Kara Gerson: Voss Foundation and Bringing Clean Water to Sub-Saharan Africa

Water can take three forms: ice, liquid, and water vapor. The liquid form covers nearly 70% of the earth’s surface. But sadly, its abundance doesn’t translate to availability for millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. In keeping with our latest Issue ‘Energy,’ we felt it fitting to engage with the scarcity of this precious research. Kara Gerson, the Executive Director at Voss Foundation’s New York office, dedicates her work to providing access to clean water and creating long-term community development. - - -

Andrea Blanch: Your background started in fashion. How long did that last?

Kara Gerson: Not very long. I quickly realized I like fashion, but I felt I needed to do something that had an impact on people in a more meaningful way.


AB: You were a journalist, right?

KG: Yes. So I was working in PR and marketing for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and that was great, but I decided I hadn't given my love for journalism and writing a fair chance so I went back to graduate school. Then I was at The Hill in DC, then The Economist, and then it was 2008 and nobody was working in journalism anymore, so I was looking for a job and I was looking at many different kinds of jobs. It was a depressing time in the journalism industry. I would have interviews with people, and then they would get fired the next week.

I had a friend who worked in marketing at Voss Water and she said, “We started a foundation and are looking to hire an executive director. Would you like to interview?” I said, “No. I left the non-profit world.”

At the time I didn't know anything about clean water issues. I went in for the interview and thought, “This sounds so cool. Here I am trying to pursue journalism and there's nothing – I'm banging my head against the wall – and here's an incredible opportunity to help people and do it in such a meaningful way.” So I said, “Why not give it a try?” And here I am, five years later.


AB: What have you accomplished since you first arrived at the Voss Foundation and how have things changed?

KG: When I first started we had basically just registered and launched. Since I've been there, we have built 63 clean water access points and 113 sanitation facilities in 6 countries. I'm proud of that.


AB: What is the Voss Foundation all about? Who appoints organizations to work on projects in these areas?

KG: We don't have our own staff in-country, we partner locally. We have a rigorous review process for choosing partners in the countries we work in. We like to say we choose partners, not projects. To us it is much more important that we find someone reliable who is part of the community and who is going to stick around for a very long time. We are not interested in funding international organizations that are there for a limited amount of time until their funding runs out. We want to work with people who live in the community and who are going to be there forever.


AB: Like whom?

KG: For example, in Kenya we partner with an organization called Milgis Trust. They are a conservation organization dealing with issues of the environment, of animals, and of the culture in Samburuland in Northern Kenya. They were our first partner and it was through them that our founder learned about the need for clean water in Sub-Saharan Africa. We partnered with them and they live amongst the Samburu people. They're never leaving, so it's easy for us to follow up. Now we can look at our projects from five years ago and see how they have affected the community. That's one example.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo we have partnered with the Georges Malaika Foundation. They built a school and then needed clean water. It seems really obvious but a lot of people are so focused on one area of development that they forget the interconnectedness of development. There are a lot of schools in Africa without clean water, which were built by well-meaning people. So our partner there, the Georges Malaika Foundation, was founded by a Congolese woman, Noëlla Coursaris Musunka. She's a fashion model, raised in Europe because her Congolese family couldn't afford to raise her. She traveled back to Congo and reconnected with her family. When she saw everything she decided she needed to give back. She started an all girls’ school in the region and they came to us, so we built the well. They needed the well before the school was built – they literally needed the water to make the bricks. So our water is part of every aspect of the school, including the walls! Throughout the construction process the village had access to the pump. Then I went down to open the school in August 2011, and we didn't want the community to lose access once we converted the pump to electric – the school used it for the sinks, the toilets, for hand washing, and their garden – so we built a second well outside the school for the community. That's a great example of a partner that is always going to be there. This school is there, it's not someone who is there just because we gave them money to build a well.


AB: How do you find your partners? How does your background help you?

KG: I remember when I was interviewing for the position at Voss Foundation and they said, “Talk to us about how you think journalism will help.” I explained that as a journalist you have to become an expert on a topic in a very short period of time. You learn how to research and ask the right questions that people aren’t answering. That has really helped me in learning about countries, learning about partners and their projects, and learning to differentiate between a partner that would be a good one and one that wouldn't. I don't think a lot of people were asking questions like, “How are you going to deal with it if it fails? What is going to happen there in five years?’ Now, people are talking a lot about following up. For years I was raising my hand in State Department meetings saying, “This is all such great work. What are you doing to follow up on it? How do you know if your project is working in five years?” People would say, “Well that's very expensive. How are we supposed to know what's going to happen in five years, we may not even be in the country. Isn't it great that we've done this?” And it is great, but like anything, you cannot just go in somewhere, build something, and leave. The landscape of Sub-Saharan Africa is littered with broken hand-pumps and other non-functioning structures and infrastructure built by well-meaning people who wanted to give to a community. That's not the best way to do it.

