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Business as a Tool for Compassion: LifeStraw Brings Safe Water to One Million Children in Kenya

Tom Schueneman headshotWords by Thomas Schueneman
Leadership & Transparency
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Psychic numbing in a complex world


Typically, an article like this will start out with some ghastly statistic. Yet another story meant to jolt us into awareness of a grave injustice; crushing poverty, violence and oppression, or news of our disintegrating environment.

We want to care, but the brief shock of awareness subsumes into the next plea for our attention. Then the next, and the one after that.

We want to do something, especially for the causes close to our heart. But, in a world divided by fantastic wealth and unrelenting poverty, we’re stuck in the middle, with few resources to actually move the needle toward progress.

Or so we think.

On that premise, let's dig into the numbers.

A goal to end poverty


In September of 2015, nations of the world adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals succeeding the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by the United Nations in 2000.  On both lists of development goals, ending poverty was and still is the top priority.

That an end to poverty remains a primary goal after 15 years may imply that little progress has been made. In fact, the rate of extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 per day, continues a sharp downward trend.

Poverty Rate Decline. Data: World Bank, Wolfram Alpha


According to the World Poverty Clock, more than 73,000 people have escaped poverty - today. The flip side of that coin is that more than 15,000 people have, today, have fallen into poverty. The sum total of people living in extreme poverty as of March 23, 2018, is about 619,800 people. By the time you read this, many more people will make the escape.

Nonetheless, the World Bank estimates approximately three-quarters of a billion people face unrelenting poverty every day of their lives.

What factors enable those that do break free?

Education: making the escape


Across all social, economic, and political stratum, education is the common denominator for a good, self-fulfilling life.

Too many of us in the developed world equate a “good” life to consumption and material wealth. For the estimated 800 million people haunted by the prospect of lifelong poverty, a good life may simply mean relief from the daily struggle to survive; the opportunity to realize one’s potential and possibly give a helping hand to those left behind.

But poverty itself remains an enormous hurdle to education. In many developing countries this is exacerbated by limited access to resources, deficient governance, and poor health.

Just as the poverty rate has declined over the last three decades, so too the rate of global childhood mortality. According to Unicef data, the number of children dying before their fifth birthday has dropped from 93 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 41 in 2016.

That’s the good news.

Nonetheless, in 2014, nearly one-half-million children never celebrated their fifth birthday.

That’s the bad news. Especially since it is largely preventable.

The nexus of health, education, and prosperity


According to 2017 World Health Organization statistics, Diarrhea is a primary killer of children under five years old, running a close second behind Pneumonia. Together, pneumonia and diarrhea kill 1.4 million children every year – more than all other childhood illnesses combined. However, the risk of death from these diseases isn't spread evenly across the globe. According to the World Health Organization, children in sub-Saharan Africa are more than 15 times more likely to die before the age of 5 than children in high-income countries.

Globally, in 2000, 1.2 million children died due to diarrhea. By 2015 that number dropped to 526,000, a 57 percent reduction. The declining rate of childhood mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa isn't keeping pace with the global trend, dropping from 569,000 in 2000 to 295,000 in 2015 - only a 47 percent reduction. In Kenya, an estimated 5,442 children under five die every year from diarrheal disease and 10,507 from acute respiratory infection.

It's difficult to learn, let alone even make it to class when you're constantly battling a life-threatening disease.  Globally, some 2.5 million children miss school due to illness. The impact of this absenteeism comes down especially hard for girls, as they are expected to be caregivers for their ailing siblings.

A Princeton study by Tom S Vogl entitled Education and Health in Developing Economies examines the complex relationship between health, education, and prosperity.

“In the course of development, few processes are as intertwined with economic growth as human capital accumulation,” writes Vogl.

“Schooling makes workers more productive, speeds the development of new technologies, and better equips parents to raise skilled children, all of which promote economic growth.”

Safe water

Some people pray for victory Some people pray for peace Some people pray for extra time Some pray for sweet release Some pray for health and happiness For riches and renown But none of this will matter much If the waters don't come down

- Don Henley, "Praying for Rain"

No human endeavor succeeds if "the waters don't come down." It's as plain a fact as the sun rising every morning and setting every night. For most in the developed world, access to clean drinking water is a "given," taken for granted. Many of us eschew mere tap water in favor of water in a plastic bottle, which is often less sanitary and costs on average 2000 times more than tap water.

