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Splash CEO Eric Stowe On Clean Water In The Developing World

Oct 27, 2017

In many countries, clean drinking water is scarce and healthy water sanitation practices are not common. In some cases, potable water is available, but it is not available to everyone. Clean water may be available at a fancy hotel, but not at the orphanage next door.

Eric Stowe, founder and CEO of Splash, was this year’s recipient of the 2017 International WaTER prize. The University of Oklahoma’s Water Center awards the prize every year to an individual who has made contributions to water supply and sanitation with a focus on the world’s poorest people in the developing world. Stowe spoke with KGOU’s World Views about his work.

Splash works to provide clean water for orphanages, schools, hospitals and shelters in the developing world. The organization works with governments and businesses to create their water projects. They also work on hygiene education.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

Fundamental change needs schools:

If, as we believe, the biggest failures in a lot of social innovation or even international development rely on the human component, not the hardware, then you've got to have a program that tries to change behaviors, that shifts attitudes, that alters the way people think of funding streams. And that just takes a long time. So we've found that if you take a single city and you focus on the poorest schools, some there's a few hundred some or several thousand, we think that if we can cover the majority of those schools, we actually have greater opportunity for long term social gain.

A basic, but not so basic solution:

So you think of body cleanliness, you think of environmental stewardship, you think of school and the way that its trash is disposed of, on and on. But our primary is hand-washing. That's our lead in, because we find that that's the hardest thing to change. And then we embed all sorts of other curriculum and educational components around that, that are more holistic.

Teaching the parents:

We're trying to change the behaviors of kids at schools so that they take them home. But we're also trying to understand how can we change the attitude of adults at home, and on the school environment. We have a teacher or an administrator who's not conforming to the behavioral practices that we're trying to promote, kids see that. They see a teacher come out of the bathroom not washing his or her hands, and the whole system kind of collapses. So we're trying to spend just as much time on adult behavior change, as we are student behavior change because we've got to create that whole cycle.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Suzette Grillot: Eric Stowe welcome to World Views.

Eric Stowe: Hi.

Grillot: It's so great to have you here and congratulations on being awarded this year's Water Prize. That's a huge accomplishment and your work is very fascinating. You are the founder and executive director of an organization called Splash and we're going to get to that in just a second, the water work that you do. But I'd like to begin kind of where you actually began and that is that if I understand correctly you were working in orphanages internationally, and noticed that there was some disparity between what kind of water resources these orphanages had, the children had, as opposed to maybe hotels and restaurants, that were just across the street. So tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the water business.

Stowe: Sure. I had the great privilege to be able to work across dozens of orphanages in several countries in the early 2000s, and at the time I was working with an adoption agency, so I would accompany families overseas who were uniting with their children, and in the day when they were spending kind of acclimatizing, bonding with their kids, I would be out at the orphanages trying to better understand what could we do as an agency that would provide some kind of immediate care for the kids who weren't being adopted, but that had some kind of long term health impact for them as well. And so over that first year or two I got to spend a lot of time with a lot of caregivers, and asking them pretty pointed questions like, what could we provide? It's not rice, it's not formula. It's not small gifts that have, you know transient impact. It's what we have what can we engage you with that would actually have some kind of long term resonance? And so it really came down to one of two things: It was better training for caregivers. Heard that over and over and over. You know, parents, especially moms, because they're primarily female caregivers, certainly understand how to take care of one child, maybe two. But in an orphanage of several hundred better training is a real issue. The other was safe water. There were a lot of kids who were getting sick and in that kind of institutional setting one child gets sick, everyone gets sick.

Stowe: So better training for caregivers or safe water, I have no clue how to do the former, but the latter seemed entirely plausible. If you go to any restaurant, any hotel, any coffee shop in China, in India, in Cambodia, in these countries in which I was working, you have safe water. You know for sure when you go into that place you're going to have potable water. So I spent some time surreptitiously trying to find out how these companies were doing it at scale, even going so far as to bribing some of the attendants up front in McDonald's to let me into the back kitchen at night, to let me see what kind of equipment they were using. Then when I'd get back home to the U.S. I would contact that manufacturer, and eventually secured a deal to try and take that to scale. And essentially the concept is if you got a Hyatt, a Hilton, a Starbucks, or McDonalds that are serving safe water to their customers day in day out, and they've already created the supply chains, the manufacturing, just the economy around scale in these countries. Could we as a small nonprofit also tap into those things and leverage them for much greater good? The world that we work in, which is around urban poverty, does not need new filters. It just doesn't. It doesn't need new maintenance structures, service structures, distribution for networks of you know supply chains in general. They exist. And so our concept was you could you leverage what already exists, repurpose it for a new population and see really good health gains. So that's what I did for a number of years, focusing on orphanages.

