Water & Sanitation

Thirty Million Dollars, a Little Bit of Carbon, and a Lot of Hot Air

Carbon for Water is engaged in a loopy funding scheme and offers a lousy public health solution.

“Vestergaard Frandsen makes an ingenious water filter that’s too expensive for the people who need it.” Fast Company, April 2011

Verstergaard Frandsen, maker of fine mosquito nets and the mostly useless LifeStraw Personal, has announced plans to give away a million of their LifeStraw Family water filters to households in western Kenya. CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen will invest $30 million of his own money in the project—known as Carbon for Water—but according to Fast Company, “he’s not worried about losing out—because for each LifeStraw he donates, he’s going to be making money.”

How’s that work? Through the magic of carbon credits, of course! Back to Fast Company: “Kenyans boil their water to eliminate waterborne diseases, using wood fires. Those fires generate a large amount of carbon, and eliminating the need to boil water means fewer emissions from Kenya. Because they’re providing the means to reduce emissions, Vestergaard Frandsen earns carbon credits for each LifeStraw donated. He will then turn around and sell those credits to companies in countries that have carbon caps and exchanges.” And these ain’t plain ol’ vanilla carbon credits, either: “Because the project is based in Kenya and has significant humanitarian and health co-benefits, these credits can be sold for a premium.”

This scheme is so wrong on so many levels that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

First, this is a bogus application of carbon credits: People in western Kenya, by and large, don’t boil their water. I’ve made numerous trips there and have talked to any number of far more qualified people working in the region. One of those is Jeff Albert at Aquaya, who says, “Boiling prevalence is likely very low throughout Africa, but we have some actual data from western Kenya in particular. What we found was that out of 400 randomly selected households in the study, only about a quarter of the respondents reported boiling their drinking water with any frequency, and I suspect that even that number was inflated by courtesy bias (the natural tendency to tell the visitor what you think would make them happy).” The notion that you’re going to prevent lots of carbon going into the atmosphere by distributing water filters is ridiculous, and anyone involved in this charade should be ashamed of themselves—especially the Gold Standard Foundation, which certified it.

Second, there is little evidence that LifeStraw Family water filters reduce diarrheal disease under real-world community conditions. There is exactly one rigorous study looking at health impacts. Tom Clasen, an excellent researcher, and his team, did a 12-month randomized trial in the Congo where they gave filters to 240 households: They did not find a statistically significant reduction in diarrheal illness. Moreover, at 12 months, 24 percent of households didn’t use them at all, and only 56 percent understood how to use them properly (it’s not that simple). That’s just one study, of course, and perhaps subsequent trials will paint a rosier picture, but it certainly doesn’t justify the distribution of a million of these things.

Third, the LifeStraw Family water filter is just too damn expensive, and it has to be replaced every three years. There are only two ways that a product like this can get to real scale: the market or free government distribution. The wholesale cost of the device from VF is about $25; the real cost to a customer, if you include distribution and marketing, would be more like $50 to $70. Put another way, you’d be asking a smallholder farmer to spend a quarter of her annual income on a water filter. That’s not going to happen, nor will governments pass out a device this expensive. Even if the LifeStraw Family did achieve the claimed carbon and health impacts, you’d have to repeat a $30 million give-way every three years.

Projects like Carbon for Water make a mockery of the effort to prevent carbon emissions, and as a physician, it’s especially depressing to see a loopy funding scheme paired with a lousy public health solution. The social sector has got to escape this pattern of bogus idea, hyperventilating media, and eventual, invisible failure. This idea should have been dead on arrival, and I hope that Mr. Vestergaard Frandsen gets to experience the joy of a $30 million donation rather than a profit on his investment. I wish that his company would stick to the manufacture and distribution of their excellent and affordable mosquito nets.

Read more stories by Kevin Starr.

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  • Jennifer's avatar

    BY Jennifer

    ON May 13, 2011 11:36 AM

    The Lifestraw has been important in the elimination (and almost eradication - only 1,700 cases remain) of guinea worm disease.  While it may or may not prevent diarrheal diseases, it does filter out the cocopods that carry the parasite that causes guinea worm.  This makes it one of a set of invaluable, and inexpensive, toosl in the fight to eradicate a disease that has no medical cure.

  • BY kevin starr

    ON May 13, 2011 04:19 PM

    jennifer - thanks for the comment. in fact, lifestraw played no role in the progress on guinea worm.  the technology that beat the guinea worm was something called a pipe filter, a simple tube with a cloth filter that screens out the relatively large parasite (btw, verstergaard frandsen made millions of them).  it is super-cheap and doesn’t require a lot of suction.  the lifestraw personal was inspired by this, but is much more expensive and has a much slower flow rate.  it is intended to filter out a range of diarrhea-causing organisms. it has a very effective filter, but has failed to have much impact because a) there is no workable large-scale distribution model, and b) most people it’s handed out to don’t really use it.

  • BY Jason Aramburu

    ON May 15, 2011 08:06 PM


    Thanks for the great article. There are lots of solutions like this popping up around Kenya right now funded by dubious carbon offsets and not driven by any actual demand. Clean cookstoves are a perfect example of the growing ‘carbon bubble.’ This report from USAID shows that many popular clean cookstoves (funded via carbon credits) actually emit more black carbon than a 3 stone fire:


    Black carbon is an indoor air pollutant and the 2nd most potent greenhouse gas. Thanks for bringing attention to this issue.

  • BY Diana Jue

    ON May 20, 2011 10:21 PM

    Kevin, many great points are made in this post. When it comes to new technologies for the BOP, there are just too many do-gooders and designers and philanthropists who think they are going to make an impact through a technology that is just not applicable in terms of inappropriate engineering for cultural norms, pricing without financing options, and no plans for lage-scale and long-term distribution. It is depressing to see so much time, energy, and money being poured into new technologies that won’t make an impact. It also does not help that many of these technologies are touted as being the next big life-saving device, which results in things like this bogus application of carbon credits. There are a lot of solutions out there already, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work needs to be a real priority (for example, check out the Jameel Poverty Action Lab for some of the work that Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee have led).

