Dare to be orthogonal
At Water.org, we’re trying to apply the best thinking from the private sector, the public sector, the financial markets—wherever breakthrough ideas exist—to the problem of providing safe, sustainable water in developing counties. We call this style of thinking, in which we identify and tap forces that appear unrelated or irrelevant to help solve a problem in an unexpected way, orthogonal. It’s a process that injects fresh thinking into the sector and helps to lead us away from the traditional philanthropic model that has too often emphasized donor satisfaction over recipient needs.
And make no mistake, new approaches and ideas are badly needed. In the developed world, most of us are enjoying the outcomes of long forgotten innovations in engineering and municipal service provision. The monumental solutions to our water problems of yester-century are neither remembered nor celebrated. We simply take the availability of clean, accessible water for granted.
The contrast with the nearly one billion people on the planet who don’t have affordable access to clean water is stark. They walk miles, wait hours, and pay extortive prices to meet this fundamental need. There is no rest: every day someone, usually a woman or girl, has to secure water for her family and there is usually no way to predict from day to day how long it will take, how much it will cost, how clean it will be, or how dangerous the journey that must be undertaken to get it.
This harsh reality has inspired noble philanthropic efforts to help stop the real suffering. But even after decades of charity, subsidies, master plans, aid, and investments on the part of governments and outside non-governmental organizations, the system remains inefficient, and largely misses the goal of providing relief to those at the bottom of the economic pyramid (BOP). The intentions are good, but the relief is not trickling down. And the “system” that has calcified around the water crisis relies on outdated tools and thinking that are often more likely to keep people in poverty rather than lift them up. To the outside observer, it all seems insane.
Here’s where our orthogonal thinking has led us: while there will always be a need for pure charity to serve the needs of the ultra poor, millions more at the bottom of the pyramid represent a market waiting to be discovered. Well-designed products and services that address the specific needs of the BOP can make all the difference in their world and ours. With that insight, we took a page from the playbook of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the “father of microcredit” and a Nobel peace laureate who proved to the world that the poor are bankable. The result is WaterCredit, a model in which microfinance institutions (MFIs) provide microloans to individuals to finance their own water and sanitation solutions, be it a rain-water harvesting tank, a toilet, or a household connection to a water utility. WaterCredit alone has created 330,000 new water customers. It has a repayment rate of 97 percent, allowing the MFIs to redeploy financial resources and make it possible for even more people to gain access to clean drinking water and sanitation.
We think about the one billion people who are living and dying for water access a bit differently than a traditional philanthropy—we see them as customers with financial power, rights, responsibilities, and the energy to design their own futures. We measure success by the ongoing experience of the poorest people who have been able to join a modern water system, while paying a fair price. We encourage these new water customers to hold vendors and local governments accountable for the quality of the service they’ve purchased. Through the simple dignity of becoming a paying water customer, the poor are transformed into an economic and political force to be reckoned with.
We believe that many of the world’s problems could benefit from orthogonal thinking. But to draw on the best ideas in all spheres and to innovate, we need to find or create physical and virtual spaces in which people and ideas can interact—particularly people and ideas that might not otherwise find one another. A completely new design may not be necessary for every challenge or bottleneck, but the essence of social innovation is that we must continuously review new ideas, markets, and connections and consider our options. Just as the best venture capitalists are those who understand that to win big, you have to discover the untapped idea and take calculated risks, we’re committed to an endless curiosity that will help us to discover, pilot, and scale the next solution.