Project Galileo Spotlight: The Water Project
Cloudflare Head of Policy Alissa Starzak and The Water Project Founder and President Peter Chase will discuss how his organization is helping communities in Africa access clean water and navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, the organization has used its connections with these communities to educate people about the virus. Visit The Water Project at thewaterproject.org .
I think it's time to get started. This is Alissa Starzak. I'm the Head of Public Policy at Cloudflare and I am here with Peter Chasse from The Water Project, which is a wonderful organization that is helping people build water projects around the world.
So I want to get started and I want to start by just asking, Peter is the founder of The Water Project, so I want to start by asking how it got started.
I want you to give the whole background story, which is an amazing story.
Yeah, I'd love to.
First of all, thanks for having me here. This is, it's a pleasure to be able to join this morning to talk a little bit about our organization and also just to sing the praises of Cloud for a little bit.
You guys have been, as part of Project Galileo, a huge asset to our organization and we can chat about that a little bit, but it's just great to be able to be here with you this morning, so thanks.
You know, The Water Project started, gosh, I think it's 14, going on 15 years ago now, and it started as The Water Project.
I was actually a pastor at the time.
I was up in Canada. I was working there for about three years, not from there, but we were there, a beautiful part of the world, and I was at a pastor's conference in Nova Scotia.
It was like a three-day gathering of 300 or so pastors from all around Atlantic Canada who had just come together to talk about theology and church and those kinds of things, and honestly, by the end of the three days, I was beginning to fade out a little bit in interest, but found myself in this huge auditorium with a bunch of us, and I was up in the front row, and they had invited a gentleman named Titus Kilu from Kenya to come over and talk to this group of people for five minutes, which was interesting right out of the gate, right, to fly all the way around the world at five minutes of chat, and he knew it, and so he took all advantage of the moments that he had with us and kind of shared, began to share about, you know, his work that he was doing in community development.
He was a pastor himself, and they were talking about, I think, all the issues, you know, we've heard of before that we've all maybe even engaged with at one time or another, but things like HIV-AIDS at the time, hunger, poverty, lack of education, you see these huge kind of global issues, though they were local for him, and he had put them in a local context.
I sat on the edge of my seat because he spoke with this thick Kenyan accent and was going a million miles an hour that I just wanted to remain engaged, and he was talking about something different than the rest of the weekend, so he captured my attention, but honestly, as he spoke and the subject matter, I started to feel, I think, what we all sense in those moments, which is, you know, yet again, this kind of, I don't know, we call it, for lack of a better term, Western guilt, where I know that I'm not suffering from these issues, and I want to do something to respond, but they're so huge.
Like, how do I step into poverty?
How do I step into hunger? I could do something today, but will I know what impact that had?
Does it really have a tangible impact on my small gift? And that, those thoughts are kind of rolling around in my head as he introduces this issue that I never heard of, which was access to clean water and sanitation.
I remember, this is 15 years ago, this is, water and sanitation has sort of become the, I don't even want to call it cliche, but everybody talks about water now.
Like, when you see a commercial about charity, often it's a kid with water because people associate them, too.
Well, that wasn't the case 15 years ago. 15 years ago, remember, we all were going, like, we just took water for granted.
Nobody had ever heard of Flint, Michigan.
Like, this is not something that was on our minds. And as he introduced it, he did so in explaining the need within specific communities where they worked.
And what he explained was, look, whether you care about poverty as your issue, or hunger as your issue, or education as the thing that you want to solve for people, the foundational beginning stepping stone of all of those things is access to water.
Without water, you can't begin the process of helping somebody come back to better health.
If you hand them a pill from anti-malaria or HIV AIDS with a glass of dirty water, you're not going to solve the issue.
Poverty is often the, you know, the result of time stolen from women when they have to walk miles to gather water from a dirty source, which then makes them sick, which then stifles a young girl's education, because, you know, who goes to school with diarrhea and feels very good and is able to study, let alone when she hits puberty and has no, you know, dignified place to just to be a teenage girl at her school.
And the light bulb kind of went on at the moment, you know, I remember, and I share this story all the time.
In Canada, it was the first time that I was on a well, I didn't know that until the middle of February, one of the years, the second year that we were there, and I was outside in my backyard, and I heard this trickling of water.