Then there's everyone else.

According to a joint report by the World Health Organization and Unicef, 844 million people lack basic drinking water service; 263 million (mostly women) spend more than 30 minutes for each trip collecting water outside the home; 159 million simply drink untreated water from lakes or rivers. Water and sanitation-related diseases remain among the major causes of death in children under five; more than 800 children die every day from diarrhoeal diseases linked to poor hygiene. (UN: "Clean Water, Why it Matters")

More people own cell phones than have regular access to a toilet.

Wresting poor countries from systemic poverty and inadequate social foundations require a well-educated population. On top of all the barriers children face in getting an education, arguably the biggest challenge is access to clean drinking water.

Are we numb yet?


Now that we’ve ingested some fundamental numbers, we're probably feeling that tinge of psychic numbing we spoke of at the start of this article. Not to say that we don’t care, exactly, but it's difficult to grasp the magnitude of the problem. Besides, what can we do about it, half a world away?

As specious as it sounds, you already have.You've stayed with me this far and It's unlikely this is your first time to the rodeo. Taking onboard statistical examinations of the plethora of human misfortunes and suffering, in all its many manifestations, is a daily practice. I'd imagine you started reading this already a little numb.

Now, finally, let's get to solutions.

LifeStraw: Follow the Liters


As Vogle writes in the research paper referred to earlier:
"...health enables children to travel to school, concentrate, and think clearly, all of which may improve educational outcomes."

Earlier this year, a small army of volunteers and a local, on-the-ground workforce spread out through rural Kenya in one final push to meet its objective: ensuring that one million school children have access to safe drinking water, a goal set only four years prior.

In schools spread across the Kenyan countryside, workers installed LifeStraw Community water filters at nearly 1700 schools through LifeStraw's Follow the Liters retail program. That's more than 10,600 installations, so far.

But you've heard this before, right? Or something like it. Buy one and we'll donate one to someone in need (likely just a random shipment of stuff) or we donate 5 percent of every purchase to charity (who knows? follow the money. good luck).

You are right to be skeptical. You should be. But this isn't that, and here's a quick rundown why:


  • It's not a one-for-one program: Retail products support humanitarian outreach and impact, not just products. This isn't a "shop and drop" one-off program.

  • Longterm community involvement: LifeStraw maintains a local presence of 35 people on the ground, assessing needs, monitoring usage, and population health, educating teachers and children about why hygiene and clean water are so important. Staff members visit each school about six times a year for at least five years.

  • Transparency: Ongoing and open data. Daily data on each installation is collected by 60 cell phones. Using mobile survey platforms collect data on product performance, usage and education rates as well as monitor repairs, maintain inventory data, and capture personal stories. Like the name says, follow the liters. 

When a retail product is purchased, one child in a developing community receives safe water for one year through the Follow the Liters program. You get clean drinking water, a kid that heretofore didn't have access is the most basic of human needs can stay healthy, learn, and from there, who knows?

Follow the Liters is the fruition, one part, of a much deeper story.

Humanitarian entrepreneurship


In 1996, Swiss-based Vestergaard partnered with the Carter Foundation in its fight to eradicate Guinea Worm.  Vestergaard pioneered a hollow core fiber filtration system as a practical, easily portable means of filtering contaminated water. The original device looked much like a straw. LifeStraw was born.

Triple Pundit recently spoke with CEO Mikkel Vestergaard and Alison Hill, Managing Director for LifeStraw. For both, the recent milestone of reaching one million children through Follow the Liters was a moment to savor. The culmination of many years, decades actually, of hard work. But this is only a milestone, the work continues.

Vestergaard started as a family-owned business in 1957 by the grandfather of current CEO Mikkel Vestergaard. Originally in the business of manufacturing uniforms for workmen and service workers.

With this foundation in textile manufacturing, each successive generation -from grandfather to father to son - the company's mission shifted its focus toward research and product development of products aimed at taking on systemic global health issues.

In the early 90s, with Mikkel's father as CEO, Vestergaard provided blankets made of surplus wool cloth for distribution through the Red Cross and Save the Children. After that came tsetse fly traps, used extensively at refugee camps during the Rwandan genocide. The company then developed mosquito bed nets, launching its PermaNet® program in 1999.