    Jason, good point about the improved cookstoves. I’ve always thought that associating clean cookstoves with reducing global warming (and thus to carbon credits for the financing) seemed a bit of a stretch, too. However, the USAID report does say that in their very small sample study, health-related emissions are reduced through the use of improved cookstoves, and this has a much more direct application to the people who actually use the technology. Perhaps the development of a market for these stoves can be achieved by raising awareness about the effects of IAP among populations exposed to it, thus generating demand from the users themselves. For example, in India, the social enterprise Envirofit embarked on a mass marketing campaign (TV ad and all) to raise awareness about IAP and to market their improved cookstove. This seems like a much more legitimate method of funding and dissemination than relying on carbon credits.

  • Nick Moon's avatar

    BY Nick Moon

    ON May 24, 2011 10:10 AM

    Thanks for this post, Kevin. I was in Kakamega, in West Kenya, a couple of Saturdays back. There were swarms of French-speaking mzungus in town with a huge fleet of 4WD hire cars, labeled Lifestraw, driving from place to place giving them away. The group was having some challenges making themselves understood …. Strangely, there are not that many French speakers in rural Western Kenya! 

    On top of the challenges involved in getting people to sleep under nets, which is STILL a habit that people are finding it difficult to develop, the problem of clean drinking water is bad—and getting worse. E.coli are just everywhere. And, with pitifully few exceptions, nobody has the money, fuel, time, patience, or energy to boil their water before drinking it.

    My wife Rose who runs a community clinic for girls affected by HIV/AIDS in Kabras (http://www.vumilia.org) showed me the Lifestraw and confessed that she didn’t immediately understand how one is supposed to use it. Rose has a master’s degree. Vumilia’s young, bright children’s teacher, Zipporah, attempted to clarify how to use the thing, but also got in a muddle. We thought of our neighbor, Mama Florence, a pleasant, illiterate, but highly superstitious woman when it comes to matters of health. There is absolutely no way that Mama Florence is going to use her Lifestraw properly, if at all.

    I read the instructions, to give it a try. First, it says to hang the straw up or suspend it, which means finding some string or wire and looking for a handy place to hang the thing from. Ever been inside a traditional home or hut? The instructions then say to pour water into the container (which is very small), drain dirty water from the lower of two taps for 30 seconds, and then close that and open the upper tap, which will dispense clean water out of a plastic nozzle. I did all that, and a very miserable dribble and splash of water came out. It took like forever to fill my cup. On the side of the device is a squeezy balloon thing, which one is exhorted to use daily to clean the system. Much squeezing and waiting and draining is involved. While I have no doubt that the water this device dispenses is very clean, I cannot see this complex ritual becoming a regular part of people’s days. The thing is also quite flimsy – weedy tubes, taps, jubilee clips. And yet this is the solution designed for an entire family—of five or six people. Sorry, but no. It’s complicated, fidgety, and frustrating.
    At Vumilia’s children’s home, we already use a very effective and easy-to-use water filter. It’s a ceramic water filter produced locally by Chujio Ceramics of Limuru. It has a big blue lidded bucket with a tap at the bottom; inside looks like a flower pot— a porous, ceramic liner that has been treated with colloidal silver—suspended by its flanges from the rim of the bucket. You pour water into the pot; it filters through into the bucket; you open the tap and your cup is filled in seconds. The quickest, cheapest glass of clean water in Kenya. Chujio Ceramics sell the kit for KES 1700 (includes KES 200 VAT), which is $20 – ex-factory. The filters have been independently verified and approved by WHO, KEBS and a number of NGOs working in the WatSan space, and have been shown to eliminate the requisite 99.9 percent of nasties from the water. We use one at home,  too. Anybody – including our neighbor Mama Florence – can learn how to use these filters, in about 30 seconds. But of course Chujio cannot give them away. It’s a private, local business started by a local primary school teacher, and (as of yet) cannot sell the carbon credits. The company currently make 6,000 of them per month, so it would take nearly 14 years at that rate to make 1 million. But if you want an effective, sustainable solution for clean drinking water in poor rural homes, I’d say this offers far greater chance of success than Mr Westergaard’s well-meant but misguided intervention

  • BY Adrian Rimmer

    ON June 5, 2011 11:52 PM

    Whilst Kevin Starr provides an interesting viewpoint, I would like to clarify on behalf of The Gold Standard Foundation two clear factual inaccuracies in his article and highlight the rigorous, thorough and transparent technical process through which projects are subjected in order to become Gold Standard certified. Furthermore, far from being ‘ashamed of ourselves’ we are in fact rather proud of the project he references, which should transform the health and lives of some of the poorest people in the world, using low-carbon technology.

    Unfortunately, Mr Starr misleads readers from the outset, cutting short the quote from a positive article by “Fast Company”, which in its entirety read “Vestergaard Fransden makes an ingenious water filter that is too expensive for the people who need it. They figured out how to give it away and still make money”.

    This is a very important point. Indeed, contrary to Mr Starr’s assertions that poor end users would need to spend a quarter of their annual incomes on these water filters, the LifeStraw Family filters are being given away for free, thanks to what he describes as a ‘loopy funding scheme’. Far from being loopy, carbon financing is a proven and innovative market mechanism through which to channel international funds to sustainable development projects in developing countries. Further, within this carbon financing structure it is mandatory to undertake monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of emissions reductions and community benefits over at least a ten year period. Within this market The Gold Standard is recognised internationally as the benchmark for the highest quality carbon finance projects by more than 70 NGOs, many governments and highly respected academic bodies such as the Stockholm Environment Institute.

    Mr Starr also berates The Gold Standard Foundation for being part of a ‘charade’ that is involved in the bogus application of carbon credits, an accusation we categorically reject. Mr Starr infers that the project does not take account of the fact that only 25% of people benefitted by the project currently boil their water. This is, in fact, the baseline for the carbon accounting under the project. However, the methodology is designed to ensure that a much greater number of people can be given access to potable water (a basic human right) through the application of ‘suppressed demand’. This is a legitimate approach that allows calculations to be made on the avoidance of future emissions and recognizes a responsibility to satisfy basic human needs for the world’s poorest communities. The LifeStaw Family water filter project incorporates calculations   anticipating that as the country develops, more people in Kenya will demand clean potable water. As such, without intervention, the number of people using firewood to boil water is likely to increase.

