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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Acumen's Next Interns

By Nick Pearson

Simple Mathematics

Editor's note: Guest blogger Nick Pearson is a member of Acumen Fund's Portfolio team.  He is currently based in East Africa, where he focuses on the water sector.  Nick holds a MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley.

This cost analysis hangs on a wall at in the Osembe Primary School, a concrete block building surrounded by rice fields not far from Lake Victoria.

It was created by the members of the school Health Club, a group of precocious young kids I would love to see become interns in Acumen’s Nairobi office someday. It is not hard to imagine these kids making the leap from “Simple Mathematics” to Acumen’s BACO analysis.

Osembe is part of a multi-year study run by CARE and several other organizations to evaluate the impact of providing sanitation and clean water in schools. Schools like Osembe receive new pit latrines, storage containers and chlorine to purify their well water. There is considerable evidence that clean water and good latrines in schools dramatically improve child health and school attendance (a factor of both reduced illness and better privacy: a large percentage of girls drop out when they hit puberty for the simple reason that they don’t have a private latrine to use for hygiene). And yet fewer than 30% of primary schools in Kenya have proper latrine facilities or access to clean water. If you had limited resources to spend on improving water access, schools would be a smart place to start.

The trick from Acumen’s perspective is that most of our investments rely on provision of goods and services to customers who can pay for them. But what about school children? The Osembe poster demonstrates a solid grasp of economics and an obvious appreciation for the service, but how can we expect kids to pay for clean water?

Let’s set aside the most obvious solution – government funding – which is how schools are funded in most of the world. In Kenya, the government provides each primary school $13 per student per year to cover all facilities, staff, books, and everything else. (Meanwhile a single member of parliament is paid about the same amount that the budget allocates to 40 primary schools.) Since the government is not stepping up, organizations like Acumen need to find other approaches to deliver these services to the 18,000 public primary schools in Kenya.

As our Nairobi office explores the water sector here for investments, we have seen several business models that can help expand water and sanitation access to schools. Here are two examples:

  • Outside of Nairobi, several organizations have installed community water kiosks at schools, which provide the water free to students but charge a fee to the surrounding community. The fee is approximately 3.75 cents per 20 liter jerrycan, similar to the 3 to 6 cents that Acumen investees WaterHealth International and EPGL charge per 20 liter jerrycan in India, and affordable to low-income communities. Schools already have a built-in management structure to help run the kiosks, and the model and pricing can be tweaked so that the revenues cover operating costs of the system (and potentially capital expenditures too).
  • A company called Manna Energy is building small community water treatment plants and toilet facilities in Rwanda and placing them at schools. The resources are provided free to the school and surrounding villagers, but the company is setting up a creative carbon finance scheme where they receive and sell carbon credits for offsetting firewood that would otherwise be burned to boil water.

Before we left the Osembe primary school, each of the visitors was called to introduce himself to the assembled kids, who were lined up in a big semi-circle marked by small bushes – the equivalent of the gym bleachers where we gather for morning assembly in the States.

“Good morning!” I said when it was my turn.

“Good morning teacher!” they chorused in the call-and-response fashion common here.

“I am visiting from America. Do you know who the president of America is?”

(Laughter) “Barack Obama!” These kids are from the Luo tribe, like Obama’s father, and he is a local hero. They know more about our President than most American kids do.

“I’m sorry President Obama couldn’t join us today, but I do know for a fact that he treats his drinking water just like you do.”

The kids laughed again, recognizing that this was a stretch. Our drinking water in the States is indeed chlorinated like the water in Osembe’s storage containers. But they know very well that our President doesn’t have to draw it from a well, carry the jerrycan to school, fill a big storage drum, and dose it with liquid chlorine himself. It was encouraging to see the value these children place on clean water.

But they, and millions of students like them, will only have access to it if we can find sustainable models to pay for that service in schools. Clean water and good health will help get these kids through school, into college, and hopefully someday applying their “Simple Mathematics” skills to Acumen investments.

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