Vestergaard-Frandsen (VF), a manufacturer based in Switzerland, recently distributed about 900,000 of its LifeStraw Family water filters gratis to households in Kenya’s Western Province. Since I’d been a vocal critic of the project in concept, I thought I ought to have a look at how it’s working out on the ground.
And so a couple weeks ago, I flew from Nairobi to Kisumu with Ned Breslin of Water for People. We hired a car and traveled to the epicenter of the filter distribution, splitting up to visit as many households as we possibly could. Driving down forking dirt roads, we got out of the car periodically and walked to random houses. What with explaining what we were up to and the inevitable tea and biscuits, we got to only 20 houses, but every single one had gotten a LifeStraw filter. This was a remarkably effective distribution effort.
What happened to the filters after distribution was less impressive: 10 months after distribution, only three of the 20 were currently in use. One guy showed me his still in the bag—he said he couldn’t figure out how to use it. Another said his kids had burned it up. Yet another told us rats had eaten part of it, and he couldn’t get a replacement. One woman said she only used the filter when her husband made her do so.
Now an informal series of conversations hardly qualifies as science, and some of the houses we visited were in an area where VF rolled out their program on top of another organization’s existing work, and that may have affected use patterns. Still, it was pretty obvious why filters went unused: The LifeStraw is poorly designed. A universal complaint—mostly from women—was that it is too slow and too much work. It takes about half an hour to filter the two liters in the reservoir at the top and it requires continual refilling to satisfy a family’s daily needs. The women in the houses we met simply decided it was too much hassle.
And this is the biggest problem of giveaways: You can give people whatever you want, as long as you can get someone to pay for it. The LifeStraw filter costs $30 at the factory; given what’s been learned from other water efforts in Western Kenya, I’d be surprised if you could get local people to pay $3 for it. If it had to pass muster with real customers—i.e., its intended users—it would be in real trouble. My hunch is that it would simply die a quiet death in a corporate conference room somewhere.
But it stays alive because the real customers are not poor people, but in this case, the buyers of carbon credits. With the approval of the Gold Standard Foundation (one of the two major accrediting bodies), VF concocted a deal—“Carbon for Water”—to finance this giveaway with carbon credits. The crux of the deal, worth about $30 million, is that the filters will replace the wood-fired boiling of water, hence preventing carbon emissions.
Now, most Kenyans don’t boil their water. VF and the Gold Standard Foundation don’t pretend otherwise; instead, they invoke something called “suppressed demand.” This is an industry term positing that while Kenyans don’t boil now, they would eventually take up the practice if VF didn’t “suppress demand” by handing them a LifeStraw. They made the case by asking non-boilers, “If you had more money, would you boil your water?” It’s sort of like your dental hygienist asking you whether you would start flossing if you had more time (um, sure).
Rural Kenyans in Western Province are unlikely to get wealthier any time soon, and even if they did, the cost of firewood continues to rise. They have a growing number of other choices for water purification, and a lot of other cool things—like mobile phones—to spend their money on. Boiling is a hassle, there is no history of it as a common practice, and anyone who works in public health can tell you that it takes a lot of hard work to get people to change what they do with their water. There’s no demand to be suppressed.
I’ve spoken to some of the people who designed Carbon for Water. They are smart and they really care about getting clean water to poor people. If this was a real public health experiment at appropriate scale and if the rationale for carbon financing made sense and if publicity awaited evidence, I’d say go for it—getting clean water to people isn’t easy, and there is a real need for innovation. But what we have here is a problematic, unproven product given away at enormous scale by the manufacturer, who a) expects to be reimbursed via a questionable carbon scheme and b) has gone to great lengths to publicize the whole thing. It’s not right, and VF should stop talking about it as a real solution.
I’m done writing about this particular boondoggle, and were it not for Vestergaard Frandsen’s penchant for publicity, I wouldn’t have done it again. It’s time for those better informed and better placed than me to do their jobs: there needs to be more scrutiny around real-life use of the LifeStraw and more debate about the validity of deals like this one. This work is damn hard, and we’re all trying to find ways to get clean water to pay for itself. But here the seductive lure of “doing well by doing good” needs to be tempered by the sad truth that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Read more stories by Kevin Starr.