By: Michael Milbank – Treasurer
About a year ago, a good friend of mine tried to persuade me to buy a Brita water filter in Walmart. Apparently Glendale’s finest was not to her taste and she had been using one since the first week of Foundations. At the time, I was extremely resistant. I did not see any value in what was essentially a luxury item that, as far as I believed, made little to no difference to the taste or quality of the water. Whether it was my friend’s formidable powers of persuasion, or the fact that I just wanted to get out of Walmart as fast as possible, I do not know-but in the end I caved. To this day, the Brita filter sits in its box under the kitchen sink of whichever apartment I happen to be living in, unused, unloved and desperately awaiting the next yard sale.
Now fast-forward to our TEM Lab project in Indonesia. We are assessing the efficacy of the water filtration systems introduced into 7 remote villages in Bojonegoro, in terms of their impact on women’s economic empowerment. While the merits of water filtration in a developing country may initially appear obvious in terms of the health benefits it can provide to the indigenous population, its overall impact on women’s empowerment is not as easy to discern. Moreover, while introducing such technologies might appear to be a fantastic idea on paper, if the target consumer does not perceive a need for them then they will be destined to the same fate as my poor Brita filter, gathering dust in some long-forgotten part of the house. A technology, no matter how beneficial, cannot be forced on a society that does not really want it. A further point to consider, and the bane of so many CSR initiatives, is whether or not an effective maintenance service exists to support the routine use of the new product. Everything breaks eventually and, in emerging markets especially, it is critical that the end user knows how to repair or replace the product. If not, the end user will often throw the new product away and revert to their previous methodology. It follows that the technology introduced should also be simple enough to use that it does not require a university-level education to operate effectively.
Obviously our project is currently a work in progress, but this should give you a flavor of our approach and line of thinking so far. What I can tell you, is that although I was pretty skeptical before going into this project; I am gradually starting to be won over.
For a start, the Bening One water filtration system does provide a significant and tangible cost saving to the end user. While all the villages have access to running water, courtesy of an Exxon Mobil sponsored Water Tower Project in 2008, no household drinks the water directly from the tap. Instead, villagers either boil the water on a traditional wood stove for over an hour at a time or purchase bottled water at a rate of 5,000-13,000 IDR (US $ 0.65 – 1.50) per refill. The latter process is evidently quicker than the former, but more expensive given that the average household income/day is approximately 30,000 IDR at the time of writing. The Bening One enables the villagers to filter the water directly from the tap or from their well and eliminates the boiling process. This presents a cost-saving on the fuelstock for the boiling process (at the very least, the villager now has more wood available for cooking) and also reduces the need to purchase bottled water. In most of the households where the Bening One has been introduced, it is now their primary means of obtaining purified drinking water-the occupants no longer boil water or purchase bottled water for consumption. A number of women that we interviewed also use the filter in their existing kiosk businesses to produce ice, frozen drinks, donuts and popsicles and are benefitting from the same savings.
So, the Bening One saves money by reducing household and business expenditure…Good show, anything else? Actually, yes – it saves human energy and time because the cumbersome, time-consuming process previously used to boil water has been eliminated. What this means is that the women who have bought a Bening One now have more time in their schedule to devote to other things and, because they have not over-exerted themselves lugging around heavy 15-Liter saucepans of water to the fireplace, they have the energy to take advantage of these opportunities. From a women’s economic empowerment perspective, this is key. While it would be fantastic if every Bening One user was using this time to set up a small to medium-sized business, the level we are talking about it is more about the women having more time in the day to do something other than the daily chores. The precise cost-saving and time-poverty reduction varies according to each household, but what is significant is that the women we interviewed are extremely conscious of the benefits of the product, even though they have only had it for 6-8 weeks.
The way the products have been disseminated is essentially through an Avon-style model. The product was showcased in the villages and those that were interested in purchasing them formed an interest group. A member of this group was selected to be a coordinator, or the primary point of contact between the group, Farabi (local NGO) and the manufacturer. This coordinator is typically one of the most influential women within the village and, in addition to acting as a liaison between all the stakeholders, is allowed to actively sell the products to other women in the village (outside of the original interest group.) She is also responsible for training the end-user how to assemble, maintain and operate the products. Word of mouth concerning the Bening One has been so positive that many new orders have been placed during the time that we have been here. Some of the coordinators have even started selling the Benings in other villages where the technology has not been introduced. So the target consumer is definitely aware of the benefits and this is driving demand.
Okay, so the product has substantial tangible benefits, the end user is aware of them and demand is high….all this is great…but how sustainable is this model? That is the real question in all of this and something we hope to address in our final report. From what we have been able to observe, we can testify that the Bening One has been designed to be extremely easy to assemble and maintain, and that the majority of users appear to be aware of what to do in the event that they need to order a replacement part. The filter candle has to be replaced once a year and the replacement date is marked clearly on the unit. The majority of interviewees have displayed a working knowledge of this and how to maintain the product-so the training they are receiving appears to be working for the most part. That said we are interviewing them 6-8 weeks after the products have been introduced and it is understandable that this knowledge should be fresh in their minds.
In terms of women’s economic empowerment, there are also some positive signs from the success that the coordinators have had selling the products: The confidence gained from their experience as saleswomen has led some of them to aspire to setting up their own micro-businesses which, under the right circumstances, could grow into something larger and really impact the local economy through hiring staff outside of the immediate family. These would be examples of Gazelle businesses that expand and boost the economy, versus Hippo (my term) businesses whose sole function is to garner additional income for the household. The talent and ambition is certainly there in some cases, but the project is still in its early days.
Then there is the question of what will happen if/once the market becomes saturated with these products. There is only so much influence an individual woman can exert within her village. Once everyone within her immediate social circles has purchased a Bening One, it is unclear how successful she will be in encouraging others to buy. Some women have the ambition and the drive to go to other villages to sell there, but in a culture where relationships are essential to doing business, even these women acknowledge that it is an uphill task. There is also the matter of who gets to sell the products. By limiting who can sell the Bening One (only the coordinator and members of the initial interest group can sell the units), the model theoretically retains the quality of knowledge transfer but restricts the overall reach of product dissemination. Some of the women that we interviewed revealed that they would like to sell Bening One filters, but cannot do so, as they are neither coordinators nor members of the original group. This does not mean that they would necessarily have been the best saleswomen, but it may have resulted in a couple of extra households receiving the product. The continued and sustainable introduction of these technologies to more villagers and to other villages is also contingent to a large extent on how long the various partners that are currently present will continue to be involved. We have still to put our final report together, but it raises an interesting question that really boils down to whether this model should assessed on its merits as a means to empower women, or on its drawbacks as a distribution system to disseminate potentially life-changing technologies to all of the villages in Bojonegoro. Suffice to say, all of this will obviously be addressed in our final report!
So, to my question: does the water filter make a difference? I would say right now, without hesitation, that it does. A water filter may not change the world overnight, but the cost and time savings that it brings to households and businesses out here tills the soil for opportunities that will one day have a real impact on the way of life. Water is the driver of populations and, ironically, a product that is viewed by many to be an unnecessary luxury in the West, is an essential catalyst for this change. This does not mean that I am ever going to use my Brita filter, but I reckon that I will be looking at it differently from now on…