This article was originally published by Stanford Social Innovation Review on June 16th, 2011 with the headline: Thirty Million Dollars, a Little Bit of Carbon, and a Lot of Hot Air
"Vestergaard Frandsen makes an ingenious water filter that's too expensive for the people who need it." Fast Company, April 2011
Verstergaard Frandsen, maker of fine mosquito nets and the mostly useless LifeStraw Personal, has announced plans to give away a million of their LifeStraw Family water filters to households in western Kenya. CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen will invest $30 million of his own money in the project -- known as Carbon for Water -- but according to Fast Company, "he's not worried about losing out -- because for each LifeStraw he donates, he's going to be making money."
How's that work? Through the magic of carbon credits, of course! Back to Fast Company: "Kenyans boil their water to eliminate waterborne diseases, using wood fires. Those fires generate a large amount of carbon, and eliminating the need to boil water means fewer emissions from Kenya. Because they're providing the means to reduce emissions, Vestergaard Frandsen earns carbon credits for each LifeStraw donated. He will then turn around and sell those credits to companies in countries that have carbon caps and exchanges." And these ain't plain ol' vanilla carbon credits, either: "Because the project is based in Kenya and has significant humanitarian and health co-benefits, these credits can be sold for a premium."
This scheme is so wrong on so many levels that I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
First, this is a bogus application of carbon credits: People in western Kenya, by and large, don't boil their water. I've made numerous trips there and have talked to any number of far more qualified people working in the region. One of those is Jeff Albert at Aquaya, who says, "Boiling prevalence is likely very low throughout Africa, but we have some actual data from western Kenya in particular. What we found was that out of 400 randomly selected households in the study, only about a quarter of the respondents reported boiling their drinking water with any frequency, and I suspect that even that number was inflated by courtesy bias (the natural tendency to tell the visitor what you think would make them happy)." The notion that you're going to prevent lots of carbon going into the atmosphere by distributing water filters is ridiculous, and anyone involved in this charade should be ashamed of themselves -- especially the Gold Standard Foundation, which certified it.
Second, there is little evidence that LifeStraw Family water filters reduce diarrheal disease under real-world community conditions. There is exactly one rigorous study looking at health impacts. Tom Clasen, an excellent researcher, and his team, did a 12-month randomized trial in the Congo where they gave filters to 240 households: They did not find a statistically significant reduction in diarrheal illness. Moreover, at 12 months, 24 percent of households didn't use them at all, and only 56 percent understood how to use them properly (it's not that simple). That's just one study, of course, and perhaps subsequent trials will paint a rosier picture, but it certainly doesn't justify the distribution of a million of these things.
Third, the LifeStraw Family water filter is just too damn expensive, and it has to be replaced every three years. There are only two ways that a product like this can get to real scale: the market or free government distribution. The wholesale cost of the device from VF is about $25; the real cost to a customer, if you include distribution and marketing, would be more like $50 to $70. Put another way, you'd be asking a smallholder farmer to spend a quarter of her annual income on a water filter. That's not going to happen, nor will governments pass out a device this expensive. Even if the LifeStraw Family did achieve the claimed carbon and health impacts, you'd have to repeat a $30 million give-way every three years.
Projects like Carbon for Water make a mockery of the effort to prevent carbon emissions, and as a physician, it's especially depressing to see a loopy funding scheme paired with a lousy public health solution. The social sector has got to escape this pattern of bogus idea, hyperventilating media, and eventual, invisible failure. This idea should have been dead on arrival, and I hope that Mr. Vestergaard Frandsen gets to experience the joy of a $30 million donation rather than a profit on his investment. I wish that his company would stick to the manufacture and distribution of their excellent and affordable mosquito nets.