And I thought, well, it's minus 20 degrees. That can't be good. So let me go figure out what that is.
And so I found my way over to a flower box that was covering the well, a wellhead in our backyard, and I kind of chiseled the ice and pulled it off.
And there was this pipe sticking out of the ground that I didn't understand, it was covered in ice, and I chiseled the ice off.
There was a number on top.
And I called the number. And I said, Hey, what's going on? There's water pouring out of my well.
And the woman on the phone just laughed at me, you know, the city boy out in the country, so to speak, who didn't know what he was staring at.
And she said, Oh, anybody would be blessed to have a well like that. That's a, your artesian well is just overflowing.
So much water, so much water that it just had to coming out of the top later that summer, we found it was there was actually an overflow pipe in the ground that runs all the time.
And we had literally overflow from the overflow.
And as I was sitting there with that Kenyon pastor talking about the issues they were facing their community, I think that's the image that hit me the hardest.
It just sort of dropped in my in my head as he was talking.
And I thought isn't doesn't that describe so much of where we find ourselves with the ability to respond to issues like this, that we often overflow from our overflow, and we don't even know we're so rich and resource that we don't even quite understand.
And short of pulling up a water truck and like shipping it, which was not even silly at the time, I knew I had to do something.
I remember calling my wife that night and said, Hey, honey, we're gonna get involved in this and, and she knew the world was about to change.
And then we just set out to like, to fund a water project.
And then we did it with we're going to do it with the church and some students.
And, you know, there was this just wild nexus 15 years ago of an idea, a group of people that were inspired to do something about it.
And then there was some technology that was emerging, like social media was just happening.
And I took some background in Internet marketing and threw up some ads on Google about why you might want to skip the bottled water and help people who don't have water, and it just kind of came off.
And that's the genesis of the water project.
We didn't, I didn't certainly send out to organization that, you know, finds itself 15 years later, with almost 2000 water points in the ground around the world.
It's been a wild ride. So that's the Well, so how did technology affect that?
I mean, so obviously, 15 years ago, technology looks a lot different. It seems like there have to have been major changes, both in how you started, and then now where you ended up.
Yeah, so I guess that's part of the beginning story, too. So when I'm when I met Tye at the end of that evening, when he finished speaking, I, I wanted to make a beeline for him, because I had this crazy idea that we would just he had asked for five water projects for all the churches in Atlantic Canada to kind of come together and support five water points in five communities.
And I had the crazy idea that I'll just take all five. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but we'll figure it out.
Maybe my wife and I'll pick one or and get the church to do the others.
And so I thought, I'll be lining for this guy, I'll catch him at the door, and I'm going to just make his night, I'm going to make his year right.
And this is like, look, naive, early charity, you don't know what you're doing.
Don't make the same mistakes. And I said, like, I'm gonna, I'm gonna save the day.
Not the right way to think about this. But that's where I was. And so I ran up to Titus afterwards.
And I said, Hey, um, we're going to take all five.
And honestly, in that moment, what I wanted from Titus was just like, I don't know, a little bit of like gushing, thank you.
We set out to do, we solved the water crisis.
I was gonna like, write a check. And he was gonna say, you know, well done. And instead, what he did was he put his hand on my shoulder, and he looked me in the eye and he said, you must come.
And that's it. And I remember thinking, not a chance.
I did not intend to travel to a place I didn't really know much about. And I just wanted the transaction honestly, in that moment, but Titus knew something else was going to happen, you know, in my life and in the work we're going to do together.
And that was going to be transformative in different ways. So how does that have anything to do with tech?
Well, I did eventually visit Titus there in Kenya.
But as in that span of time, also began to understand that this this giving thing, this charity thing that I was embarking on with other people, couldn't just be about the transaction.
It couldn't just be about them. You know, me doing something because I'm trying to either assuage a guilt or do a good, maybe it's purely altruism.
I'm going to push a button and something's going to happen. That's not where transformation happens for anybody.
And so tech was able at, it was just emerging that was allowing that to happen, because on the Facebook back then, like your aunt Bessie had for breakfast, and you thought that was, you know, you never had that level of connectivity before.
And I thought, what if we had that level of connectivity with the work we do halfway around the globe with people we think are really different than us, like they look very different, they speak differently, and they, they must be completely different.
