Don’t try to fix a software problem with a hardware solution!

At Clean Water for Haiti, we have developed a system for implementing Biosand filters over the past decade. More and more frequently, I find myself explaining to other projects and well intentioned individuals why we won’t do this or won’t do that or why we only do certain things under certain conditions. They don’t always like what they hear, but I’m here for the good of the Haitian people, not to make other non-profits happy with me, right? 

Here is the biggest, and least popular condition:

1. We never, ever give away a filter. The recipient families always make a contribution of 200 gourdes (about $5 USD) cash up front.

Not every family in a zone will buy a filter for that much money – it represents a day’s wages or more. However, the families that do choose to make the purchase already understand the importance of safe water, and they will take care of that filter now that they have made the investment. 

Why are other organizations and contributors so opposed to selling filters at a subsidized price? There are several reasons. First, it can be very difficult to sell things in such a poor country, even Biosand filters. It is a lot of work to sell anything if your aid project has been giving away things to the local population for years or decades. The population will want or even demand that you provide them with items for free. Clean Water for Haiti has spent a long time consistently establishing ourselves as a project that never gives away a filter, so now we can sell the filters (albeit at less than 10% of their true value). I wish we could give them away, but we can’t if we want to maintain the integrity of the project.

Another reason is that much of the money designated for water projects in Haiti is relief money, which typically means that it is also designated for things to be given away. Co-pays and subsidized prices are forbidden. The unfortunate truth is that Haiti is typically flush with relief money but has access to relatively little development money. Relief is something that should be implemented for the first 3 months following a disaster and no more. After that, development work should take the place of relief. Haiti is a very poor country, but we’re not in the middle of a disaster. We need development – relief efforts over the long-term will inevitably result in a condition of long-term dependence on aid.

2. We only install our own filters. 

This condition is unpopular because it doesn’t fit in with the aspirations of short-term teams. They would like to be the ones installing filters in people’s homes during their two-week visit to Haiti so that they have something to feel proud of when they return home. I think short-termers have a good reason to feel proud: most of them step well outside of their comfort zone to visit Haiti. I notice the deer-in-the-headlights look when they step out of the airport and I always hope that they learn something about the country while they’re here and go home and tell other people about it. However, physically installing the filter is the least important part of the filter installation. While our technicians are installing the filter, they are constantly talking. They talk about what microbes are and how microbes are transmitted. They talk about how microbes are transmitted in water, and how simple it is to treat your water with a Biosand filter if you follow some very basic procedures. They talk about what to do if the filter slows down or if it develops a leak, and how to perform the maintenance procedure if needed. Every one of our technicians is a trained educator, and it makes all the difference in the world. 

There is another reason we install our own filters, which is #3:

3. We follow up with every one of our filters 3 times after installation – 1 month, 3 months and 12 months following. 

The follow ups are an excuse to reinforce user education and to check on the condition of the filter. It’s a bit expensive – $5 or more of the cost of each filter is follow up, but our system has caused an adoption rate of the filter after a full year of use of over 95%. Chances are, if a family has been using the filter consistently for a year, then the family will keep using the filter for years into the future. 

This point is what sets Clean Water for Haiti apart from a good number of projects. 

That 95% adoption rate that we have is no small thing. In fact, it’s very significant to the point that Clean Water for Haiti has become the focus of a case study for biosand filter implementation. So much focus has been put on construction and distribution in the past, and not enough projects have focused on the follow up. As we tell our students during training classes, “A filter without good follow up is just a box with sand in it.” The purpose of the case study is to show how we do follow up, because what we do works. The majority of the filters we install are still being used a year later. 

There are a few other conditions, mostly logistical and I don’t need to dwell on them. Our trucks will hold 34 filters, so we normally only deliver full 34 filter loads at a time, and we typically only deliver up to 90 minutes driving time away from our location here in Pierre Payen. Transport is our single biggest cost, so we do what we can to minimize that.

Let’s see if I can bring this around back to the title of this post. It’s an awkward analogy, actually. I don’t think I’m very good at analogies.

In regards to household water treatment, a hardware solution would be giving filters away to people, no other effort involved. What you get is something relatively useless – a chunk of hardware which may or may not get used, correctly or incorrectly, for an indeterminate time. By the end of the first year, less than 50% of filters will still be in use if our own experience is any indicator. When we add the software solution in the form of extensive user education and required recipient copay we have a successful long term solution.

If you think that analogy was bad, I originally wanted to use “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” but that doesn’t make any sense at all.

Nobody is going to look at a post that doesn’t have any good pictures in it so here is a picture of the 4X4 delivery truck on the last delivery day. Yours truly was driving. I wanted to cry. What do you do when all 6 wheels are turning and the truck is buried above the axles? Unload the entire 5 ton load, back the truck out, then load all the filters back in again. My workers had a positive attitude about the whole thing, but there was a great gnashing of teeth on my part. Nobody to blame but the driver!

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