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Designing For Cleaner Water

By 23 years old, Sophia Sunwoo had already sold her first business. Bank Clothing, a line of garments with hand-drawn designs, oversized watches, and bandanas, captured the attention of students, bands, and eventually a buyer. For her next venture, the Parsons graduate implemented her design skills in an innovative new way, channeling them into a very different business. Sunwoo established Water Collective, an international non-profit that works with communities in Cameroon and India to develop clean water solutions. Just shy of turning 30, she spoke to us about the venture and what the rest of us can do to support this kind of work.

You graduated from Parsons and have a strong background in art and design. How does that weave itself into your work for Water Collective?

Design actually led me to Water Collective. At Parsons, I focused most of my studies on human-centered design, and designing for the bottom of the pyramid. For my senior dissertation, I decided to spend a year designing a disaster prevention program for resource-constrained communities. The major concepts from that yearlong project informed the building blocks of Water Collective. It hammered out a lot of initial concepts on how to effectively support community-driven solutions, and how to provide a useful intervention when there are such limited resources available. Having a space to think through those challenges prepped me for working with communities that live without electricity, running water, or toilets.

You’re based in New York, though Water Collective’s on-the-ground efforts are in India and West Africa. How does a home base in the city help your work–what does New York uniquely offer new non-profits and young entrepreneurs?

Having a home base in New York makes the work that we do in India and West Africa possible. We have an incredible network of donors and supporters here that help us fundraise and design really thoughtful programs for our partnered communities. Our Executive and Associate Board members are a group of smart, resourceful, and generous New Yorkers who have enabled our work through the sheer power of their networks and talents. I sincerely don’t think our organization would have lasted the past six years if we were located anywhere else.

New York’s social entrepreneur community has been an incredible resource for me ever since we started Water Collective, not only for advice from brilliant colleagues, but also as a support network. Working in developing countries can be emotionally and mentally challenging, and in order to stay resilient, you truly need a strong group of friends who understand the unique difficulties of working where you do. New York social entrepreneurs are tough, and mixed with their networking prowess, you can get through anything and connect with all the resources you need for your startup.

How can New Yorkers best help support efforts for clean water?

Clean water is a finite resource and it will eventually run out. Whether you live in New York, or in a rural community in Cameroon, the water crisis will affect you at some point. It’s in all of our best interests – and as we look ahead for future generations – to be mindful and to think ahead on how we can preserve and maintain clean water for everyone.

The most impactful ways to support clean water efforts are by: 1) financially supporting the clean water nonprofits that resonate with you, so that they’re able to run the important research and programs necessary for their work. Monthly giving is a particularly impactful way to support a nonprofit (many clean water efforts take months, years, or are an ongoing process), and 2) ask the clean water nonprofits you support what they need most. If a clean water nonprofit is local, they may need your help calling elected officials to help push policy. Or if a nonprofit is doing work internationally, they may need someone to help with accounting, or volunteers for an upcoming fundraising event. We recently saw how powerful it is just to be engaged and participate in clean water efforts during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Something as simple as being informed and engaging in clean water efforts can really make a huge impact.

Clean water is an issue worldwide, even in the States (which the Dakota Access Pipeline fights have brought to the fore). What made you decide to focus on West Africa and then India, and how did you learn about / integrate your work into particular communities there? 

The core value that guided all of our decisions when we first started Water Collective was to support grassroots, community-driven solutions. In the first few years of our organization, we were approached by a farmer from a rural village in Cameroon who wanted to build a stream catchment system with tap stands to bring clean water to his community. He wanted us to partner with him to fill in the financial and project management gaps. This first project was the epitome of how we wanted to support clean water efforts, by empowering already-present community leaders and their water projects. From that first project in Cameroon, we organically scaled in the country through word-of-mouth, and have had communities approach us directly for partnerships since then.

We decided to stay in Cameroon because the need for clean water is so high there, and our programs are uniquely complementary to the civic engagement of rural communities in development projects. There isn’t a policy in the country to guarantee or provide piped and filtered water to communities in rural areas of Cameroon. Therefore, rural communities truly have to rely on support from external partners to secure clean water for their families. To integrate our work in Cameroon, we turned to the experts. Every project is paired with local NGOs with over two decades of local expertise to guide us, and we also have an in-country team of five Cameroonians who work with our partnered communities on a daily basis.

The situation is similar in Dabal, Uttar Pradesh in India where we work. Although the government there provides handpumps to every community, the handpumps in this area dispense water with traces of arsenic and cyanide because the water tables are so contaminated. In order to stop drinking this water, families have been taking out loans and seeking funding to finance private interventions so that they can access clean water. Our organization fills in the gaps so that Dabal locals have the ability to secure a sustainable clean water solution for their families.

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