Like I could enter into a night and think, I could learn about that.
But what you find was, in connecting, you know, through this kind of tech, and in the early days, it was just flip phones.
And, you know, we don't even text messages, just emails, when you could get a signal out.
You found that people were people wherever you go. And that what moms care about in Kansas is what moms care about in the middle of Kakamega, Kenya.
And what kids want growing up in school is the same thing that our kids want growing up in school, it's just an opportunity to excel.
And you realize this work isn't going to be at all about hardware, putting wells in the ground and springs and sand dams, this is going to be about the people that then really actually affect change in their communities, because you just did something simple, like get an obstacle out of their way.
Right? But the tech at the time, these all were, these were new things that were happening.
And we just began to explore all the different ways we could kind of connect people.
And it got easier and easier as the years went on.
But we built an org around that, like we built an org to say, we think everybody that gives even $1 or $10 should be able to see where their money goes.
And so we need a back, we had one person and an assistant at the time, it was a very small organization, how are we going to manage thousands of donations and, you know, hundreds of projects and all of those connections that happened.
And it was, it's just a little bit of, you know, black boxes in the back room somewhere that need to run all the time.
But you made the whole world smaller, right?
I mean, you made, you brought people together in order to actually let them see where their money was going and see how they could help communities, right?
And we've been sort of like making it local, making the whole world local.
Exactly. And we talk about taking one step closer, right? It's entering into, it's stepping into, it's being with.
And so to do that, the tech makes that possible, it doesn't make it, I mean, there still has to be intention on both sides in that relationship, but it's, it's sure greases the wheels and it sure allows people to see an opportunity that maybe they wouldn't have realized before, you know, was there to get involved in this work.
So, so for, for somebody who comes in and donates to the water project and they want to see their project, what do they get?
I mean, how do they see that? What is the, what actually, what does it look like in practice?
We've tried to make it as easy as possible. So a lot of people don't even know what they're going to get because we actually had, we have a prospective board members coming on and he was describing his first gift to the water project.
And he said, he came on, he saw a project that he wanted to pick. We have a catalog of projects you can pick from.
If you don't even know you want to do that, you can just put $10, you know, on the donate page or what have you.
And he said, so he donated and he really expected like, maybe at the end of the year, I'll get an annual report or some email that says, Hey, it's time to give again.
But instead what you get from us is you get the receipt, but you get, you instantaneously get a tracking link, which is like track your package with UPS, right?
So we want people to, you know, click that button.
We've automatically in the background through our databases of, you know, catalogs that we've built, connected that to a real project.
That's pending somewhere in the world. We have photos that have already been taken of that community of a story about that community, which is every one of these places we work, we get all of this narrative from our partners because we're, we're deeply engaged in relationship in these places.
So it's actually easy to write this.
And so the donor steps right into that. And he said, he was blown away.
He looked at, he read through the initial report that construction was going to happen soon.
He understood where it was on a map and GPS coordinates.
And he said, he called his wife in the room, which is, she says, cause she's the one that always does charity in our family.
And he looked at her, he said, do any other charities do this?
And she goes, no, this isn't normal. This is not, and then we track that.
So you get a couple emails from us as the project progresses.
So at different kind of key points in that, in that process is that it's all as it happens.
So for one donor, it might be a month later, they get an email for another donor.
It might be three months because the real world is the real world.
And then at the end, everybody gets their, what we call sort of launch report.
It's not a completion report because the day the project goes in is really day one of that project.
But I think another thing that has been unique and that our donors have really appreciated, but it's, again, it's core to our work.
And then we just let our donors have a seat around the table is that we learned as we've been doing this, that you can't put in water points and walk away.
It doesn't work.
Those days of development are gone because finally there's enough data to prove that that's just a silly way to do things.
We were, we were finding ourselves repairing and rehabilitating wells at water points that had two other organizations prior to us had come in and repaired it.
And we said, that's, nobody's solving the water crisis like that.
So what if we go back at least every quarter and remain engaged in these communities as long as it takes, do repairs when they're needed, you know, redo wash training.
And then again, why don't we invite this, our supporters to be around the table with us as that data comes in.
So you actually can see on our website now on the front page, there's a map that shows every water point that we are monitoring and it shows the status of that project today.
Is it working?
