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Clean Water and Wealth Generation: Galen Welsch’s Sustainable Solution for East Africa

If nothing else, the COVID-19 virus has shown us just how insignificant national borders are, how people all across the globe are more similar than we may believe. Indeed, as the virus has swept from China to Europe and to the U.S., the plight of others around the world has become relevant in a way we haven’t seen for generations. This time, it isn’t war but a global pandemic that has created a sense of shared suffering — and empathy.

Galen Welsch, co-founder of the drinking water social franchise Jibu, is awaiting the moment when global citizens will have the same concern for those living without clean water. He worries that the crisis is too esoteric, that the vast majority of people can’t fathom a household tap that only streams dirty water. Unlike a virulent flu strain, it is a faraway problem that poses little threat.

A sustainable approach to clean water

As a member of the Peace Corps, Welsch saw firsthand the needs of people who had been seemingly forgotten by the greater society, even as they lacked access to basic needs. And as a grant writer, he also saw how unsustainable most funding initiatives were.

“Funders or donors were determining what they saw as the priorities, versus the community,” Welsch says. “I felt like it was this top-down, patronizing approach, whereas I was speaking the local language; I had friends there; and I was seeing their needs and their dreams were just like ours.”

This disconnect has certainly been evident in efforts to address the water crisis; as a result, up to half fail within two to five years of launch, leading to a waste of more than USD1 billion over the past 20 years. But Jibu has proven to be an anomaly. Instead of raising funds as a traditional charity and throwing money at the problem from thousands of miles away, Jibu works with local entrepreneurs to establish franchises that sell affordable purified water to surrounding communities.

“Our primary mission is equipping entrepreneurs to run sustainable businesses that meet basic needs, with water as the anchor product,” Welsch says. “We see the gift and opportunity in challenges, and we are able to leverage latent entrepreneurial talent to allow communities to take their destinies into their own hands.”

To that end, Jibu sells business-minded individuals a water treatment system and helps them build out a high-visibility retail location in a densely populated urban area. The system allows the entrepreneur to take water from any source, clean it, package it in a reusable bottle, and, ultimately, sell it to customers within a one- or two-kilometer radius.

In its first five years, Jibu distributed 13 million gallons of water to people in Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. Now, eight years after Jibu’s initial launch and with plans for expansion on the horizon, Welsch credits the company’s innovative business model for its positive impact on Africa’s water crisis.

“If there are local agents that are responsible for outcomes, there are two things that will happen,” he explains. “One is, you know that the service is meeting a real need in the community, and the second is, it will last. A solution can’t last if it’s propped up by the goodwill of someone who will be in and out of the community and not there for a long time, or if it’s dependent on foreign aid that can dry up once a program changes or a charity shifts focus.”

Global connections, mutually beneficial investments

Welsch is optimistic that, as people begin to understand the depths of our global connectedness, they will consider the impact that a lack of clean water in Africa can have on their own lives. If there is a humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, it can have a direct effect on the mining of coltan, a mineral that is used in the production of most cell phones.

“If people would recognize how far a little bit of their time or resources can go in making a difference for many people, they could do something really meaningful.” — Galen Welsch, Co-Founder Jibu 

In considering this impact, Welsch also hopes that entrepreneurs and business leaders will leverage their own talent and resources in the communities that need them.

“I just think there’s an under-appreciation for how quickly sub-Saharan Africa is changing,” he says. “There’s incredible growth and an opportunity to really make a difference, through a win-win, investment model, and I think more businesses should consider investing in local communities.”

According to Water.org, 785 million people, or 11% of the world’s population, lack access to clean water. It is a crisis of epic proportion, causing one million people to die from water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases every year, including one child every two minutes. Additionally, lack of clean water causes an estimated USD260 billion in lost economic opportunity each year, due, in part, to the 200 million hours women and girls spend collecting water from remote locations each day.

But while many of the people impacted by the water crisis live in rural areas without water connections, Welsch notes that even some urban communities, including the ones in east Africa where his company operates, suffer from the same issues. During a presentation he gave at the International Franchise Association’s 2020 Annual Convention, Welsch worked to illustrate the challenges — and opportunities — present in a region that many people have never seen.

“The stereotype folks have about Africa is of mud villages and utter poverty,” Welsch says. “I was trying to break that down [in my IFA presentation] by showing pictures of the real settings we’re in — with skyscrapers and smart phones and all that — but then explaining that there’s this pressing need at the same time. If people would recognize how far a little bit of their time or resources can go in making a difference for many people, they could do something really meaningful.”

Welsch is a 2020 YPO Global Impact Award regional finalist — a recognition celebrating YPO members driving significant, sustainable and scalable impact through a business or initiative.

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