vestergaard on the products and their health and environmental benefits. These employees were then sent door-to-door to train the locals who were to receive the products. Vestergaard has also allocated funds to ensure that these public health officials can be sent out to the villages every six months to follow up with the residents, see if they are using the products and if they are making a difference. Vestergaard has also set up product repair and replacement sites in every village.

Vestergaard Frandsen earns income from carbon credits only when they can prove that their products have reduced GHG emissions, as such, they have incentives to reinvest the earnings into the project. Vestergaard is planning to oversee this project for a minimum of 10 years.  Accredited auditors, independent of the project and company, are sent to verify Vestergaard’s findings every six months. Carbon credits are only issued after the findings have been verified.


Different studies conducted have concluded different efficacy rates of the systems. For example, one field study, which was conducted in rural Congo, followed 240 households over 12 months and concluded that the water systems reduced diarrhea by 15 percent. These results were much lower than Vestergaard Frandsen had hoped. Further investigation of the study showed that the comparison group was given a placebo filter which removed 90 percent of TTC from their water, which could have skewed the results. However, it is important to note that similar studies have concluded that the systems have decreased incidents of diarrhea by 35 to 50 percent amongst participants.

In an interview with Bloomberg News in April 2011, during the major distribution, Chief Executive Officer, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen stated, “We expect this to have a massive impact on health and be financed by the carbon market. We are hoping to reduce the incidents of diarrhea and respiratory infection — two of the biggest diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Many news articles allude to the fact that the lack of access to clean water not only affects the health of a populace, but also its potential prosperity and has the largest impact on women and children. While Vestergaard continues to see their project through, it will be important for them, as a Point-of-Use solution to the water issue, to team up organizations and companies working to improve the Point-of-Source, to find a lasting solution to the problem that continues to plague 894 million people across the world.

By Jiuyi Zhou, Lina Shalabi, Andrea Filgueiras, Maria Spiridonova, Xuan Zhang, Ruben Piza. The authors are Master of Social Entrepreneurship candidates at Hult International Business School. 

Hult Social Entrepreneurship

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