Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Spring Speaker Series: Kate Clopeck and Community Water Solutions


“Almost 1 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water,” Kate Clopeck announced at the beginning of her talk, titledFrom Rocket Science to Rural Africa: My Journey to Ghana.”

“We already have the answer to this enormous challenge,” she continued. “The technologies already exist … and yet people are still dying every day from water-borne diseases.”

With long, blonde curls and a polka-dotted button-down, Kate Clopeck looks like the typical Middlebury student from just-outside-of-Boston. But Clopeck’s educational experience and entrepreneurial vision — not to mention her atypical jump from a technical engineering career to a social enterprise — set her apart from the crowd.

Clopeck described in detail the reality for many of the residents of the Ghanaian villages where she works. Because of rocky soil in northern Ghana, drilling for water is not a solution. The existing water sources — known as “dugouts” — are extremely muddy.

In 2008, Clopeck and Vanessa Green, a colleague at the MIT Graduate Program of Technology and Policy, took it upon themselves to design a solution. After receiving funding from MIT to focus on water treatment solutions in Ghana, Clopeck and Green founded Community Water Solutions (CWS), an organization that works with women in Ghanaian villages to launch clean water businesses use a simple water treatment process.

Under the CWS model, it takes about three weeks to implement a water business in a village in a five-step process:

1. Build a treatment center
2. Manufacture and distribute safe storage
3. Select and train women
4. Open for business
5. Monitor

Although each step can be expressed in just a short phrase, Clopeck spoke openly about the extensive challenges at each stage. For example, Clopeck described how she and Green realized that they would have to compromise on their goal of women’s empowerment by utilizing male village elders to designate women suitable for selling water, instead of holding open community meetings as they had hoped.

Clopeck explained that a key component of their approach is the 5-year monitoring process. CWS uses full-time staff members to communicate with women in local households and randomly test drinking water for five years after the project has been implemented in the village in order to evaluate efficacy and document best practices.

Ghanaian women, who have traditionally taken responsibility for gathering water in village life, earn a small supplemental income — around $1/week — from these treatment facilities. Although their incomes may be modest, the most important part is that the water is affordable for the village residents. Each bucket of clean water costs approximately 10 cents.

Over the years, Clopeck has observed varying levels of receptiveness to the projects.

“Behavior change does take a long time … but what it does mean is that at any point when someone does decide to drink clean water, they have that option,” said Clopeck.

The sustainability of scalability of Clopeck’s organization rests on their fellowship program, which was launched in 2010. Fellows, who are typically students, are trained to go into the field and introduce the CWS model in a village of their own — all within a three week timeline. Although the initial team started with just five students, CWS has now seen around 155 fellows, and is currently accepting applications for three separate summer sessions. Now, sessions tend to include 30-40 fellows.

Hannah Stonebraker ’13 participated in the CWS fellowship program both as a fellow and as a leader. The experience left an impact on her academic pursuits at Middlebury.

“I went with CWS to northern Ghana and just had an incredible experience, and was able through Middlebury to get internship credit for my time there,” said Stonebraker. “We, as fellows, were … closely working with the traditional leaders of the villages (the chiefs and elders), but the official government was no where to be found. It was clear that the people turned to these traditional leaders, far more than what we would consider their official leaders.”

“I decided to explore this more in my independent study while abroad, and eventually used that to write my senior IGS thesis on traditional monarchy in Africa, and what it can tell us about the future of democracy on the continent.”

CWS is currently accepting applications for their summer fellowship session.

Clopeck also spoke at the TEDx event at Middlebury on Saturday March 9. Once available online, her TEDx talk can be viewed online here.

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