I am in Kenya this week following the activities of Vestergaard, a rather remarkable mission-driven company that first came to my attention when they invited me to Africa — at their expense — to tour their operation. They operate at the intersection of water, climate change, and public health.
Vestergaard’s LifeStraw water filters are popular with backpackers and hikers and are therefore their most well-known product in the U.S. and Europe. However, Vestergaard also distributes LifeStraw products abroad and makes treated bed nets for malaria prevention. Most of the company’s emphasis, and their passion, lies in serving the developing world. In fact, their mission explicitly states that everything they do must have a measurable impact on health and development outcomes in developing countries.
Next up for the company is the “Follow the Liters” program, which launches this week. When an individual buys a LifeStraw product in the U.S. or Europe, a portion of those funds are committed to be used to obtain clean drinking water for children in Africa. Indeed, the commitment explicitly states that for each purchase, one school child will receive clean water for a year. Starting today, that commitment is being fulfilled.
Due to successful product sales, 125,000 children in 300 schools will receive clean water, courtesy of LifeStraw Community filters that will be installed over a ten day period, throughout Western Kenya. Each filter can treat anywhere between 70-100,000 liters of water. That works out to over 3 million liters of water purified per year. Over the course of this week, I will be visiting schools and watching the installation and training sessions and bringing you more details about this remarkable company and the changes it is bringing to this region. But for now, here’s a little history on the company’s approach to doing well by doing good.
The Vestergaard story begins when CEO Mikkel Vestergaard traveled in Africa as a young man and recognized the opportunities and the need on the continent — then returned home to take over the textile company his grandfather started in 1957. Bed nets were their first product aimed at the developing world. Through their textile experience the company gained experience with public health product development, which led to water filters like the LifeStraw.
Vestergaard combines these product ideas with a series of creative business models and integrated distribution efforts to make sure the products end up where they are most needed. They combine scientific knowledge and humanitarian vision to solve public health problems.
Take for an example when Vestergaard wanted to make their LifeStraw Family filter available without charge to millions of Kenyans who had no direct access to clean drinking water. They needed to find a way to pay for it. Vestergaard studied the problem and realized that in order to avoid getting sick, Kenyans were boiling the water to kill off the micro-organisms that cause disease. The fires resulted in substantial carbon emissions. So Vestergaard applied to have their distribution of these filters qualified as carbon credits due to the suppressed demand for combustion resulting from their use. The application was approved, and the credits now provide funding for their “Carbon for Water” program. This program not only distributes the filters, but provides customer training, maintenance and repair activities, as well as all the continuous tracking required to ensure the filters are actually sold and used. The tracking allows Vestergaard to calculate the level of greenhouse gas emissions that are actually avoided through the program, and these credits can be sold to finance water filter distribution. This program has already provided LifeStraw family filters to over 4.5 million residents of western Kenya, at no charge to them.