Wednesday, August 1, 2007

More Systems, or Systemic Change?

GLOBE-Net today published Life at the bottom of the pyramid: Are environmental technologies the way out?

They start with C.K. Prahalad's work on The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (those four billion people, each living on less than two bucks a day, together constitute a $5trillion consumer market, fyi). Then GLOBE-Net says that that market won't materialize, and those four billion people won't pull themselves out of poverty, unless and until their simple needs for human security are met - e.g. clean drinking water.

SO let's go whole hog and nail both the safe drinking water problem AND the economic development problem in one swoop. This relates to my earlier post about microfinance and water, but I want to elaborate on that. In many cases, sustainability happens where development and capitalism intersect. It is an under-recognized truth that this is also the case in many instances with respect to something as basic as safe drinking water.

Just because water has many more sociocultural externalities associated with it than does energy, for example, doesn't mean that people are not able and as importantly willing to pay for it.

In my previous life (or at least two years of it) as a banker, one of the first things that we would look for in evaluating a company was to what extent the current management was invested financially in the company. Were management's interests and the shareholders' interests aligned? There is little reason to throw this way of thinking out of the window even when dealing with people making less that two dollars a day. GLOBE-Net gets it about right when they write with respect to community-level water filtration businesses:
In some cases, microfinance [has] allowed local residents to become 'water entrepreneurs.' Many organizations have found that once time and money have been invested in a filter, it is more likely to be used properly and maintained over time.
Some examples:

Acumen Fund

WaterHealth International

BioSand Filters

Locally Manufactured Chlorine


There are under-recognized opportunities to make water, sanitation and even hygiene development work financially self-sustaining. If we can tell better stories about the above examples and many others, we stand a pretty good chance of not just building a few more systems but of catalyzing meaningful systemic change.

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