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I first ventured to Ghana in January 2008 on an IAP trip with 15 other MIT students and our advisor, Susan Murcott. Although we’d spent a semester preparing to study the country’s water crisis, we were shocked by the situation we encountered.

In an area known as the Northern Region, half the population lacks access to safe drinking water. Because groundwater flow is very restricted and hard to access, many well-drilling attempts fail. Often the only source of water is a man-made pond that fills up during the rainy season and sits stagnant through the dry months. These “dugouts” are so turbid that the water, which is contaminated by animal and human waste, looks like chocolate milk.

What struck me the most was that just a few miles from these villages, in the city of Tamale, you could buy cheap water treatment technologies right in the market. Locally made ceramic and biosand water filters, chlorine tablets, alum—all the technologies I had been researching for months were there. But the people living in the villages didn’t know they were available. So back at MIT that spring, I teamed up with fellow Ghana trip veteran Vanessa Green, MEng ’08, MBA ’11, to start Community Water Solutions.

Our idea was straightforward: teach Ghanaian women—who are traditionally in charge of handling household water—how to treat water from their local sources. They would then sell the water for an affordable price, using the revenue to maintain and resupply their treatment systems. After a semester of proposal writing, Vanessa and I returned to Ghana in June 2008 with funding from MIT’s Public Service Center and prize money from the Millennium Campus Challenge.

I worked harder that summer than I’ve ever worked in my life. We spent all day in our pilot village, Kasaligu, training Fati and Azara, the women the village chief had selected to run the business. Then we spent our evenings making safe water storage containers for every family in the community, heating a metal pipe over a gas stove to punch holes in buckets and jerrycans so we could install taps. Fati and Azara were rock stars, quickly picking up on how to treat the water from their dugout with alum (a locally available coagulant) and chlorine. The day they opened the business, the entire community (over 200 families) came to buy drinking water. We thought we might be on to something.

Now, more than five years later, Community Water Solutions has helped start 54 more water businesses in Ghana, empowering 110 female entrepreneurs and providing drinking water to more than 30,000 people. Our treatment centers have no pipes, pumps, or anything mechanical that can break. Water is transported and treated by hand. The system’s simplicity allows the women to keep the price low—10 peswas (5 cents) per 20 liters of water. And every water business we have launched is still in operation today.

Our volunteer fellowship program for students and young professionals makes this work possible. We teach teams of four fellows how to set up a water treatment center and how to train local women to run it. After raising money to cover project materials and the cost for CWS to monitor the project for five years, the fellows then spend two and a half weeks in a Ghanaian community that lacks safe drinking water and get a business started. By the time the fellows leave, local women are ready to run it themselves.

To date, 179 fellows have launched 50 of our 55 water businesses. They let us see our organization with fresh eyes, bringing new ideas, constantly asking questions, and challenging our model. And perhaps most important, they infuse each new water business with the same excitement that surrounded our first pilot in Kasaligu.

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Credits: Photograph of Kate Clopeck courtesy of the author, Photographs by Lucy Parker Randall

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