Adriaan Mol was one of the winners of the “Water Problems Affecting People in Developing Countries” challenge
Having worked for over 10 years for international relief and development organizations in Africa and Asia, I co-founded the social-enterprise BushProof in 2005 as a result of growing dissatisfaction with the long-term sustainability of charitable initiatives. With few exceptions, the measurable long-term impact of donor-funded NGO projects is discouragingly low, and over time I became increasingly concerned about this.
My own ‘aha’ moment came a few years ago in Somalia, when I worked for a project responding to floods in the south of this law-less country. We built several community-managed village water systems that purified contaminated river water. Before construction was even finished, a conflict broke out between various clans over the ownership of the systems. Eventually, theft of taps, refusal of the community to pay for guards and unwillingness to carry out very simple maintenance ensured that all filters were out of order within months of installation.
Before construction on the village units started, I placed a simple filter made from a plastic drum near the river, in order to test the filter quality of locally available sand. A number of local militia men were guarding some boats, and I asked them to continuously pour water in the drum for testing purposes. Naturally, they quickly ‘adopted’ the filter as their own once they saw that dirty water came out clean and fresh. Not long afterwards we had to evacuate for security reasons. Frustrated by the project's failure to unite a violent and historically split community for the purpose of ‘community’ sand filters, I went to the river to collect the small filters. One of the guards asked me a filter as a gift, but annoyed as I was with the whole situation I curtly told him to pay for it or move on. To my surprise, the gunman returned within minutes with the 10 dollars I had asked him for – a substantial amount in that context. When I passed his house a few hours later, I found that his wife had established a small business selling clean water to her neighbors. Within hours several other people asked to buy small filters, but no more plastic drums were available...
This experience really opened my eyes. A gunfight breaks out in town over a free donor-funded village water system – but these same people gladly paid serious money for a privately owned solution. Thus was born the idea of applying entrepreneurship to solve some of the world's most pressing needs: access to basic social services, such as drinking water or energy, which I and a partner eventually turned into reality with social-enterprise BushProof, and more recently ToughStuff, which sells affordable solar products to low-income consumers.
The opportunity to work towards poverty reduction through a business rather than a charity is very challenging but immensely motivating. Besides delivering true change, the most motivating aspect is the changed relationship with those we serve. Instead of passive beneficiaries, they are now my customers. This puts us on an equal footing, whilst forcing me to deliver true value they need most – otherwise they won’t buy it.
When I found out about the InnoCentive “Water Problems Affecting People in Developing Countries” challenge, I couldn’t resist sharing these insights and experiences: I truly hope they can be put to work and cause true chance in an environment which sorely needs more and lasting positive impact!