    The LifeStraw Family project has been submitted to the Gold Standard project cycle, which is the most technically rigorous project cycle in the carbon market. Each project in the Gold Standard’s 600+ project pipeline must undergo scrutiny before it can be registered. Uniquely, this is a two way process. Every project must carry out a detailed stakeholder consultation that includes educating the communities in which the project will take place, taking into account relevant cultural issues or educational factors such as illiteracy and learning from the traditional and cultural knowledge of the local people. It also requires a thorough, third-party verification by UN accredited auditors before credit issuance. Also instrumental to this certification process is the Gold Standard Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), which is an independent body composed of carbon market specialists, including engineers, policymakers and lawyers. The expertise and guidance of the TAC has significantly contributed to the credibility of the Gold Standard as it stands today.

    As climate change is a global issue, and developing countries will be most severely impacted, projects such as the LifeStraw Family water filter one not only help to move communities away from fossil fuels to low carbon, clean technologies but provide additional benefits, such as access to clean drinking water, to some of the poorest communities in the world.

  • Jeff Albert's avatar

    BY Jeff Albert

    ON June 13, 2011 12:08 AM

    In response to Adrian Rimmer: if the Gold Standard Foundation provides the most rigorous review process in the carbon market, then heaven help us all. The approval of this methodology absolutely defies logic.

    1) The notion of “suppressed demand” as it is being applied here relies on not a shred of EVIDENCE. On behalf of the Gold Standard Foundation, Mr. Rimmer writes: “...as the country develops, more people in Kenya will demand clean potable water. As such, without intervention, the number of people using firewood to boil water is likely to increase.” Where exactly are the data demonstrating that boiling prevalence (or more specifically, as Mr. Rimmer writes, boiling *with fuelwood*) increases with economic development? I invite Mr. Rimmer to present any source of information showing even a correlation between indicators of development status and boiling prevalence in developing countries, let alone backing up the causal relationship he suggests. Here’s what the EVIDENCE tells us about what happens when countries get wealthier: the fraction of the population covered by improved water supply tends to increase as well. (Try setting improved water coverage as a function of GDP/capita at http://www.gapminder.org to see for yourself what the patterns look like, broken down by region over the last 15 years.)

    2) The 25% boiling prevalence figure discussed above corresponds to *reported* boiling, not objectively verified boiling - which is the meaningful statistic, if we are talking about carbon emissions - and which is very likely far lower. In their work in the precise geographic area where VF is handing out its filters, Kremer and collaborators (http://www.povertyactionlab.org/sites/default/files/publications/174- Spring Cleaning.pdf) note that there is low correlation between self-reported boiling and fecal contamination in stored drinking water. At the very least, shouldn’t this application for certification have triggered a rigorous study of boiling prevalence in Kenya?

    Here are some questions for Mr. Rimmer:

    - How exactly is “suppressed demand” built into VF’s carbon credit sales?
    - How exactly does Vestergaard Frandsen get paid for the filters it gives away? Is every filter assumed to eliminate the 25% of the carbon emissions caused by burning fuelwood for boiling drinking water in the household that receives one?
    - How many liters of water per day are assumed to be boiled each day by the supposed 25% of Kenyans who boil their water for drinking (many of whom use presumably use kerosene or LPG rather than wood, if they live in cities or peri-urban areas).

    Questions about the demand for, usage of, effectiveness of, or future pricing of the LifeStraw Family device notwithstanding, the fundamental issue here is whether giving away large numbers of these filters will significantly reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. That the Gold Standard Foundation has answered the question in the affirmative given the absolute lack of evidence is nothing short of astounding.

    If this passes the test, I would love to see what methodologies have failed the Foundation’s certification review…

  • BY kevin starr

    ON June 14, 2011 10:40 PM

    In response to the comment by Adrian Rimmer, CEO of the Gold Standard Foundation:

    I’m sorry, Mr. Rimmer, you’re just wrong.  Here is the relevant quote from your own validation report finalized January 23 , 2011, which details the survey done to determine the baseline boiling rate in the target area
    ( http://tinyurl.com/3r2wd4d ):

    “The sample size of the survey conducted included 17 households. These results indicated that between 71% and 82% of the people in the region either currently boil drinking water, or would boil it if resources were more readily available. The conservative value of 71% was used in the estimation of baseline emissions (page 13).”

    17 households!  You’ve got to be kidding.  $30 million of carbon credits to be sold on the basis of a 17-house “mini-survey?”  Unless you’ve got some documentation other than the official validation report, you pulled the 25% boiling rate figure out of the air. 

    This is bad.  I stand by my earlier characterizations of the project, including the words “bogus,” “charade,” and “loopy”. Perhaps it’s time to add the word “travesty.”

  • This is really wrong and I am going to share it with my hundred of friends and relatives who hail from Western Kenya. I am a ‘Westerner ( from Western Kenya) and proud to be one. Dear mzungu, please take your profit making ideologies and keep them. We don’t need them! Despite our social and economic challenges, we are evolving and improving, with many of our solutions produly local and community owned. THere are plenty of community owned local solutions thatt have been proven to be: affordable, accessible, and most importantly RELEVANT to the community. We don’t need you to ‘rescue’ us while enormously helping yourself!!

    P.S: Kenya is an English speaking country!!!!!!!!!

  • Ahhhh.. if only this was the only social enterprise brand to be earning revenues on the backs of smallholder farmers.  The only point I want to correct is your reference to the income of smallholder farmers.  There is a stratum of smallholder farmers in Kenya and the EAC and the majority of them are earning much more than $200 per annum.  Your concern, rightly placed is with ‘last mile’ or subsistence farmers. But I find it highly unlikely they would buy them anyway. So unless I start to see lifestraw packaged with a loan from one of the major lendes, I don’t think you need to worry about mass adoption.

