VisionFund Cambodia uses social ventures to get clean water


Poor sanitation across the world leads to a child dying every 20 seconds from a preventable disease. Rommel Caringal from VisionFund Cambodia tells us about using social enterprise models in sanitation projects and offers some advice for NGOs thinking of doing the same.

Children are among the most vulnerable victims of water-related diseases. UN statistics indicate that globally, diarrhoea is the leading cause of illness and death, and 88% of diarrhoeal deaths are due to a lack of access to sanitation facilities, together with inadequate availability of water for hygiene and unsafe drinking water. Today 2.5 billion people, including almost one billion children, live without even basic sanitation. Every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation causing 1.5 million preventable deaths each year.  
According to statistics from UNICEF,  by the end of 2011, 15% of the world’s population were still practising open defecation and the majority of those without sanitation lived in rural areas where 90% of all open defecation takes place. Data from the World Health Organisation and UNICEF  indicates that Cambodia is one of the 45 countries globally where sanitation coverage is less than 50%.  It is also one of the 27 countries that has more than a quarter of the population still practising open defecation. Similarly, fresh water supply is also a concern, in 2011 only around 11%-25% of Cambodians had access to piped drinking water.  
In 2011, VisionFund Cambodia, along with a number of partners, launched a project to improve sanitation and the availability of clean drinking water among poor rural Cambodian communities with the aim of improving the health and wellbeing of Cambodian children. In order to embed the project in the community, VisionFund and its partners helped to establish local supply chains which had the effect of creating business opportunities while also addressing serious community health issues.
VisionFund brought in a number of partners to complement its own expertise which is focused on providing financial services such as small loans, and financial and small business training. The partners included: Habitat For Humanity which pays $5 - $10 incentive per client who buys latrines ranging in price from $50-$350, PATH and iDE provide technical advice. In addition Hydrologic designs, produces and establishes the distribution networks of water filters and latrines.
With the project infrastructure established, VisionFund started in one province before gradually expanding to six further provinces and provided small loans for families to purchase latrines and basic ceramic water filters. The loan recipients received basic financial training, so that they could understand how to manage their finances to pay back the loans, as well as personal installation and procedure training so that they could learn how to properly use the new tools within their family settings.
Social enterprise played a key role in embedding the project in the local community. In order to make the project sustainable,  iDE and Hydrologic recruited local agents to sell water filters and latrine parts and provide maintenance services. Without these efforts, the new latrines and filters could have fallen into disrepair and become unusable.      
From our experience, we were able to identify two key factors in obtaining successful outcomes through social enterprise. The first is the importance of establishing a supply chain. Without this, there will be no continuity to the programme and the community will not reap the full potential of the project. Secondly, training is vital.  Financial and business training is crucial to ensuring that communities understand how to manage the businesses and the associated finances. Without ensuring people understand what is expected of them, providing loans and collateral is potentially harmful. They also need to know how to manage repayments and investments in stock.
There were some very specific challenges that we faced in running this project. The first was the basic education of the concepts around sanitation and fresh water.  We needed to educate the communities on why this was important and to get them to change their habits.  It might seem strange to us, but if someone is used to drinking dirty water, clean water can taste different, perhaps not as nice.  It was crucial to help people understand the importance of clean water and sanitation and to get them to want to change their habits.
Another challenge was around the provision of product. The water purifiers cost $18 for the ‘basic Tonsai’ and $28.5 for the ‘super Tonsai’. In order to break even, it was important to achieve scale and ensure that enough could be sold to cover the operating costs. Similarly, products need to be sourced and sold at an appropriate price point in order to optimise uptake.
Lastly, and this is a challenge that is key to every social investment project, is measurement. Measuring the results of such a project is very costly and is essentially, yet another project. We are investigating ways to make this happen, but in this instance, we were 100% focused on rolling out the initiative and not so focused on capturing the impact according to strict measurement guidelines. Our evidence is what we can see with our eyes and the experiences of the communities we work with. Formal monitoring and more complex impact analysis is something we are working on and plan to roll out in due course.
With each project we deliver, we move forward with greater knowledge. We would urge those starting out to consider: firstly, the needs of the community and how lives will be improved; secondly, the heart of the mission, why you are doing it, for example in VisionFund’s case, we wanted to positively impact children’s lives; and thirdly, what is the product or solution to the problem and can it be scaled up to ensure long-term sustainability.
It is also critical to have good technicians and partners in place who can provide solid advice and complement financing expertise with other enabling environments to address the multiple issues that poverty presents.
Lastly, remember that technology advances, so whichever ‘technology’ you use, it is wise to maintain flexibility in the model and be able to adapt and incorporate more efficient systems as they develop.  
Based on the success in Cambodia we are now seeking to replicate the project in other countries with low access to water and sanitation. The likely candidates include Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. This I hope, will be both the measure and the reward of our social enterprise success.