Faculty and students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are gearing up to find out whether applying business principles to public health problems will offer an outcome that can save lives developing countries with limited access to safe drinking water.
The Carolina Global Water Partnership has been established to bring together experts from UNC's School of Public Health, Kenan-Flagler Business School and Kenan Institute-Asia. They will focus on increasing the availability and usage of water treatment technologies that can be used in homes in the developing world that do not have clean running water. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 2 million children die each year from diarrhoea and related illnesses caused by unsafe drinking water and inadequate hygiene and sanitation.
The partnership is the second Gillings Innovation Laboratory - interdisciplinary research groups funded initially through a gift to the School of Public Health from Dennis and Joan Gillings. The idea for this innovation lab was proposed by students. Leading faculty researchers and postdoctoral fellows, along with select outside experts, will work with students on the project.
"We're really excited about the opportunity to work with faculty and students at Kenan- Flagler to find business models that will increase coverage and sustained use of water filters and other household water treatment technologies," said Mark Sobsey, Kenan Professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the School of Public Health.
"We know that biosand and ceramic filters and other household water treatment technologies make an enormous difference in the health of people who don't have access to clean drinking water," Sobsey said. "We have the technologies, but now it's a matter of finding ways to get these technologies into communities and households, and have people adopt and use them effectively and sustainably. This project has the potential to save many millions of lives," Sobsey said.
"Micro-financing and micro-franchising may prove key to getting these life-saving technologies into homes that need them," said Lisa Jones-Christensen, Kenan-Flagler assistant professor of entrepreneurship.
"One way we hope to enable these technologies to reach scale is to provide small loans to people who wouldn't qualify for conventional loans, and help them franchise small businesses. We've found that giving the filters or other technologies away is not sustainable and doesn't really promote the continued use of the technology. We believe we can find models that will be successful in getting point-of-use (home) water purification products into the homes of people who need them," Jones-Christensen said.
Phase I of the project will explore several different business models, including whether microfinance institutions can make it easier for poor consumers to purchase point-of-use water filters and other treatment technologies and whether microfinancing, or microfranchising, can successfully provide seed capital for local entrepreneurs to produce, market and distribute the filters. During this phase, researchers will also look at ways to reduce costs through improved design, production and distribution models.
If Phase I shows promise, subsequent phases will identify in-country partners and pilot implementation of the business plan.
The initial geographic focus of the project will be the Mekong Subregion of Asia, where the Kenan Institute Asia has worked for more than a decade.
"The Partnership is about finding private-sector solutions to public health problems," said project director Tom Outlaw, a second-year MBA for Executives student at Kenan-Flagler. "Being able to collaborate with world-class faculty from multiple disciplines is why I came to Carolina. And as a student, I'm grateful to the Gillings family for supporting such an innovative approach to solving issues of global importance."
Christine Stauber, a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Public Health's department of environmental sciences and engineering, has studied the use of water filters in homes in the Dominican Republic, and has seen impressive improvements in the health of families that use them. She looks forward to working with business school students and faculty to find ways to expand the use of filters and other technologies.
"This is a great opportunity to help people get access to these treatment technologies and begin to expand the level of coverage by thinking about new and different ways to finance them," she said. "The biosand filter is one technology that will benefit from microfinance and microfranchising."