Malava, Kenya – Praise and controversy followed the announcement by Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen that his company, Vestergaard-Frandsen, would distribute free water filters in Western Kenya backed by $30 million of his own money.
The filter was the LifeStraw and it was distributed to 877,500 households in April and May of 2011.
The company introduced an innovative financing scheme to pay for the device through carbon offsets.The backlash against LifeStraw came nearly as quickly as its praise when introduced in 2005. Critics laughed off the idea of a person literally drinking from a puddle with a straw, as demonstrations showed.
“The LifeStraw isn’t going to prevent that long journey, even if it does improve the water they drink,” said WaterAid’s Paul Heatherington to the BBC in 2006. “It only costs a charity like WaterAid £15 per person to provide them with water, sanitation and hygiene education, which, provided there is decent water resource management in the country, will last them a lifetime. At that rate, $3.50 is expensive.”
Gone were the days of children drinking out of rivers. Vestergaard-Frandsen, a Swiss company that is a major producer of insecticide treated bednets, made modifications to the original product. The new device featured a five liter well that hung from a string. Water is poured in and it is slowly filtered through the LifeStraw system.
Three pumps followed by a three second release of ‘dirty water’ is all that is needed before clean water starts to slowly flow out of the ‘straw.’ They are given away for free thanks to a scheme to sell carbon offsets on the European market.
“It is easy to get clean water that is healthy for our bodies,” said Sara Keya.A community health worker demonstrates the LifeStraw.
The LifeStraw was distributed to her by the local Community Health Worker. The government of Kenya teamed up with Vestergaard-Frandsen to use its community health workers in western Kenya to teach people about LifeStraws and distribute them to interested families.
Vestergaard-Frandsen gets credit for reducing the need to boil water before drinking. Carbon offsets are calculated by the major accrediting body Gold Standard Foundation. The body determines how much carbon emissions are averted by the product. Sales in the European carbon market are meant to recoup the costs for the product and distribution with the hope that it can turn a small profit.People get access to safe and clean drinking water at no cost to them. Based on a limited sample of home visits and conversations, the people using LifeStraw love it.
Keya’s daughter Bella Muhando, 24, offered to demonstrate how it is used. Each of the households on the property have a LifeStraw. Keya’s hangs next too a dial television in the middle of her living room. She looks on as Muhando shows how it is done.
“I like that it is so easy,” she said while pouring water into the top. “I hope we can get a bigger one soon.”
On the other side of the property, singing emanated from the newest building. A group of roughly twenty-five people gathered for a Saturday mass. They share a devotional connection and are all happy LifeStraw users.
Kevin Starr of the Mulango Foundation traveled to the Kisumu region of western Kenya last year and found numerous households with out of order or not used LifeStraws. He said greater scrutiny is needed.
“[T]here 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,” wrote Starr.
Research does exist on the ability of household-based clean water solutions and their impact on diarrhea. Sophie Boisson and others studied household water chlorination in India and found no significant impact in reducing diarrhea.
Compliance was an issue in the households, but the researchers say that the overall lack of impact raises concerns with household-based clean water programs. It reflects similar results found in a study on LifeStraw in the DR Congo, by many of the same researchers.
The LifeStraw in Elium Kangayia’s house hangs near the entrance to the kitchen from the living room. He does not use it personally, that is left to his wife, but likes the clean water that comes out of it. More importantly, he is pleased with its impact on his children.
“I like it because the rate of my family falling sick is down,” he said.
As new technologies and clean water solutions enter homes, the willingness to use the tools may help to address household water problems. Research studies on LifeStraw on Sudan and Ethiopia on LifeStraw raise further questions about the product. Consumers may be happy, but LifeStraw’s impact is still hanging by a string.