    Then there is the real issue around water, drought! If nothing else, we need to focus national campaigns on rainwater harvesting so there is even a water source to clean for drinking and grow crops. So many challenges and $70 could build a rainwater reservoir or subsidize investment into irrigation significantly reducing water usage with a greater ecological impact on blue water resources. 

    Sometimes I wonder when we will begin to see not just patient but practical investment!

  • BY FairWater Paul Beers

    ON June 17, 2011 12:54 AM

    @Kevin, our complimens, for the energy you put in this and you are 100% right. During 2002 -2004 i was director of the RWD (Rural Water Development) Program in Kisii, Western Kenya. We found also safe water problems at households due to polluted wells and improper storage at home. As a response, RWD developed the Kisii water filter (just google for it and a world will open).

    it is basically a quality ceramic filter stone in a cheap plastic bucket, so simple, so practicle and cheap and does the job perfectly.

    RWD had a social entreprise approach, so we sold it at a little profit. Today, the Kisii filter system has spread out over Africa by word of mouth and not by NGO push or advertising. We estimated over 100.000 in use now in Africa.

    The “charity hoaxes” you describe will always be there, (google for “charity hoax”) but it’s good to nail them wherever possible. Another major charity hoax song was the so called “Play PUmp” where people donated millions just to be wasted in frauds.

    Keep on!

    Paul van Beers

  • BY Del Livingston

    ON June 17, 2011 10:44 AM

    So interesting that this subject should come to light.  I have watched the “Water Straw” invasion hit the region.  I thought it would be prudent to watch the give away, if it could actually be of value to the people, great.  I have been involved with bio-sand water filter projects here in Western for more than four years.  Our program spends a lot of time teaching hygiene, sanitation, and the manufacture of the bio-sand water filters.  Our aim is to improve the health standards of the villages we are invited to work and create jobs.

    With the entry of the “Life Straw” to the market has been a hit on our marketing, and creating a hardship on those that have been working to make a legitimate income.  One thing we can be sure of is that most will be frustrated with this device and it will go away.  I have found that by giving things like this out for free will not be successful here.  Since it is free, most will treat it as something of no value.  They will be tossed out into the street to join the millions of plastic bags along the streets.

    After about three weeks into the distribution, I was able to find someone that had enough knowledge to converse about their marketing program.  Since we spend so much time on training, so their is a thorough understanding of how to improve family health.  I asked what their plan was to follow-up and do all the things that are necessary to getting the results the Life Straw people are saying will happen it they use the straws, the answer was a blank stare.  There were no plans to follow-up, get the units out there and get back to Nairobi.

    It’s pretty obvious this project has been set into place to make money for someone.  Kenyans won’t say much about this been a scam, they are quite used to it.

  • Mark Stoneham's avatar

    BY Mark Stoneham

    ON June 17, 2011 12:47 PM

    The original quote is from April 2011 - and I was looking to see if it was an April 1st prank.

    Assuming it isn’t then what an absurd situation. As a previous comment said - if Mr Frandsen wants to donate to Kenya then great. If he sees a legitimate opportunity to make money well that’s OK too.

    What I find amazing is Adrian Rimmers comment on June 5th, specifically:
    “Far from being loopy, carbon financing is a proven and innovative market mechanism through which to channel international funds to sustainable development projects in developing countries.”

    Proven? Market mechanism? Sustainable development projects?

    What is sustainable about this? Take away the carbon credits and how long would this continue? And it’s reported that there’s a local business making filters, that are better in many ways. Surely it’s more sustainable to support local businesses and local jobs, rather than all the carbon footprint to bring in expensive western technology.

    Thank you Kevin for highlighting this absurdity.

  • BY Kevin Starr

    ON June 17, 2011 12:50 PM

    Since this conversation has generated some controversy, the editors of the Stanford Social Innovation Review suggested that a full disclosure statement would be appropriate - and I agree.  Jeff Albert of Aquaya provided survey data of western Kenya boiling rates that was among the key pieces of information that informed my original blog post (another was in influential study by Michael Kremer et al).  The Mulago Foundation funds Aquaya and we tap them often for expert opinion on the water sector.  We have in fact funded numerous organizations active in western Kenya, including: One Acre Fund, Innovations for Poverty Action, Kickstart, Nuru, Tam-Tam, JPAL, and FACES.  I spoke to people at and/or read relevant documents by most of them.  That is why I am comfortable that we have a good handle on what is going on in the region.

  • Atingah John A. Parker's avatar

    BY Atingah John A. Parker

    ON June 17, 2011 02:21 PM

    This is the only way people who own and live with wildlife can actually appreciate their environment. I recommend the gesture for other areas with vast wildlife resources but where locals are stuck in abject poverty.

    Kudos Verstergaard!

  • BY Kevin Jones

    ON June 17, 2011 11:11 PM

    go ahead sling some more BS Kevin’s way. he’ll knock it out of the park.

    Kevin Starr is someone i admire for the rigor of his analysis and his focus. he does not suffer people who make claims for social impact for their social enterprises that are not substantiated very well. When he raises an objection he has done his homework and often understands your documentation better than you do. He stands his ground in a way that i admire. He has a purgative impact on random, loose claims for impact that should be washed out of this market. He acts as an impact cleanser. If you can stand up to his scrubbing, you have done well.

  • Daniel Hook's avatar

    BY Daniel Hook

    ON June 21, 2011 07:04 AM

    What is most troubling is that these assumed “carbon offsets” are sold and traded well before any real impact can be measured.  Much can and will change in Kenya over the next 10 years but the carbon credits sold are hedged against the current conditions (even these conditions seem to be based on questionable data). It feels to much like a gamble that’s dangerously reminiscent of the mortgage crisis that has lead the world into a economic crisis.  “Making money from nothing.” Seems like the financial alchemists are up to it again!
    Once the impact is actually measured the credits have changed hands a hundred times ending up in the clutches of companies that blast the airwaves with their new green slogans that we consumers love to gobble up. 
    Where is the real environmental impact? Who really benefits?  Gambling on development is always questionable.
    Having said this, I still believe that there must be a way to leverage carbon credits and the growing demand for carbon offsets to generate seed money for projects that address both climate change and socioeconomic development.  Perhaps we need a better way of determining the sustainability of these projects and the way in which carbon credits are verified. More importantly, maybe we need to do more to ward of the profiteers and investment bankers who have found a new set of credits to swap, trade and ultimately destroy!

  • Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen's avatar

    BY Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen

    ON June 22, 2011 05:53 PM

    At this point in the conversation I find it prudent to publicly respond to criticism raised on our project to provide some clarity around misconceptions and misinformation. In addition, I want to highlight that after due reminder from the editor, the author, Kevin Starr made a partial disclosure of his conflict of interest. It should be added that through Aquaya, which itself produces and offers competing product and services to the LifeStraw Family, the author has financial and professional interests in drinking water in Kenya.

    To provide some clarity around LifeStraw:

    LifeStraw Family complies with strict U.S. EPA standards of water purifiers. However, in the author’s comments to Tom Clasen’s study of LifeStraw in Congo, he omits the fact that the study results were not accurate due to study design rather than filter efficacy. The article compared LifeStraw Family’s efficacy with a placebo which in-fact was not a true placebo, as the placebo removed 90% of microbes, thus diminishing the measureable effect of the filter.

    Dr. Starr’s commentary also fails to mention that identifying and proving reduction in diarrhea, as related to specific safe drinking water interventions is widely acknowledged as a challenge in the public health field. This is in large part due to the number of factors that contribute to diarrheal illness and the fact that most incidence of diarrhea go unreported to health facilities.

    The following points further clarify Kevin Starr’s incorrect assumptions:

    People in Western Province of Kenya receiving a LifeStraw do not have to pay for the replacement or repair. Service, repair and maintenance are free of cost over the 10 year life of the program.

    Baseline data was generated on a sample size of 137 households rather than the 17 households mentioned by Dr Starr. After the initial survey of 137, an additional 17 households were subsequently sampled for more in-depth information. This information was also publicly available.

    Additional surveys are planned and required prior to Vestergaard Frandsen receiving a single carbon credit. The discussion around the percentage of people who currently boil their water was extrapolated and presented by Dr Starr as “bogus” data to get carbon credits.  Not only does this misrepresent our baseline data, it ignores the understanding of suppressed demand. Suppressed demand allows carbon emissions reduction to be measured for people who do boil their water and those people that would choose to boil their water if they could afford the time or resources.

    We understand that the author was likely not familiar with this concept of suppressed demand or the widespread acknowledgement of it outside of our project. However, we would have appreciated Dr Starr extend to us and our partners the courtesy of sharing this information and having a discussion before this article was published with such inaccurate and misleading assumptions.

    I too share the frustration of many of the other bloggers that some aid programs lack incentives to ensure sustainability. Our commitment is long-term and we will, over the coming two months, build 34 service centers, more than one in each district, where users of LifeStraw can come for free service and repair for the next 10 years. What is also noteworthy about this approach is that a majority of potential revenue that comes in as a result of carbon offset is directly re-invested in on-going community education, communication and monitoring. Actually, the campaign provided employment for more than 8,000 Kenyans across the 31 Western Province districts. Moving forward, another 2,000 Kenyans will be involved in the monitoring, community education and social mobilization annually. 

    Despite the accusation made in a previous post, that we are distributing the filters and catching the first flight back to Nairobi, we have made a 10 year commitment to the communities of Western Province and get paid only if we do-so and demonstrate impact.

    The article and posts from Kevin Starr, colleagues and fund recipients Nick Moon of Kickstart and Jeff Albert of Aquaya were done without any outreach to us or any attempt at unbiased portrayal of our project. In the spirit of transparency and productive dialogue to further development, we would be happy to answer any questions from other readers directly at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen

  • BY kevin starr

    ON June 25, 2011 02:38 PM

    To Mikkel Vestergaard Frandzen:

    Thank you for the opportunity to address the points you’ve made in writing. 

    My original blog post was in response to your own materials (http://www.vestergaard-frandsen.com/carbon-for-water/how-it-works.html), press releases and facilitated media coverage of Carbon for Water, which in sum said that 1) Kenyans boil their water, 2) the Carbon for Water deal was “certified,” and 3) you expected to recoup your investment in the program.

    Carbon for Water is based on the premise that distributing free filters will save carbon emissions because will no longer need to use firewood to boil water. Every article on the program uses some version of the phrase “Kenyans boil their water.” They don’t say “a small minority of Kenyans boil their water” - the message conveyed is that boiling water is the norm in western Kenya.

    I knew this to be untrue and so I wrote I wrote a strongly worded blog post about it.  After a careful review of my sources, I stand by that post.  For the sake of clarity, I will respond to the points you make in the order you made them.

    First, regarding your charges of a potential conflict of interest, I am the managing director of a charitable foundation.  To say that I have “financial interests” in this affair, with all that implies, is laughable.  We fund a number of non-profit organizations doing high-quality work in western Kenya.  We vet them thoroughly and hence we trust them explicitly.  Of course I turn to them for expert opinion on what is going on in the region.  They have deep experience there, and Dr. Albert of Aquaya, the Poverty Action Lab, and Innovations for Poverty Action in particular have collected extensive relevant, high-quality data on household water practices.

    Second, what I wrote about the LifeStraw device is that its efficacy is unproven.  As you point out, the filter in the device is excellent; however, to have an impact on health, the device must be used properly and consistently.  This requires an extended trial that tests its use and impact under real-life conditions.  The Clasen paper you and I cited is the only study to do so, and you are also correct that the study was flawed.  The problem is this: the study did not prove the health efficacy of the filter in real-life conditions and there is no other study that does so.  It may be that another study will show efficacy, but no one has done it yet.  Given that 56% of the Congolese subjects in the Clausen study were unable to demonstrate proper use of the device, I am not optimistic.  What I am certain of is that this is not a proven product ready for mass distribution.

    Third, I never said nor implied that you were selling filters.  I wish that what I said was that any large-scale distribution of LifeStraw Family filters requires a charity give-away, because they are too expensive for poor people to buy or for their governments to provide them.  I did not mention that your massive program in western Kenya was dropped down on top of other efforts to find lasting solutions, such as Innovations for Poverty Action’s community chlorine dispensers

    You are also correct in saying that I didn’t take into account the notion of “suppressed demand.” I also managed to miss the 29% reported rate of boiling from your survey of 115 households, which, by the way, was not the figure used in the calculations of determining how much you could be paid back for your giveaway. 

