Carbon credits provide water for all: waterborne diseases are a severe threat in many parts of Africa. Now the distribution of free water filters promises four million Kenyans a solution to this persistent problem, as Stephen Williams discovered.

Author:Williams, Stephen
Position:HEALTH
 
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Waterborne diseases represent a gruesome spectrum of deadly ailments ranging from parasitic worms to typhoid, diarrhoea and cholera. Even if they do not kill, they weaken the body so badly that other diseases, such as malaria, take a far greater toll. According to 2010 World Health Organisation data, almost 1bn people in the world lack access to safe drinking water.

One of the more desperate statistics is how the lack of clean water impacts the weakest. It is estimated that 85% of all illnesses that afflict under-fives in Africa are waterborne. Diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old, after pneumonia, and is responsible for killing 1.5m children every year.

But now, in Kenya's Western Province, a ground-breaking programme is distributing highly efficient water filters to rural homes. Called the Family LifeStraw, it is a simple-to-operate device that cleans even the most putrid water to EPA standards - that is, the filtered water is cleaner than bottled mineral water. But the most remarkable thing is the business model behind the programme. These water filters are distributed free of charge.

It is the brainchild of Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, a Danish-born entrepreneur who now runs the family business, Vestergaard Frandsen (VF). But VF is no charitable organisation - it is a profit-making company that exercises what it describes as 'Humanitarian Entrepreneurship'.

Originally, VF was the largest manufacturer of industrial uniforms in Scandinavia. It might have been expected that Mikkel would join the company after finishing school but he developed wanderlust, travelling to Egypt and India before ending up in Nigeria. For Mikkel, this period was a life-changing experience. When he eventually returned to Denmark, he joined the family firm but, as he puts it, could not see himself "growing old selling shirts to Sweden". So he persuaded his father to set up a division within the company that he could run which would focus on textiles for Africa.

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"We started working a lot with East Africa in 1994, and at the end of'94, I came down to Nairobi to look into opening an office here and have a logistics hub for servicing Somalia, South Sudan, DR Congo and Rwanda. That is how it really started."

The original family business no longer exists, having been sold off in a management buyout and then folding. But by the late '90s, the new VF was mainly servicing refugee camps with...

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