Does it maybe need a repair in a couple of weeks or is it down altogether? And that's real time data that all flows into the system.
It gets posted without moderation, right to our website, because it's just the truth.
So we just post the truth and let everybody see and, and struggle through some of the time.
This is, this is tough.
Sometimes wells go dry and we have to figure something else out. Right.
Well, and that's also the reality. You see it, you see the reality of something.
I think we all know that as you build everything requires upkeep, but being able to see it in real time, being able to think about how it works and then what the obligation that comes with putting something in it's you're right.
It's not just putting in a development project or getting funding and walking away.
So, but, so how do you build the community around it? How do you actually get to know the community?
How do you get involved? How do you make sure that you have good ties?
What does that look like? Yeah. So we don't go over our team here. We, I mean, we visit, you know, a number of times a year, but we're not the ones physically doing the work on the ground.
We work with partners on the ground that are really us.
They're independent by names. So that it's just a great legal structure.
It when they interact with their, the government there, it's all local people.
So it's all local employment. It's benefiting the communities.
But these are neighbors serving neighbors, right? So in a place like Western Kenya, our partner, we call it Wawaspa, Western Water and Sanitation Forum.
If you look at their truck, it's our logo and says Wawaspa and their badges have our logo on it.
And because they're us and they would describe themselves as the water project because they really are.
They share all of our values and ethos. I'm at, I always tear up a little bit when I go to their office and see all of our values that literally just inscribed on their walls.
I just think like that we didn't ask them to do that.
They did it. Like that's how you know your values as a corporate, as a partner, like is real.
And so they're the ones because they've grown up in these communities.
They know everyone like small town kind of, you know, that, that those initial trust relationships are there.
And because they're local, they can go back again and again and again, they just are traveling again to their neighbors to see that things are working well.
And so recently when COVID hit, and we looked at our work and said, well, we're not going to be probably building water points in as great earnest because we're going to one probably take a huge hit to revenue like everybody else did as in charities in particular.
But two, we think there's, there's going to be, you know, lockdowns that prevent that and that has materialized.
But three, the thing that fights this disease is sanitation hygiene, right?
It's washing hands, it's soap and water.
And that's what we do. And because we had these trust relationships in these communities, we could take a pretty foreign concept, which is COVID, like even it's foreign for us.
It's a concept that like, even in the developed world, people don't trust what they hear about it and rumors run rampant of what it is and what it isn't.
How do you catch it? And how do you fight it? And so that was going to be the same problem in Western Kenya.
But if we could, and we did, leverage those trust relationships, we had an open door to walk into those communities and do COVID training.
And to teach people how to build, how to make masks out of local materials, or even to bring fabric into places that, you know, couldn't get to the market because they were closed down.
How to do social distancing, you know, so the kids were piling rocks at six foot intervals around the water points and people would stand at those six foot, you know, places, and then posters and things that we, you know, took from the government.
And it happened overnight. I mean, we were in the field the next day.
And so hundreds of communities now have been trained in COVID prevention and how they can keep from getting sick should the disease make it into those areas.
But we think we've, you know, we're, we rest a lot more peacefully knowing that real good information, and information that says you have the tools to fight this, it doesn't require any kind of special wipes or bleaches, or it's just soap and water.
Right. Well, and it's also, it's the ability to have people trust you about those things, right?
So here, there's so much of it is about being in the community in the first place, and then being able to communicate good information through and thinking about how you can actually put all those pieces together, I would imagine, right?
It's the trust relationship.
It's always been about relationship and relationship is developed.
A relationship is measured in the present always, right? Because if that's how you know, if you're friends with somebody, it's right now.
But where does that come from?
It comes from reliability. So if we've been around, and we've been taking care of the water point and taking care of the communities for years, that foundation of reliability in the past leads to that kind of present relationship, which is you can leverage, because there's trust, right?
The thing that we're going to ask you to do, because of what we've done in the past, we've, the communities believe that what we want for your future is, is good as well.
That's the definition of trust.
And so you can say, hey, we would like you to do this thing, change this behavior.
There isn't a long period of questioning, why are they doing it?
What's the ulterior motive, right? Is something for them? Are they getting something out of this?
