Dear donors and supporters,
Hello from Kerala! Our leadership team has spent the last two months here on the field getting ready to start rainwater tank construction for a new village community, “Edayazham”. In this very special update, you’ll learn about our work so far and the exciting things to come! Read on to discover our continuing story from the first hand experiences of our leaders.
In the Field
Our team is staying in a rural part of the Allepey district, and beautiful rice paddy fields and canals surround us. The location is opportune because we are able to observe and live first-hand the customs and routines Kuttanad villagers carry out daily, which will be helpful when molding our operations to fit the lifestyles of our beneficiaries. Our office is only a quick bus ride away, where we have our own workspace alongside our on-site Program Manager. Here’s a snapshot of our day, in the words of our Vice President:
“I make my way from my room through the village, down a mud path, along the river edge, and towards the bus stop that will send me to the office. The banks of the water are sprinkled with many colorful houses, where cows, goats, and chickens can be seen obediently munching away at scraps. Mud paths lead down the heavy vegetation on the roadside and into village communities—cottages built on lonely islands among the green sea of rice paddies. The river is a constant presence, where residents bathe, do their dishes, wash their clothing, and take boat taxis from place to place. However, trash can also be seen floating in the midst of people, and pipes leak contaminants constantly.
Early in the mornings, music can be heard from village homes, as their residents prepare their morning breakfast of dosa and sambar. The water they’ve used for these preparations was hauled by the women of the households from public taps on the main road, or wells in their backyards. Though, they are always sure to boil it thoroughly before consuming: they’ve been taught that fecal matter and salt leeching causes their frequently experienced diarrhea and vomiting.
After my walk, I arrive at the stop along the road where I latch on to the overflowing bus until reaching my destination 15 minutes later. The main road stretches in a forever distance alongside the river. Once at the office, I work online if there is internet available. Though, more often than not, I’ll switch to offline based tasks like image branding and program documentation if the rains have cut off power. I work alongside my partner Sam, our employee Jibin, and an office assistant, Sibi (who brings us delicious tea about 5 times a day!). Under the wooden ceiling and bright pink walls, we chat about strategy, solve challenges, and plan for the future from 10 am until 5 pm.”
After yearlong negotiations, changes, and presentations, we have secured an implementation partner on the ground to get up and running. As a US-based organization, R4H sought local support and expertise to implement the program with the advantages of community knowledge. Our partnership with a local NGO, the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation was signed into effect this July 2014, enabling R4H to gear up on plans for construction and impact monitoring. Check out pictures of this significant event attached to this report.
Construction of the first 12 tanks was planned for August. However, it was delayed due to heavy monsoon rains, which flooded many parts of the Kuttanad for over 2 weeks. Now, we are set to start in September, ensuring 24 families their own safe water supply! In preparation, we are developing a monitoring system with which to track many aspects of the program, including social impact, tanks, and user group dynamics. This will be valuable data to improve our program and paint a better picture of our work on the field.
Additionally, we are excited to focus on more community trainings and capacity building. We are developing training programs to educate users on tank construction, use, maintenance, and repair. This will enable beneficiaries to better manage their tanks and to take direct ownership of a long-lasting system. Masons and staff will assist community residents, women in particular, to learn skills will make them employable in construction work. Additionally, these trainings will provide opportunities to educate the community further on water consumption and conservation.
Thanks from All of Us!
During the partner matching day in July 16th at Global Giving, R4H launched a fundraising campaign in celebration of our new partnership on the ground. Thanks to all of YOU, the event was shared with people from coast to coast, publicizing our efforts and gaining our almost $3,000! Our website got a great new makeover for this event, so browse through for lots of updated information and pictures.
Thanks so much! Your contributions, support, and publicity will help us build an additional 2 tanks for 4 families this October! Your help has made a tremendous difference in the lives of rural villagers here in Kerala by providing a clean and consistent source of water for Kuttanad families.
Thanks for following our story. We have exciting new developments we want to share with you since you last heard from us. Read on to find out about an improvement in our model, our new partners, and our summer plans!