Stowe: The issue with orphanages in particular, as a sole set of focus for an organization is that you hit a saturation point pretty quickly. So on any one given city you might only find two orphanages, but you'll find dozens if not hundreds, in some cases thousands of public schools, several hospitals and clinics, a few feeding shelters and street centers, and rescue homes for trafficked women and girls. So the concept of Splash was simply born out of, you know, could we do what we were doing in orphanages and actually expand it to any institution serving the poorest kids?

Grillot: So tell us a little bit about the work that you've been doing at schools then specifically because you mentioned in your work and I happened to see a video where you showed the hundreds and hundreds of schoolchildren that you are working with. Thousands of schoolchildren in India and China and elsewhere that you're working with to try to bring sanitation and safe water to them. But it's not just about safe drinking water, it's also about sanitation practices. So tell us a little bit about that work.

Stowe: Sure. If you think of four primary legs that we work in - orphanages, schools, hospitals, and shelters - all four have great gains for these kids by by implementing the projects that we do but schools are the key. Schools have the ability for high frequency touch points and to work with kids as they're getting older. An orphanage, it's kind of a one time touchpoint, water's there for the long term, sanitation is there, but you don't actually have any kind of social programming embedded in it. A hospital's the same. It's a very transient population. Shelters as well. Schools are the key. If, as we believe, the biggest failures in a lot of social innovation or even international development rely on the human component, not the hardware, then you've got to have a program that tries to change behaviors, that shifts attitudes, that alters the way people think of funding streams. And that just takes a long time. So we've found that if you take a single city and you focus on the poorest schools, some there's a few hundred some or several thousand, we think that if we can cover the majority of those schools, we actually have greater opportunity for long term social gain than if it were just one school here and one hospital there, etc. So we try and we try and have full saturation of an entire city.

Stowe: And then beyond that, we think that if you if you do a good job in these schools you show that you've got reputable work, durable work, it actually has some kind of impact on kids and it's cost efficient, that then you can use the schools to start going into communities at large. That's is the holy grail of development in the future - trying to figure out how to get into and do really good work within slum communities, into informal settlements. And the public schools that we work with, the majority of kids come from those types of environments.

Grillot: So when you're working with the kids at school and you're providing them ways in which they obviously have access to clean drinking water, and you're educating and engaging with them about that, and then they are learning lessons about how to wash their hands, and keep things clean in the sense that it diminishes disease, and illness, and all of the things. That the hope is to take back home? That they're teaching each other, they're modeling for each other, and going home and modeling for their families? So is this kind of where you talk about embedding social programming to the extent that you're educating and changing behavior in one place so that it will have an impact on changing behavior in a broader context?

Stowe: So if you think a population trends in general, it's mostly really poor people around the country, living in the countryside, moving into that country's few cities. And they are absolutely overwhelming the systems whatever it is social safety nets, water infrastructure, the energy grid, whatever, they they're overwhelming the system. But what you find is a really heavy prevalence of people moving from the countryside to the cities. And you've got you know, most parents are you know have a low education, low wage, and they're sending these kids to public institutions where their kids are coming back with pretty radical ideas all the time. So the rate of change for these parents is really dynamic, far more so than when my child comes home and starts talking about a new environmental campaign or something they're learning in school. We can get it, and we can you know we can we can kind of follow their lead, but these parents in particular like there are new ideas coming into their household every week. It's really quite radical what's happening. So a lot of the things that we're trying to embed we're not trying to up and tradition or caste or societal norms altogether, we're trying to just improve them.