In 1997, Mikkel assumed leadership of Vestergaard, selling off the uniform manufacturing arm to devote the company's resources and efforts solely on its growing humanitarian business.

With offices in Switzerland, India, Kenya, Vietnam, and the U.S., Vestergaard is a global health company providing comprehensive solutions to intractable, and sometimes sudden, humanitarian challenges. Through its programs and product development, Vestergaard has impacted the lives of at least 1.5 billion people.

"The exciting thing for us," says Mikkel Vestergaard, "is that we're really on a roll here. We're coming out with new models every year. We are very confident that we're going to have a wider appeal not just in the outdoor market but also in the lifestyle market."

By expanding its retail markets, Vestergaard is able to "dramatically increase and continue to increase our efforts in East Africa and in India and elsewhere," Vestergaard says.

"Vestergaard is a public health company that is based on not just providing products but providing impact for people," says LifeStraw Executive Director Alison Hill.

"We understand that dropping off a product at a school is not going to have the health impact that we need," Hill says. It is as much about training and education and maintenance and continued engagement really local ownership of these programs that make it successful."

It's a business model Vestergaard calls humanitarian entrepreneurshipa concept he hopes takes firmer root in the business world. But Vestergaard is circumspect. Expecting sudden beneficence from the aggregate business world, and of their own accord, is unwise.

Impact, influence, and responsibility


Business must become the tool of compassion. But how? Are CSR initiatives enough?

There is always much talk of "impact" and "moving the needle". Rarely is either accomplished without long-term, strategic planning. Put down that first quarter P&L.

"First, drop the 'S'", Vestergaard says:

"I don't think it's a social responsibility, I think it's a responsibility. Full-stop."

"This is what we need to link up to our long-term investment; in branding, in innovation. Because those are the things that when we need to make strategic decisions, Those are the things that we invest more in.

When asked if he felt a sea change in how companies proactively incorporate a more far-reaching strategic vision, Vestergaard said, "No. but what I see is a sea change in consumer behavior."

“Many corporations are going to be caught in an uncomfortable position in a couple of years if they don't respond to this change and rethink what responsibility means,” says Vestergaard. 

"We're not donating a percentage of our sales to a charity," says Hill, "what we're doing is going out and executing fully to make sure that we are accountable not just for delivering those products but delivering the impact that they have."

And so, where do we go from here?

Compassion and the evolution of business


In his highly-aclaimed book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari speaks to the most significant character distinguishing humans from other species: our profound sense of cooperative effort and fairness. "One on one, even 10 on 10, we are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees," writes Harari, "significant differences begin to appear when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals.
"... and when we reach 1,000-2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding."

There is a danger in confusing fairness with inequality or separating the role of business from its social context. Some may disagree, but I argue that business is but a manifestation of our evolutionary roots. As Mark Sheskin writes in New Scientist magazine, "Over our evolutionary history, individuals who cooperated fairly outcompeted those who didn’t."

We are now more than 7.6 billion individuals inhabiting this crowded Earth, some 82,557,224 more than last year, but less than next year. Truly innovative business models, ones that embrace the ethos of humanitarian entrepreneurship, seem to me as the only viable option as we hurtle headlong into the Anthropocene. But we can't just lay all these numbing statistics we've just been through at the feet of business. If we understand "business" as the organized, cooperative effort of human beings, we can see the responsibility we all have.

As individual consumers, we can behave in self-interest or act in cooperative fairness; that which makes us fully human. Let's face it, leaving the sheer scale of consumption aside for another article, the best most of us can do in the industrialized world is to make better choices as consumers. Not that its an easy thing.

But hard-working, visionary business and humanitarian leaders like Mikkel Vestergaard and Alison Hill, among the many others we highlight here on Triple Pundit, help light the path forward for all of us.

Where global problems overwhelm our sensibilities, triggering psychological numbness to the enormity of it all, business can, and should, be a tool for compassion.


Photos by Asso Myron on Unsplash; Wikimedia Commons; LifeStraw; Katie Goudy/Cone Communications.

Thomas Schueneman headshotThomas Schueneman

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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