Entrepreneurship and Collaboration for Health and Wealth in Southeast Asia

WaterSHED entrepreneur, Aun Hengly (left), leads the way for new WASH partnerships, and here consults with USAID sanitation Tech
MAKING THINGS HAPPEN: WaterSHED entrepreneur, Aun Hengly (left), leads the way for new WASH partnerships, and here consults with USAID sanitation Technical Advisor, Jay Graham.
D. Powell

Asia's Lower Mekong region ranks among the worst in the world in terms of disease, morbidity, and premature death due to deficiencies in safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, collectively referred to as WASH. Fortunately, a USAID-sponsored public-private partnership that focuses on bringing affordable water and sanitation products to market in Southeast Asia is showing that market-based approaches can improve access to affordable WASH products and services and, at the same time, generate new economic prospects for local people and businesses.

Launched in 2009, WaterSHED-Asia (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Enterprise Development) is a USAID collaboration with the University of North Carolina (UNC), and links UNC's technical experts to development entrepreneurs across Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In addition to focusing on WASH services and products, WaterSHED proactively helps local businesses explore innovative solutions to these health issues and links lenders to borrowers both at regional and local levels. "Delivering public goods through private enterprise, that is the ultimate good," said Tom Outlaw, WaterSHED's Chief of Party. "One of the most effective ways to attain scale and sustainability for WASH in Southeast Asia is through a market-based approach."

Start-ups and Linkages

WaterSHED's tangible results in just two years are impressive, with more than 50,000 water filters and 5,000 latrines sold. According to Outlaw, "The program is providing clean water and improved sanitation to over 275,000 people."

A specific WaterSHED entrepreneurial success is Hydrologic Inc., a social enterprise in Cambodia that produces ceramic household water filters for safe drinking water.

WaterSHED played a pivotal role in spinning off Hydrologic from its NGO parent, International Development Enterprises (IDE). WaterSHED also invested in Hydrologic's new filter factory, doubling manufacturing capacity and creating new jobs.

Outlaw and Geoff Revell, WaterSHED's Country Coordinator for Cambodia, both emphasized how local beneficiaries take pride in purchasing WASH products like the Hydrologic water filter. "The beneficiaries love it. They are treated as customers instead of aid recipients," Outlaw explained.

WaterSHED also focuses on innovative financing options for both consumers and businesses.
In November 2010, WaterSHED organized a financing and networking forum in Cambodia for water supply entrepreneurs, lending institutions, and government regulators. According to Revell, the meeting greatly increased the entrepreneurs' awareness of affordable financing.

In fact, "no stone left unturned" might be the motto for WaterSHED's financing focus. For example, Hydrologic has applied to receive carbon credits from future sales. Using a ceramic filter instead of boiling water reduces greenhouse gas emissions, while also saving fuel and improving indoor air quality. "Carbon finance is the type of process innovation that could ultimately wean all of our WASH enterprises off of aid forever," Outlaw said.

Aun Hengly: Entrepreneurship in Action

Changing individual lives and prospects is the bottom line for WaterSHED, and in Cambodia Aun Hengly works hard to realize this objective. The native Cambodian joined the staff of WaterSHED full time in 2010 and works with all levels of government, NGOs, entrepreneurs, and consumers to generate new WASH services, products, and entrepreneurship in Cambodia.

Hengly is, in fact, a prime example of a local person whose creativity and resourcefulness is making a difference with WASH. "With WaterSHED, I have the opportunity to show what I can do," said Hengly. Revell described Hengly as "a get it done kind of guy." Hengly, who comes from an NGO background, said his work with WASH complements his personal outlook: "I like to see good things happen."

Among Hengly's notable successes is helping to develop a latrine-manufacturing sector in Cambodia, which he considers "an emergency need." 

Revell explained that success with latrines and other WASH products often depends on identifying existing manufacturers and pointing out WASH business potential. "Hengly is the one who makes that pitch." Hengly is also quick to point out that "with latrine production, businesses can build up other product lines, such as household building materials." For these prospective suppliers, Hengly said it was critical to approach them with a market perspective. "Normally when you do business in Cambodia you sell just what people want to buy. You don't look at the market. We looked at sanitation as the best product for human beings. We explained this to the businesses here." Cambodia's latrine sector now has approximately 19 new suppliers, largely due to Hengly's work.

For Hengly, entrepreneurship has the greatest potential for addressing the WASH needs in Cambodia. He credits WaterSHED with being "very flexible" in its approach. "The businesses know the ground and each other. We show them the potential of the markets." When asked about the impact WaterSHED has had on him personally, Hengly said he has become "much more confident with business" and is even considering establishing a company of his own some day, "maybe in agriculture." He also said that WaterSHED is distinct from other development efforts in Cambodia for its commitment "and for thinking deeply about what we can do" in Cambodia.

WaterSHED's early successes in the Lower Mekong underscore the real potential for sustainable health improvements matched with new economic opportunities. The local business involvement in WASH significantly helps with distributing essential services and products, and "also unleashes the productivity of local people," said Revell. "The real story here," Outlaw summarized, "is how WaterSHED is bringing the power of entrepreneurship and innovation to the WASH sector. It's a fresh approach to the way development goals can be achieved, and it's very exciting to see USAID leading the charge.". 

R. Blaustein

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Last updated: October 01, 2013

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