It's just, no, they have cared about us for years. Well, it sounds like you're also doing, I mean, you're talking about the piling of the rocks for social distancing, that the reality of letting people use their own resources on the ground, you're not dictating what to do, you're actually tapping into a whole world of innovation that's on the ground there in the communities, trying to think about what they can do.
So I mean, it sounds like that's happening all over, all across the board.
It is in Bungoma, which is a region that right near Kakamega, where we work, we saw this great article in the BBC last week about this nine-year-old boy who had just gotten the Innovation Award from the President of Kenya, because he developed what I'll call the improved, really mastered it, the tippy tap.
So a tippy tap is something that we train communities how to build.
It's just a jerry can, which is those yellow cans, this kind of ubiquitous and iconic jerry can.
They drill a hole at the end of it, and then with a string to kind of pull on a lever, it tilts the jerry cans, and the water comes out slowly, and you can wash your hands.
Well, this nine-year-old boy said, that still requires a lot of touch.
And if I understand COVID, because I've been trained about how COVID works, we don't want to be touching these things.
And so he rigged up with literally just sticks, his dad was apparently an engineer, so his dad kind of built things over the years.
And with some sticks and local materials, built a foot operated rig with one foot pedal that would lower the liquid soap and spill it out, and then took your hand up and come up, and the other one would drop the tippy tap.
Completely hands free. He's now trying to develop that with some metal product his dad's going to get him, and they're going to see if they can mass produce these things.
But I thought, how wonderful, that's exactly. Yeah, that's exactly.
But it's somebody who knows what he has at his disposal too, right? I mean, he's in the community, he can look around and figure out what they have access to, and then think about creative solutions.
And that's exactly what you want to tap into.
So give them the information, give people information, and then let them build the things that will work.
Yeah, we're solving a water crisis. There is no crisis of ingenuity.
There is no crisis of passion. There is no crisis of hard work. All of those things exist in abundance on the ground in the places that we work.
We're just dealing with a water crisis, which frankly, should be pretty simple, if enough of us can get involved and do something about it.
Well, and the water crisis itself, I think, as you've said before, it's removing obstacles for people.
So it's something that is something they should have anyway. And what you can do is actually help make sure that it's just something that they don't have to worry about, so that they can put that ingenuity of work in all sorts of other areas.
Yeah, that sounds wonderful.
So I'm really curious now, so on the tech side of it. So things have changed a remarkable amount.
The amount of interaction you can have now online, even in some of the more rural communities, I imagine, has also changed, right?
So you're dealing with a developing part of the world. It's not like they have ability to get to go online all that easily.
How have you managed it from that side of it?
So how have you managed it as the communities that you're in don't have a lot of tech abilities or any access to, certainly not access to broadband, for example?
So what does that look like on the tech side? In the early years, it was challenging.
You're right. In the earlier years in Western Kenya, there was one 3G USB modem that somebody had in the office that would work half the time.
And so they would go out with flip phones and regular kind of standalone cameras and take pictures, low resolution, because we couldn't handle the bandwidth.
And we'd get a couple pictures per project and some reporting back.
But honestly, that technology then just kind of leaped.
The companies, Safaricom came in, they put cell towers up everywhere.
And overnight, it felt like it was a couple of years. But overnight, it felt like everyone went from 3G to like 4G+.
And so broadband becomes ubiquitous because the cell phone itself is the broadband connection.
And the cameras got really good in those times.
So we didn't need the SLRs and those things anymore.
And that's been fantastic. In fact, we started getting videos more regularly from partners than we even realized possible.
They just started because all of a sudden they had the ability to do that.
Why are you guys using video?
And we thought, well, sometimes you hide behind the changes and it happens quick.
There's more cell phones and toilets in the world, I think is one of those statistics.
Which is a pretty crazy statistic. Surprisingly, the tech has been there.
And then we've had to keep up on our end to handle all of that bandwidth and beautiful pictures for the website, which Cloudflare has helped with because we get, it used to be we'd get like 500K files.
We didn't have to do much with those.
Now we're getting an eight megabyte, you know, pixel count pictures, and it's a pain to have to resize all that.
So we just let Cloudflare handle that on demand as needed.
Well, I also imagine just actually sorting through it now, just having more content, right?
You're trying to navigate all this additional information and make it accessible to people in all sorts of ways.
So that has to be a huge challenge too.