    That figure was 71%, and it was derived from a 17 (yes, seventeen) household survey that asked householders the question “would you boil water if you had more resources?”  The current calculations the amount of carbon saved in this deal are currently based only on the percentage of people who answered yes to that question.  In other words, it’s based on an imaginary number, the number of people whose future “demand” for wood to boil water is “suppressed” by getting a LifeStraw Family filter.

    So here’s the scenario:  researchers – perhaps pulling up in a Land Cruiser - go to a rural Kenyan household and query people about their water practices, then ask a hypothetical question, the “right” answer to which is implied by the previous questions.  Unsurprisingly, the majority of them say yes, they’d boil their water.  That is low-quality data by any standard.

    Here’s an example of real data.  A team of researchers from Harvard, the University of California, the World Bank and the Gates Foundation surveyed 731 households in the same region of Kenya (http://www.povertyactionlab.org/sites/default/files/publications/174- Spring Cleaning.pdf).  In their study, only 25% of householders said they boiled their water, and the research team found that many samples of water claimed as boiled were still contaminated with high levels of e. coli, leading to the conclusion that real boiling rates are probably much lower.

    Technical phrases like “suppressed demand” cannot disguise the fact that few Kenyans don’t boil their water now and there is no reason to believe they ever will.  The cost of wood fuel is rising, other affordable purification technologies are becoming available, and it is absurd to project an imaginary future where prospering Kenyans buy more firewood so they can start boiling their water.  It’s even more absurd to assign numbers to that projection and monetize them to pay for a charity giveaway of an unproven technology. 

    Perhaps you shouldn’t be annoyed at me – maybe the Gold Standard Foundation should be the target of your ire.  After all, you’re a reputable businessman simply trying to distribute a product that is too expensive to sell.  They’re the experts, and it is they who have the responsibility to assure the public that carbons credits actually mean something.

    You write “additional surveys are planned and required prior to Vestergaard Frandsen receiving a single carbon credit.”  The validation report says “without the benefit of carbon finance, Vestergaard S.A. would not finance this program.” But you’ve already spent a lot of money. I don’t get it.

  • BY Francis Odhiambo

    ON June 26, 2011 08:16 AM

    Vestergaard Frandsen has been a long - time partner of the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation of Kenya dating back to 2008.In 2008 the Company invested in our Community with an integrated prevention campaign that combined VCT, with the distribution of tools to prevent malaria and diarrhoea; a concept that no any other stakeholder had ever thought of.The LifeStraw was distributed during that campaign and they have been accepted in the communities. I personally have LifeStraw at my house and use it. The impact that the initiative had on our community was significant and Vestergaard has continued to be active in Western Province of the Republic of Kenya, where for example they constructed a comprehensive Care clinic (CCC) in early 2009, and has continued to support the clinic both with financial and management resources till todate.

    The LifeStraw Campaign has been unique in many ways, and has the potential to impact our progress against MDGs. Besides having the endorsement of the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation at the national level, its planning, strategy and implementation was done in close collaboration with our Ministry.
    The scale of this campaign makes it different from other water projects implemented in this region (at a district or a community level), by addressing the problem of save drinking water for the province as a whole rather than on a community or district basis or level. More than 4million residents of Western Province stand to benefit from this program, not only in terms of clean and safe drinking water, but also economically, Socially, gender empowerment and equality; in addition to environment Conservation.

    We have witnessed an overwhelming demand of LifeStraw by the households who did not get the filters at the end of the campaign; they keep on knocking at our doors to be given this filter. We look forward to VF to address this challenge.

    As a provincial public health officer, i am personally and professionally invested in the health of my community. I am confident that with the long term community education activities and monitoring that we as a ministry do, and that which VF has put in place in consultation with us; this initiative is not only beneficial now, but will be sustained and have long term impact in Western Province.

    I would like to challenge this debate to move from a discussion of one water project compared to another, and to recognize the opportunity we have. More than 90% of households in this region have been given a tool to provide them with safe water.
    How can we all work together to use this opportunity and to combine resources and expertise to maximize impact on health? How can we have a public health community with the same objectives to save lives, work together to achieve this- not against one other?

    Francis Odhiambo

    Deputy Provincial Public Health Officer- Western Province, Republic of Kenya.

  • BY Jeff Albert

    ON June 29, 2011 07:31 PM

    In response to Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen:
    I would like to address Mr. Vestergaard Frandsen’s claims about the Aquaya Institute, my employer. Contrary to what he has written, Aquaya does NOT produce and offer products and/or services that compete with the LifeStraw Family device.  We have never manufactured a home water treatment product. We do not currently distribute or market any such product, nor do we intend to do so in the future. We *do* currently support the development of indigenous small-scale water treatment and vending businesses in Kenya (among our other research and implementation activities in several countries), but this does not qualify us as VF’s competitor. Neither we nor our programs stand in any way to suffer if VF succeeds in selling carbon credits as stipulated by the Gold Standard Foundation-approved methodology. In fact, we could actually benefit from VF’s carbon credit sales, since they might enable water treatment enterprises like the ones we support to sell carbon credits of their own. Nevertheless, we will not advise these businesses to sell carbon credits because, in our opinion, the evidence that getting clean water to Kenyans (whether via POU devices or other low greenhouse-emitting water purification systems) will significantly reduce carbon emissions simply does not exist.
    Here are the facts on which we rely in our analysis: in addition to our own survey of 400 households and that of Kremer and collaborators of 731 households (http://www.povertyactionlab.org/sites/default/files/publications/174- Spring Cleaning.pdf) stand the results of the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) of over 6,700 rural households in 2008-09, in which only ~25% of rural households in Kenya reported boiling their drinking water in the home. See http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/documents/s17116e/s17116e.pdf. In the aggregate, that is a sample size of nearly 8,000 households. Only one in four rural Kenyans tell an enumerator that they boil their drinking water, and to repeat, these are self-reported numbers, widely understood to be higher (if not considerably higher) than actual, verified rates of boiling.
    By contrast, the suppressed demand concept that is the cornerstone of VF’s proposed methodology relies on two surveys of 17 and 12 households, respectively, to support the company’s argument for a baseline boiling prevalence of roughly 70% for the purposes of future carbon credit sales.
    Observers are welcome to draw their own conclusions based on the available evidence. From where we sit, the picture is clear.

