From Raising Capital to Monitoring - Community Water Solutions Knows the Secret

Community Water Solutions (CWS)  is a Massachussetts based, not-for-profit, created to build sustainable water businesses at the community level in the developing world.  Although less than two years old, CWS has already employed its innovative business model to implement water systems in three villages in Ghana, each now successfully operated for profit by local proprietors, and is now raising capital for eight more village systems.  On a continent where 700,000 children die each year from treatable waterborne diseases, water systems that work make a difference.

So, what's the CWS secret?  It's probably not the catchy name.  It could be that combination of not-for-profit at the organizational level (where deductibility for contributors facilitates raising capital by CWS) and for profit at the community level.  For only $1,500 (less than $1,000 after tax), I can sponsor a system for an entire village. I couldn't get a toilet named after myself  for ten times that amount with most charities.  Meanwhile each village water system has two local owners, the profits give them an incentive to keep the system running, not to mention the secondary benefits that any income stream produces in a poor village.  Great plan, but not secret.

Maybe  the secret is keeping it simple.  Despite the impressive technical and financial backgrounds of the CWS team (Mike Brown, Kate Clopek, Vanessa Green and Charles Howe), the water systems are relatively low tech.  CWS:  1) builds a system that  uses inexpensive, locally available technology (for example, chlorine) to treat the available water supply; 2) selects and trains two  local residents as proprietors to operate the system and sell the treated water – selection may include consultation with village elders and the training also covers some financial basics; 3) provides storage containers with lids and taps (the tap means no ladles or hands go into the water) to each home in the village to avoid recontamination after the treated water is distributed; 4) monitors operations with weekly visits.  CWS isn't raising capital for pumps, pipes and expensive distribution systems, because it's not building them.  The villagers collect their own water, just as before, but now they pay a modest amount to get the treated water and they store it in the new, more sanitary, containers.  More kudos CWS, but still not secret.

Kate Clopek, who founded CWS while earning her masters at MIT, explained the business model in a recent conversation.  Ms Clopek's ability to make anything clear to a scribe who had been celebrating at a wedding reception for several hours was impressive, but that is still not the secret to the success of CWS.  She did, however,  reveal the secret in no uncertain terms when she explained, “the women do everything.”  Despite the extraordinarily vigourous nods this drew from my wife, I believe Ms   Clopek was referring to the villages in Ghana, not my own home.  The local water business owners are all women, who are traditionally responsible for obtaining water in the villages.  Empowering these women is part of the CWS mission.  Identifying who is really going to be doing the work in operating the community water supply and recognizing and rewarding the real workers as owners, well, that's the CWS secret.