And it's bespoke. So we over the years, you know, there's lots of fundraising platforms that are available to other charities, if you're doing even peer-to -peer fundraising and those kinds of things.
But we developed peer-to-peer fundraising before GoFundMe was even on, you know, somebody's idea.
And we had to build it from scratch. The thing about that is we're IT resource constrained.
I've built all of our code and to be able to afford the kind of server power we need to keep these things running at a way that like inspired people to actually finish reading the page because it loaded on time.
That was expensive and it remains expensive. And Cloudflare stepped into that gap for us, right?
That was where we could leverage, you know, all of the caching tools that were brought to bear.
And it makes the experience much more seamless, right?
When I don't have to wait for the page to load, when I don't have to wait for literally 30 pictures, high resolution pictures to load on a webpage, it ought to feel automatic because everywhere else it is.
Well, most charities can afford the kind of server power to make it feel automatic, make it feel real time, to make it feel like a relational connection.
It's very, usually it feels pretty clunky.
Confluent eliminated all that for us. It just works. And the uptime is important because our, you know, the hub that we collect all this information is the same hub that supporters come to, right?
So we have one truth, capital T.
And so it does need to be hyper secure. And we need to have the guardians at the gate, which Cloudflare has done for us as well.
And that allows me to sleep at night because I'm an okay coder.
But as everyone who's ever touched any code knows, we'd much prefer to have either a really big security guard at the front door or someone, you know, reading every line of our code 27 ways from Sunday to see how we've opened the door to nefarious players.
And, you know, it's great to be able to say with Cloudflare, that's just not an issue anymore for us.
And that's, it seems like a small thing, but when that part of our work, we can just kind of set aside.
So it's taken care of that allows us to focus on what we, what we do is that allows us to be just mission oriented and the dream big about what those tools can do and to make sure that they're really serving the purpose of building those relationships and, and making our work accountable and transparent.
And I don't need to worry as much about whether it's going to be fast or safe.
It just is. Just exactly where we want to be. So I actually want to end with just a question of your favorite story from all of the time that you've been working.
So it's been 15 years. It's a long time. What's your favorite community story from the time, something that you feel like you've changed, which is probably a tough one to end on making, giving you 15 years of time to think through one story.
It's enormously unfair to ask me to pick one. I'll pick one that I'm, that I'm, I'm proud of.
Not because I did anything. So we were talking about before about our partner Rewasapo and when we began working with them, they were a very, very young community development organization that had relationships in some communities and they were doing different kinds of development work.
And as they tell the story and they've told it to us and we've heard them tell it, they were about a week or two away from just kind of calling it quits because they couldn't find the resources they needed to do the work.
And they just weren't really sure they could be viable.
And we had our program director at the time, it's almost 10 years ago, just met with them to understand the work that they were doing.
We had to happen to be working in the same neighborhood and they start up a conversation about water sanitation and hygiene.
And we asked them if they'd be interested in maybe doing some of that work with us.
And so we, we worked with them to, to pour into them the knowledge that we had.
We were learning together, like we were stumbling through mistakes together, but it was always about relationship.
Like we met over a cup of coffee, literally. And it grew, that relationship grew from there as they developed into the partner they were going to become.
And Humphrey at the time was their, was their leader, a strong male figure in Western Kenya.
That was the typical kind of leader that you would find there.
It's still tends to be, that's the way that works. But as they developed Humphrey saw the opportunity in a woman named Catherine to, to promote her into the role of executive director, which is not the usual circumstance in that case that we work.
So yeah, water's our focus and water's our mission. But here we have a woman coming into a position that she richly deserved and she's an amazing leader and director.
But to watch Catherine go into the communities where young girls are wondering about what their future will be like.
And a lot of these girls are now, have the, the, the opportunity to, to imagine again, because they're not collecting water in the morning anymore.
Yeah, right. But to meet Catherine and to see her as the executive director and leader, yeah, we got, we got the obstacle out of the way, but Catherine transforms the, what the hope would be for some of those girls.
That, and I'm proud of that every single day. And you should be, and you should be.
Well, that is a wonderful way to end. So Peter, thank you so much.
We're so excited about the Water Project and we're so glad that you're a part of Project Gallaudet.
We are too. Thanks for having us. Thank you. Bye.