  • Praveen Garlapati's avatar

    BY Praveen Garlapati

    ON July 18, 2011 03:40 PM

    Can someone give their views on using carbon credits to promote the use of solar lanterns like D. Light?


  • Hey folks - here’s a few more fun carbon programs for you…

    1) Carbon neutral, poverty-alleviating bottled water, brought to you by for-profit Nikawater.org and Carbonfund.org:


    2) Emissions-conscious, mail order Fiji water touts that 95% of its packaging is locally sourced.  Nevermind that they’re shipping water from Fiji.


    3) Last but not least… page 17 of Wildlife Works’ VCS Project Design Document:

    “...we have been unable to produce a new fashion collection from Rukinga for the past two years due to lack of funding, so we plan to initiate a new Collection immediately in 2010, once carbon funding is received.”


    I hope the COTAP baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater.  To stretch the analogy, it’s more like the baby is solo in a raft going down Class V rapids.


  • Alejandro D. Ochoa Quintinilla's avatar

    BY Alejandro D. Ochoa Quintinilla

    ON August 18, 2011 08:29 AM

    To Kevin Starr
    1. como bien citó usted Sr. Starr el invento del Sr. Vestergaard es caro para el que lo necesita, ¿pero alguna cosa es considerada barata por personas que ni siquiera tienen acceso al agua potable? ¿Vestergaard vende sus POU a pobladores? usted trata de ver la realidad desde su punto de vista, ya que a usted solo le hace falta extender la mano para conseguir agua, y obviamente cuando usted quiere, puede tomar una coca cola dietética para que “le produzca felicidad y le alargue la vida al tomarla”. Está claro entonces, que para yo hacer esta conclusión, no tuve que recurrir a un estudio riguroso de 6,700 familias y que la salud no tiene precio, ¿o dejaría usted que una persona querida por usted tome agua filtrada por un método que solo retenga el 50% de los Virus? O ¿que no elimine parásitos?(*) Lo que no se compara con los beneficios de tomar agua con altos estándares como son los de la EPA pues nadie se enfermaría por aguas no contaminadas se cumpliría una de las metas de DMO ademas esto tendrá un beneficio económico al contrario de un perjuicio como usted lo da a entender(**)(***)Pocos métodos de tratamiento cumplen según el último informe del OMS. (*) ¡Comience a tratar a las personas de Kenya como a personas queridas por usted.!!

    2. luego ataca a LIFE STRAW PERSONAL de inútil o inservible, pero usted no presenta el estudio de que estos sean inútiles, así que sus palabras se basan en su percepción de algo que usted no entiende bien, pues no lo invento usted, ósea lo mismo que decir falsas verdades, cuando escuche hablar de usted, bien hacían en calificarlo como “orador impresionante” “no le importa lo que los demás piensen”(&)Lógicamente a eso se le llama ser idealista y se ha vivido desde tiempos inmemorable en la historia del mundo, solo por citar uno “Adolf Hitler” no digo que el idealismo es malo pero de lo que si estoy seguro es que Hitler no era bueno, usted es líder de opinión incentivando a los demás a tomar acciones y convenciéndolos que otros están mal y que usted está bien en su manera de pensar.

    3. si viaja a Kenya seguramente no fue porque le preocupa que ” this is a bogus application of carbon credits”, posiblemente tiene negocios allá o quizá familia, de lo que estoy seguro es que si de verdad viviera usted en Kenya y no tuviera dinero ni para agua potable, Usaria con uno de los mejores métodos(*) no con uno que solo elimina dos de tres, tipos de microorganismos o elimina el 98% de patógenos,  sino el 99.9999% de bacterias, 99.99% de virus y 99.9% de protozoarios(#) que no utilizan electricidad, luz solar, baterías, químicos para eliminación de microorganismos y ni siquiera lo tendría que pagar usted, más bien podría pedir uno a Mikkel Vestergaard quizás le regale uno, así no tendrá que pasar horas ni caminar buscando leña(o dejar que su esposa lo haga) o excremento seco de animales para hervir su agua para consumo, claro que esto según la WHO causara 10 millones de muertes prematuras, tal vez sea usted parte de estas estadísticas(##), solamente por no usar una cocina mejorada o LIFE STRAW FAMILIAR, podría ser que usted realmente no vé estos problemas y beneficios, pues desde la ventana de un avión no se puede apreciar bien estos problemas.

    4. Luego dice usted que el Sr. Mikkel, se debe airar contra los de estándar créditos de oro, pero lo ataca a él directamente y a su invento, en vez de poner los puntos claves de tu critica indicando que es un mal invento, pero si algún invento puede mejorar la vida de las personas en algún porcentaje no creo que sea malo, parafrasea muchas cosas juntas, pide estudios pero usted mismo no da uno que demuestre que estos hacen daño. Déjeme decir, él no tiene necesidad de enfadarse con ellos, pero tal vez usted sí, y cuando ellos puedan demostrar que se equivoco, tal vez tomen acciones sobre lo que dices.

    5. sobre el estudio del Sr. Tom Clasen, debería usted informarse mejor señor Starr, investigue señor y no tomar errores de otros como aciertos suyos, así no dejaría de existir este blog amarillista. Sobre “Second, there is little evidence that LifeStraw Family water filters reduce diarrheal disease under real-world community conditions” creo que esta es tu tarea del día pregúntele esto a algún científico de Vestergaard, y para los demás pueden entrar a y leer el Broshure de LIFE STRAW(###) donde están todos los estudios enumerados, claro que el Sr. Starr no lo hará pues, no lo hizo antes y no lo hará ahora, ademas a él según una publicación “no le importa lo que los demás piensen” “solo lo que él cree”

    no refute lo que yo digo, refute el problema de agua que se presenta, con algún programa o proyecto ejecutado por sus ONGs, deje de ser destructivo y construyamos juntos algo mejor, plantee preguntas y objeciones, no solamente ofensas.