The best way to help a community is to work with them to solve the needs that they have and empower them. Give them the tools to maintain whatever it is you’re working with them on so they have ownership of the well and school or health center, and give them the ability to maintain it forever so it's theirs. They aren't going to let their hand pump fail, but they might let the hand pump built by “those white people who left and never told us how to fix it” fail. Journalism taught me how to ask the right questions.


AB: There seems to be an enormous amount of interest in bringing clean water to Africa, and yours is definitely not the only organization doing this. How do you think the Voss Foundation stands out above the rest?

KG: A few things differentiate us. The first is follow-up. People are now starting to talk about it and I'm really, really happy. The other thing that makes us stand out is our notion of the ripple effect. For us, it's not a question of clean water or dirty water. That's over-simplifying the issue. When I realized that clean water was related to things like improving educational opportunity and empowering women, I wanted to devote my life to this cause. We're not just giving communities clean water, we're providing them with a tool that lays a foundation for them to be able to pursue development goals in health, education, economics, women’s empowerment and children's development.

We created an info-graphic on our website about the ripple effect. It's related to the follow-up, because we are actually looking at how clean water is affecting the whole community. We're not just asking, “Is the pump still working?” We're saying, “How are the women doing?”

In one project we found out the women's income had doubled because they didn't have to spend the time walking to gather water. We asked the community what their clean water needs were. There was a women's cooperative who said they had a garden and would like help irrigating it. So between saving the time walking, saving time not having to take care of children sick of water-borne illness, and by giving them clean water directly on-site at their garden, their income doubled. That's a really cool way to look at the impact of clean water.


AB: Tell us about your partnership with the jewelry designer Karen Egren.

KG: Karen Egren is so sweet. When she learned about the Voss Foundation she created a special collection of bracelets and a portion of the sales went to the Voss Foundation. I'm a fan of design related partnerships for fundraising. For example, the African Bazaar: when we go visit our clean water projects we buy crafts from villagers and shop at the markets. It's interesting and fun, and I think it just so happens that all of us were interested in more unique items, not just the touristic trinkets. In the U.S. and Norway, we received a lot of compliments on them and people started asking us to bring things back. We came up with the idea of selling unique products from the regions where we worked because they are relevant items. We've developed interesting relationships with African Bazaar partners, some of which are also our implementing partners. It is really cool to have that connection and be able to give people a reminder of that event,. Our goal with the Bazaars is to provide actually beautiful things that you might not know are from Africa. You might not think they are from a charity, so they are talking points. You might see someone and say, “Wow, that's a gorgeous horn necklace, where is that from?” And they can tell you and start talking about the Voss Foundation.


AB: Where do you see the Voss Foundation in five years?

KG: That's really interesting, we're about to start working on a new five year plan. We've reached the end of our first. I would really like to see us deepen our relationships with our best partners, because I think we've really identified some special partners that other people aren’t working with and building their capacity to implement really sustainable projects.


AB: Do you see it always staying within Africa, this project?

KG: Our mission limits us to Sub-Saharan Africa at this point. It is also the region that lags furthest behind in access to clean water,hygiene and sanitation. So the U.N. has asked for more work there, targeting the water sector. I know there is a lot of need elsewhere, but considering that the region is also backed by international requests I think we'll stay there a while.


AB: Do you see your goals and aspirations as simple?

KG: Oh, I don't know. I'm just taking every day as it comes. They're all so interesting, it's hard sometimes. It's something I need to work on; taking a step back and doing macro level planning. It's such an intense position that it's often difficult to do that because there is so much to deal with.


AB: How do you see your role changing there? Do you?

KG: I think if we're able to raise the funds to hire more staff, I could see my role changing.


AB: Doing what?

KG: Taking a more holistic approach and helping direct the foundation in a different way. Not directly - differently. But from my perspective, if there were more people to work on the day-to-day tasks I'd have more time to focus on the big picture.


AB: So what's the big picture?

KG: As the developed world evolves, I think there is going to be new information and data:  A lot of it supporting what we do now, some that might expose different ways to address the problem we're trying to solve, or highlight problems that none of us had thought to address from the get go. It's important to stay on top of that new information and make sure that everything is running smoothly. For example, we love partnering at the foundation. We know we're small, we don't need to take credit for things. We're happy to work with great organizations, so I think there is a lot to be done in that direction. Back to the ripple effect: because clean water is related to so many other issues, it lends itself well to partnerships.


AB: Do you see the foundation going in the same direction?

KG: I do.


AB: Do you see yourself here for the long term?

KG: I want to continue improving people's lives. It's a great way to do it.

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