Stowe: And so in schools and schools in particular we focus on hand-washing primarily when we think of hygiene. So you think of body cleanliness you think of environmental stewardship, you think of school and the way that its trash is disposed of, on and on. But our primary is hand-washing. That's our lead in, because we find that that's the hardest thing to change. And then we embed all sorts of other curriculum and educational components around that, that are more holistic. We're trying to change the behaviors of kids at schools so that they take them home. But we're also trying to understand how can we change the attitude of adults at home, and on the school environment. We have a teacher or an administrator who's not conforming to the behavioral practices that we're trying to promote, kids see that. They see a teacher come out of the bathroom not washing his or her hands, and the whole system kind of collapses. So we're trying to spend just as much time on adult behavior change, as we are student behavior change because we've got to create that whole cycle.

Grillot: I want to pick up on something you said to begin with and that was kind of the business angle. You mentioned, you know, the different businesses that have access to clean water and that you kind of, you know you went and worked with them. But there are also some business approaches here to how we can go about engaging with these communities, and solving some of these problems. I mean you mentioned the public schools, you've mentioned, obviously, communities and the social aspect, but tell us a little bit about the business side of things in the way in which private enterprise has a role to play here.

Stowe: I fear that my opinion on this might be a little jaundiced. I think social enterprise is an incredible term. That's, I mean if I ask you to define it and needed to find it I think we'd come up with two completely different answers. Primarily it's you know for profit endeavors, that have a social good component or a social good outcome. That's great. And I see a lot of, I mean, just pure innovation in the sector around trying to see a profit so that a business can be sustainable, so that the poor are not dependent upon perpetual aid. I think it's a brilliant concept. But what I've seen as of late is it's a very binary concept. It's either it's completely for profit, or it's completely charity. And I think the reality is that it's a hybrid of the two, that charity in its very best sense is using philanthropic capital to actually set up the conditions where business can operate and help sustain charitable programs. But it's very rare to see something go to a scale that started out as a for-profit endeavor. I mean a very rare. One, to see the market, two to maintain your customer class, three to just even maintain first achieve, and then second maintain profitability. It's almost impossible. The poorest have very little disposable income. So most social enterprises, if they're purely for profit and they have no grant kind of stabilizing them in the back, they serve middle income families across the board. If you look at almost any water endeavor globally that is purely for profit, it is middle income and above. If you're looking at the poorest thresholds, the poorest 25 percent of the population you've got to have charitable backing to support your back office, to support some of your innovations, to support some of your programmatic staff who wouldn't normally be counted in your for profit endeavor.

Stowe: So, business has to play a role in this. But purely, a pure business approach, I've just I've never seen it work, yet. It started out as a business and it serves the poorest, these folks are completely priced out of the market, completely priced out of the market. This is such desperate and destitute poverty we're talking about, maybe one to five dollars a day of combined wage income living in these cities that are just they're so prohibitively price for the poor. To have disposable income to spend on new hand-washing station for your home, or to tap into the utility or to buy a water filter at home on and on, or to create a new toilet, Jesus, it's almost impossible.

Grillot: In your work what do you think in terms of being able to meet that demand? You've said I want my business to be out of business by 2030, I want Splash to no longer be in existence by 2030. You've given yourself a deadline that's not very far away by the way.

Stowe: No.

Grillot: What is the main obstacle that you face to getting there in less than 13 years? And what gives you the most hope about getting there?

Stowe: And again just reiterating that charity plays a role, we think that the grants that we secure can help establish the ecosystem for local success. And by that I mean we're spending so much time training our local staff to embed our curriculum into the local government, to get the government to buy into it in general, on and on and on, so that when we complete a major project, whether it's every orphanage in China, every public school in Calcutta, that the government should be the payer for these. These are, we’re we're providing a public good. The government should be funding these things in perpetuity. But we're trying to establish a system where Splash is the go-to organization for these styles these types of endeavors, and that local organizations, local corporations, local foundations, actually pay the local Splash offices to continue to scale this up. It is not dependent upon me determining which direction we're in to go from a remote office in Seattle. So, while I want to put myself out of business I want every Splash office to be able to be financially, and organizationally independent from us.

Grillot: And you're going to get there in 13 years.

Stowe: We're going to be getting close. China is looks like in the next three years it will maintain, or achieve independence. Cambodia and the next two years. Thailand's already done it. Yeah we've got a long way to go, though.

Grillot: You've got a long way to go but you've come a long way, and so I appreciate you're being here today and sharing your story and congratulations again on your Water Prize. Much deserved great.

Stowe: Thanks so much.

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