Pivoting Our Model
Over the past year, R4H has sought to scale the program in Kerala, India. However, we have faced challenges in developing the organizational structure best suited for implementing our innovative water-vending model. For some months, we have collaborated on a MOU with a local, NGO (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation) focused on rural development that will support the R4H organization in scaling and contribute to a joint regional water-health profile and educational program. Throughout conversations with the community and partnership negotiations, we have developed a new idea that will pivot our current model into an improved, streamlined program.
Through this new model, R4H will reinvent the way charity defines sustainable impact. To ensure that we retain our key innovations, we have dissected the original model down to its building blocks. With MSSRF’s administrative support, R4H will function as a seed-financing agent, which will essentially invest up-front capital, to seed-fund the construction of rainwater harvesting tanks for independently managed grassroots village projects. Additionally, R4H will engage the community by hiring employees from beneficiary villages to maintain tank networks and run the vending model for long-term impact. Intertwined, these two aspects encourage community ownership and ensure a tank network’s financial self-sustainability.
The creation of separate, community-run Societies will give direct ownership to the beneficiaries, implementing an incentive structure that promotes the effective management, construction, and revenue collection of tanks. As a seed-funder and consultant, R4H will focus on its primary role by advancing its original goal through its core: the community. Re-envisioning these components, we have taken our model one-step further by separating our organization’s critical activities to not only to retain the benefits, but also to amplify them. Overall, the new model not only solves the current challenges facing R4H, but also improves on the organization’s ultimate mission.
We are excited to announce that with support from Brown University, the R4H leadership (Sam Lee ’15, Dani Flores ’15) will be traveling to Kerala as Brown India Initiative Fellows! Through the program, our team will have the opportunity to develop our new strategy on the ground, gather more first-hand community testimonials, and deliver a presentation to the Brown community on our progress.More specifically, we plan to 1) improve the internal structure of R4H 2) formalize our brand and 3) establish the first independent Society for immediate construction!
Currently, R4H has one hired employee, Jibin Thomas, acting as Program Manager in India. Jibin takes charge of expanding our partnerships in Kerala and directly communicating with the community. This summer, our team will continue these activities jointly and standardize the administration of R4H. A strategic work-plan will be developed for the remainder of the year to improve the international management of R4H. Additionally, we will plan for the hiring of new staff and budget for their operations. We believe this will strengthen our internal operations and make our scaling strategy a success.
As we grow within the community, the R4H brand becomes increasingly important. To improve our visibility and our credibility, we will create a uniform process and marketing materials to present to the community beneficiaries. This will include logo design, formatted documents, and standard procedures for the construction and management of new tanks.
Finally, and most importantly, we will be hard at work to set up our very first Society in Kerala. This will be the first step to pilot our new model in the community and learn from the community that runs it. It will also allow us to begin construction as soon as possible, to expand our tank network and finally get our scaling strategy rolling.
A big thanks to all of YOU, for donating and supporting us through our journey to provide clean water to villagers in Kerala. We hope you enjoy our updates and continue to follow us as we send you new information from our exciting summer activities!
For R4H, the new year is an exciting time. In the past month, our team has conducted extensive strategic planning.
Sam, our President, was in India negotiating a partnership with a local NGO, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, and training our newly hired Program Manager, Jibin. His 3 weeks on-site were very productive in terms of training our promising new employee and setting up connections in new villages for future construction. We accomplished a survey of the new village site residents, marking the first pre-tank impact report for 2014.
On the US side, Daniella, our Vice President, traveled to San Francisco to attend a week’s-worth of workshops and networking events at notable places such as Odesk, Salesforce, and YCombinator, ending with a 10-minute pitch to a panel of Venture Capitalists. This conference provided the opportunity to be immersed in the start-up environment and connect with successful entrepreneurs who have gone through (and survived!) the challenging process our team is now facing.
We gained a lot of insights from these experiences, particularly about the future trajectory of R4H and the choices we have in front of us.
This year’s primary goal is to set up an official entity, which will operate separately from the Brown University R4H student group. In doing so, we will be taking the first step in securing the long-term international operation of the organization.
Another key goal this year is the development of new catchment and storage technology that is both cheaper and more efficient. We have been pursuing tank optimization since the project began, but we believe the re-design is more important now than ever if we hope to reduce costs and truly realize our sustainability goals.
