"We will get to 49% adoption" said Joel determinedly. We were standing in a makeshift meeting room tacked onto the end of the Evidence Action field office in Busia, Western Kenya. Joel is the local Area Coordinator for Dispensers for Safe Water, one of Evidence Action’s flagship projects. He had just finished giving a motivational speech to his field officers before they set out on their motorbikes. Field officers deliver chlorine to the villages with Dispensers for Safe Water installed, resolve maintenance issues, and continuously educate communities on the need to treat their drinking water with chlorine to make it safe for consumption.
I could tell that he was buoyed with confidence by his dramatic arm gestures in the meeting. He was clutching the latest adoption figures showing a 5% rise since last quarter's survey. We measure adoption by measuring actual chlorine in random household samples in each community so his team had done an excellent job at encouraging more people to use dispensers. I congratulated him but didn't know what else to say. In my first weeks on the job I was learning so much so quickly but hadn’t been able to understand the implications of this increase in adoption.
I was on a "learning tour" of the Dispensers of Safe Water after joining Evidence Action as Deputy Director of Global Safe Water. My conversations with Joel and the Busia team were just two of many I've had in Kenya and Uganda over the last two weeks with all levels of staff, from maintenance to engineering teams, the monitoring and data analysis staff, to policy management and administration personnel.
But what felt so different about Evidence Action’s work on water?
I have visited many well-meaning water and sanitation (lovingly called ‘WASH’) programs over the last ten years. The challenges of sustainability and scale have continuously cropped up on many of those visits. Critical to the sustainability of a WASH intervention is a consistent and adequate funding source. Many programs look to users to pay directly for the services through a market-based mechanism. But so many poor consumers prioritize food, clothing, and education over intangible health-protecting products like soap or water chlorination tablets.
So What's Evidence Action's Approach?
By encouraging poor consumers to treat their water with chlorine, we are averting the carbon emissions that would otherwise result if consumers were using wood to boil their water. For this, we have been certified by 3rd party carbon certification agencies to earn carbon credits. And since we are able to deliver chlorine at a cost of around $1.50 per person per year (the fully-loaded cost of a Dispenser is around $5 at scale), the low price of carbon is still sufficient to cover the ongoing cost.
"We're increasing consumer adoption so we can earn more money from carbon credits," Joel explains to me, "which enables us to continue growing and saving even more children's lives."
I was beginning to understand why Evidence Action was different. So many international aid programs have a "best-effort mentality" with funds contingent on a donor report at the end of a pre-determined plan of activities. But this was a post-pay model that was reliant on actual use of the dispenser by the individual, a real 'results-based financing' scheme.
So suddenly I understood Joel’s focus on adoption in this meeting. The more people use chlorine in their water as measured by actual testing of water in the communities with Dispensers, the more carbon credits we earn, the more resources we have to reinvest into Dispensers for Safe Water - and the more cases of diarrhea and other water-born diseases averted, of course.
Over this year we will be working hard to build even more sustainability into our model and bring in other sources of revenue with willing partners. Check out our 2015 goals in our first Impact Report