Coins clanging into a red bucket, rounding up your total on the credit card pin pad, picking an angel tag from a tree — this is probably what most think of when they think of charity. These are worthy causes, but what comes to mind when you think of clean water in Africa? We’d be willing to bet that a picture of a group of children next to a hand pump with flowing water would be the answer. Those photographs are so emotional; you can see the endless joy, surprise and hope that access to safe water provides. These images compel you to donate to charity – and they absolutely should. But after that photo is posted, the majority of those hand pumps will break within a year, breaking the hearts of those who once relied on them for dignity and quality of life.
Every year, around 60,000 hand pumps are installed across Sub-Saharan Africa. That is an astounding amount of infrastructure. But, unfortunately, one in four of those pumps are non-functional at any one time and in more remote areas – like the rural communities in which Water4 works – the fail rate can reach up to a staggering 75 percent.
When charities started building hand pumps in Africa, they had every good intention of bringing clean water to the underserved. Eager to install but unsure what to do after, these charities stepped aside and the responsibility to maintain heavy, complex technology was placed on volunteers in remote, village communities. With only a toolbox and a three hour training demo handed over to these communities, the biggest burden – that of long term technical maintenance and service – fell on those originally meant to be served. How are we so familiar with this and why does it make us so passionate? Because we used to do the exact same thing. The early days of Water4 looked a lot like a sprint to an imaginary finish line. We built hand pumps whenever we could, wherever we could. We wanted to get a glass of clean water in more and more hands. And we did this because at the time, we too thought that was the best solution. But getting a glass of water into someone’s hands who needed it didn’t mean they’d be able to refill it when we were gone. So we made an abrupt-face turn and decided to break away from the traditional mold of charity to start doing things differently, even if those in the field with us weren’t ready or willing to do the same thing.
What concerns us the most is that the data is clear; the old way is not working. But charities keep doing the same thing. When you’re the object of charity, witnessing an institutional focus on notoriety, postulating and raising funds that don’t make a dent in the hardships you face every day because charities aren’t actually solving the problems – it doesn’t feel like charity, it feels like fraud.
With the traditional approach to charity not working, Water4 has grown to offer an economic solution instead. Much of modern economics has its foundations in Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” In his time, Smith was a radical thinker since his theories went against the common grain of mercantilism, which held that wealth was only found in the hoarding of gold and silver. Common practice was to boost exports while resisting imports. But, pivotal moments in life are spurred by the ability to see how things are and then imagine how things could be. Smith is memorialized in history as the Father of Economics because he saw how the world could be; he theorized that a nation’s wealth is derived from the goods and services that it creates and that instead of restricting a nation’s productive capacity, it should be set free on open markets. Smith believed that when profits are reinvested in more production, the individual gains of capitalism create jobs and empower nations.
The modern world still largely accepts this as truth and operates off of the economic model that “The Wealth of Nations” explained – and we call it free trade and capitalism. In life and in charity, profit and prosperity are not the enemy. Capitalism is altruistic when profits from production are used for greater production because greater production equals more jobs, more income and a bigger pie to slice from. Eradicating the water crisis in Africa must be approached through the lens of creating opportunity, jobs, and profit in the water sector. We know that ultimately, this will lead to sustainable prosperity and a shift in the paradigm.
Africa has struggled economically for decades because of the generational consequences of colonialism, foreign resource extraction, weak institutions, reliance on foreign aid, sustained civil conflict, and corruption. Governments were then often set up with ideals based on developed economies (with clear land ownership and taxation) but without the private sector backbone that enables those social services.
But we know that the status quo doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Classic, capitalist economic models, such as the ones Smith spoke of, show us that countries without businesses don’t have sufficient tax revenue to provide social services such as basic water utilities. By encouraging, creating, and supporting local businesses that generate enough revenue to become financially sustainable in the long-term, charities can turn the norm on its head and ensure that the targets of their goodwill aren’t perpetually dependent on foreign aid.
And this isn’t a theory that just looks good on paper – Water4 has proven this concept by boldly going against the grain and using a market-based approach to safe water services. We have started 19 different businesses across Sub-Saharan Africa and have scaled our NUMA franchise model of professionalized and aspirationally-branded water services throughout entire communities. This includes walk-up kiosks and institutional connections in homes, schools, businesses, religious institutions, and healthcare facilities.
Our cause is charitable because of the same humanitarian kindness in the hearts of people that lead them to put cash in a Salvation Army bucket or write a check to Water4 – and it is charitable because we offer seed capital, technical training, government advocacy and resources to our business partners. We leverage charity to create empowered entrepreneurs, dignified employment, thriving businesses, sustainable profitability, and communities that are proud to pay for water that is insured to last for generations.
But perhaps Water4’s real altruism is in working to see the day when we are no longer needed. When Water4 leaves a country, that means a local, sustainable business is thriving and can sustain itself without the need for charity any longer. We use charity to end the need for charity by linking generous hearts, the market driven desires of those being served, and business models that see the materially poor as their principal and primary clients.
Western nations didn’t start solving safe water issues through charity, it was done through local entrepreneurs and fees for services. Why would we think it would be otherwise elsewhere? In the United States, we don’t expect our government to supply water in the most rural regions. Yet, when we talk about helping the developing world, why are the processes and principles that enabled our own development ignored? Could we be so far removed from the realities and memories of material poverty that we’ve failed to be creative in partnering our known incremental solutions with the imaginations and desires of those to be served? We think so.
At Water4, we’re serious about ensuring your money and their dreams don’t wind up sunk at the bottom of a broken well. We make radical moves to push back against the status quo, we refuse to accept “how things are” and instead envision a world of how things could be. We’re banking on the materially poor and we’re banking on you believing that there’s a better way. We know that investing in the employment and empowerment of people incentivizes their desire to invest in themselves and in their communities. We are desperate to prove to the world that you don’t have to make a choice between profit and people — a profitable, flourishing Africa is a generation away. And that story is being written by our 625 African business heroes every single day.