An additional priority is establishing a partnership with MSSRF. This NGO’s local presence, credibility, and administrative support will help us get up and running these first few years.
Our team is excited about the months to come, and we thank you for all of your support of our venture so far!
Since you last heard from us, our team has been working hard to bring you new and exciting developments! As we had reported, two of our members traveled to our India site to accomplish the set goals. They visited the pilot village of Achinakom, examining each tank individually. With the help of MGU’s School of Environmental Sciences facilities, water quality tests were performed on all 13 systems, revealing a high quality standard with low contaminants. Surveys were also gathered from participating villagers, and responses remained consistently positive.
Perhaps more significantly, we have forged a partnership with the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) through local connections. Moving away from the academic focus our previous university partner (MGU) brought, we believe this step will bring us closer to implementing a self-sustaining business model and attaining large-scale social impact. As an established NGO, MSSRF will share organizational infrastructure with R4H—providing office space and regular project account audits that are essential to success, but difficult to come by for smaller groups like ours. The collaboration will be the first in MSSRF’s new Water Development Program (initiated September 2013). With the leadership and overhead support of the program’s director, Deepak Depanshandi, we expect frequent communication and mutual success. Details of the agreement are currently being discussed, and the final version will be signed by both R4H and MSSRF in January 2014.
We are also happy to report the hiring of our first, full-time Program Manager. His name is Jibin Thomas and he is a local resident of Kuttanad region of Kerala, where our operations take place. Our US project leaders were able to interview him for the position in August and were impressed with his passion for the community and experience in other social projects. Jibin was still attending law school in the state capital then, but has since graduated and is ready to begin working under the new R4H-MSSRF partnership. At the moment he is now learning the ins-and-outs of the R4H culture and is expected to be fully trained by the end of November. He will be leading project implementation and system construction by December, working directly with village residents to expand the R4H program. We are very excited to have him on board!
Under Jibin’s management, this spring’s dry season will see our most extensive construction yet. With funding we received from the Ford Motor Company, we plan to build 20 new rainwater harvesting systems—supplying water for 60 more families. Most of these systems will be built outside of our pilot community, Achinakom—marking another new development in our program. Given our close established relationship with the people of Achinakom, that area will continue as a test bed for new system designs and business model ideas.
Things are the ground are moving quickly and at R4H we're very excited.None of this, however, would have been possible without the help of those who've supported us along the way--for that we thank you.
Last time you heard from us in May we were preparing to send our US team members to the field in pursuit of three main goals: to increase management capacity, to re-assess financials, and to re-engineer tank construction and design. Since then, two of our leaders have spent a month and a half at our partner university in India to accomplish these tasks. Through community meetings and partnership building, potential candidates are being recruited to manage operations in the field. Reviewing records and receipts, comprehensive cash flow statements and third-party auditing are in progress. Finally, engineering research is being carried out to test vegi-fiber technology in our tank designs, a more cost-effective and local alternative to our current methods.
Our efforts to find leadership in the field have relied on networking with established local organizations. Conversations with the Screwpine Society and M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), both local NGO's working in the Kuttanad, have resulted in qualified applicants looking to join our team. These discussions have also helped us envision a management model. With this in mind, R4H is beginning to take shape as an organization, growing from the project phase to larger-scale implementation. Establishing a dedicated field team will also ensure that the work being done to revise financials and maintain transparency is continued in the absence of our US members.This is one of our highest priorities as we endeavor to maintain a high level of accountability with donations and new funds.
Research continues on tank design, this time beginning phase two of testing on the field. If successful, usage of this new material could pioneer an environmentally-minded solution to reducing construction costs.
Interactions with beneficiaries suggest that they remain satisfied with the R4H program. Field visits also reveal a high demand for rainwater harvesting, not just from R4H but from organizations similar to our own. We hope to tap into this need in the future, after internal organization has been established and expansion begins.
Water quality testing has also been conducted on all existing tanks, reaffirming that our water is the healthier alternative to all other tested sources.
As our team members near the end of their summer visit, we expect contingency in all actions that have been taken. R4H forges forward on the path to growth, and we foresee the new connections that have been made this summer will help strengthen community involvement, demand, and impact.
To read more about our summer experiences, please visit our Blog (linked below)!
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