    (&). http://www.good.is/post/how-not-to-save-the-world-or-why-the-lifestraw-is-a-stupid-idea/
    (*). http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/2011/evaluating_water_treatment.pdf
    (#). http://www.ajtmh.org/content/80/5/819.full?ck=nck

    Blgo. Alejandro D. Ochoa
    Universidad San Luis Gonzaga de Ica - Perú

  • Mikael Tysvær's avatar

    BY Mikael Tysvær

    ON December 7, 2011 07:34 AM

    Interesting debate. I am currently writing an exam about LifeStraw and after reading all this I have some questions.

    1. Is there any real alternatives to LifeStraw. I mean they have distributed 1 million water-filtration devices that work to people who need it. Is it on the expense of a better solution?

    2. So you are agreeing that there is a big potential S-ROI on this project, but you think that it woun’t work in practice, but what effects do you think this large scale distribution of LifeStraws will have in the region.

    3. The health impact of LifeStraw is largely undocumented, but does that mean that is doesn’t work?

    4. If you were Vestergaard-Frandsen, what would you do different?

  • BY Jacqueline Simone Ambrose

    ON February 7, 2012 01:49 PM

    I grew up in Tanzania (circa 1960-1970) & returned in 2003 for the first time since then. The population explosion was the biggest visual shock & the lack of wildlife.

    Africa as a whole is being exploited, with corrupt leaderships & vast sums of money from foreign countries being waved at them these schemes abound. Selling these “ideas” to the African Governments is easy especially when veiled as humanitarian reasons. It’s just big business.

    We used to boil & filter our water in clay filters. Now In most towns people drink bottled water, yet another massive polluter.

    In 2004 I initiated a water project in Tabora Tanzania raising money to dig shallow wells & rain water catchment tanks. The community is involved, health education is provided & the villagers take ownership of their water point.

    When I was there during the summer 2011 I saw vast acres of environmental degradation due to population clearing the bush, chopping trees to make charcoal to sell for cooking use.
    Flying from Tabora to Kigoma the smoke bank was 3 miles high. Solutions must be found for that now, it may even be too late. Not bring in more “stuff” to litter the landscape.

    The next wars will be about water not oil, Africans already fight over it.

  • Mike Heio's avatar

    BY Mike Heio

    ON May 17, 2012 06:18 PM

    A sad note, organizations like Think Kindness out of Reno Nevada are partnering together using children to run their campaigns.  Making the child a sympathetic in appearance and sending the wrong message and incorrect data and the child has no clue of what they are doing.  Yes the intention is good, but using children as a campaign shield is wrong.

  • BY Mark Hornbuckle

    ON December 14, 2012 05:34 AM

    Hello, we offer a solution to the clean water issue also, please visit website ... shaska-usa.com. Non-Profits and F0r-Profits can work together to solve issues. Everybody keep up the good work ... Have a Great Day

  • WOW - As an admirer of companies/organisations who believe to do good for those less fortunate by way of helping them to help themselves with what they have with a bit of initiative help, and not just handing out food parcels straight out, I am now confused about who does what for who, whom and what (if any) do they get out of it.

    I guess that quote “if it’s to good to be true, then it probably isn’t” must be true.

  • @Teine

    Thousands of people have access to a safe water cleaning device that otherwise would not have. You can look up any house hold water treatment purifier on the market, and compared to the LifeStraw none is as heavily researched or as widely used. I would encourage you to do a simple scholarly search on the subject and look at the plethora of scholarly research done on these programs.

    Helping to solve problems through innovation isn’t “to good to be true”, it’s how this word evolved to what it is today.

  • Great article, no bias or conflicts of interest I’m sure.

    The three main points were

    1. Carbon generating companies are paying for water filters which are given to Kenyans at no cost.

    - I could think of worse scandals

    2. One study in a different country shows that when the filters are not used correctly, they do not work effectively.

    - when my gear selector is in reverse my car does not drive forwards

    3. The filters are too expensive to be widely distributed and used by the masses. The author tells us the filters retail in the price range of $50-$70.

    - I purchased my life straw from a Canadian retailer for $20. If I could have found a cheaper filter that was just as effective, I would have.

  • Tara aronson's avatar

    BY Tara aronson

    ON August 20, 2013 08:54 AM

    Common sense would indicate that Life Straws are useful in situations where the filter must be easy to transport and unbreakable.  In permanent household locally made filters using a porous, ceramic liner that has been treated with colloidal silver would seem to make more sense.  I would be very interested in hearing comments on this perspective.





  • it seems “charities” dont need the competition from real solutions. they will be out of work otherwise. any solution that may be 50% effective, immediately available even for a short 3 years is better than people standing around saying “tut, tut, its a real shame that we cant help”. when we look at a child suffering from stomach illness, immediately we treat the symptoms a la Red Cross etc. why dont we just TRY and do just a little by treating the cause - which is better than nothing or being too overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem!!!

    i think that the competition are a bit put out by VF with their filters which appear to have filled this gap - i say at least they are trying!

    what are you doing to help?

  • Ben Martinez's avatar

    BY Ben Martinez

    ON June 4, 2014 03:51 PM

    I guarantee that if shit was going down, all you yuppie ass people would use the LIFESTRAW. Grow up.

  • Dave Locke's avatar

    BY Dave Locke

    ON March 23, 2015 10:19 AM

    Surprise surprise, when the governments makes up nonsensical carbon credit schemes, people abuse them.

    At least in this case the tax scam is going to a good cause and helping distribute FREE water filters, good for 3 years.  That is a long time.

    Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

  • This entire business plan that he has created seems to be revolving only around his own selfish motives instead of wanting to do something for the greater good. Building something so expensive and intending to distribute it to a location with little or no finance support at all seems very contradicting to the main objective of the project to begin with. Hence, how does he think this entire project would actually be somewhat useful to the community?

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