5 Questions for… Kurt Soderlund, CEO of Safe Water Network

Editors Note: This is the second post in our “5 Questions for…” series, where we pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector. In this post, Safe Water Network’s founding CEO, Kurt Soderlund, responds to our questions.

Kurt Soderlund, CEO of Safe Water Network

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?
Though billions of dollars are spent on water projects, very little has been directed at establishing a fact base for what works, what doesn’t, and why. As a sector, we can do more to validate which solutions:

  • are most reliable
  • meet quality standards
  • address behavioral challenges
  • are inclusive, and
  • ensure local ownership, participation, and buy-in

With this understanding, we can make a clear, compelling case for how money should be spent to develop and replicate the most impactful programs. We will also be well positioned to attract the level of investment necessary to scale up solutions that will deliver lasting benefits to the millions of people in need. 

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.
Organizing and aligning the capabilities of expert organizations is fundamental to our work and it’s why we have “Network” in our name. And because the challenge of providing safe water is immensely complex, our initiatives involve a variety of sector participants from different functional disciplines. Our collaborations include experts in engineering, public health, finance, and policy from government agencies, foundations, universities, the private sector and NGOs. We are fortunate to work with leading organizations like IBM, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, IFC, Tata trusts, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, and Merck.

Our partnership with PepsiCo provides a good example of how we apply technical expertise and local knowledge. They are one of our founding partners and they continue to help us develop and standardize low-cost systems and operating models in off-grid areas.  PepsiCo associates work alongside our team, addressing technical and operating issues in the field. They are helping us improve our quality assurance and training programs.

Through this work we are collectively gaining a better understanding of what it takes to operate successfully in these challenging markets.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?
Installing a water purification system is the easiest part; long-term success hinges on ensuring local ownership and operational, financial and environmental sustainability. We start the process by involving the community in every step, from the initial assessment to the design, construction, launch and subsequent operation of the water system.

To ensure long-term success and maximum impact, we focus on gaining participation from as many households in the community as possible. We’ve targeted 75% household participation for those living near a distribution point as a key metric because at that level, there is sufficient participation to make a positive impact on health and – if priced appropriately – sufficient revenue to cover operating expenses.

To reach this goal, we educate families on the benefits of safe water and encourage them to use it for drinking, cooking as well as for their hygiene needs. We do this by taking advantage of the daily contact we have with the village from our facility, which acts as a community center, and with local operators and a network of volunteers, who advocate the adoption and use of safe water.

By leveraging this ‘operating footprint’ we create a critical mass that provides the community the economic and health incentives required to sustain the water station for the long term.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?
I am very excited about the work IBM is doing with us to deliver real-time reporting and analysis of site performance. Our decentralized water stations operate in areas difficult to access and where skilled labor is scarce. The Remote Monitoring System will upload real-time operational and consumer data through telemetry, working through a local cell phone service to a central location. This makes it much more efficient to quickly identify, troubleshoot, and resolve challenges in remote locations.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?
A new collaborative tool developed by Google called Fusion Tables that allows you to visualize large datasets on maps, timelines, and charts is quite impressive. The Pacific Institute and Circle of Blue worked with Google to upload an enormous amount of global water data. The result is a simple yet dynamic tool that lets users visually compare countries and regions by statistical indicators such as water availability, diarrhea deaths, and GDP per capita. This demonstrates just one example of how knowledge sharing technology can be used to better inform ourselves and the public of deep truths hidden in data.