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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

How This Social Entrepreneur Learned From Her International Development Experience

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

Sarina Prabasi, born in Nepal, and her husband, Elias Gurmu, born in Ethiopia, launched Buunni Coffee, selling fair-trade Ethiopian coffee in New York City. The enterprise, their social entrepreneurship and indeed their relationship, grew out of Prabasi's… Click To Tweet

Today, she serves as the CEO of WaterAid America, a position she assumed in 2014. With an annual budget of $7.1 million, the NGO is a leader in the “WASH” or water, sanitation and hygiene community. She’s spent a total of 20 years working in the field.

Watch my interview with Prabasi at the top of this article.

Prabasi reports that the organization was originally focused on clean water and has helped 24.9 million gain access to clean water. Another 24 million people have gained access to toilets and sanitation.

She says that the water issues in Flint, Michigan have helped Americans empathize with people around the world who lack access to clean water. “People who maybe previously weren’t able to connect to it in a personal way are able to connect to it because of the very unfortunate things that have happened here.”

Over the past several decades, WaterAid reports that about 2.6 billion people worldwide have gained access to clean water, representing dramatic progress toward solving the problem globally. Today, 663 million people still lack access to clean water.

WaterAid has a goal, consistent with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number six, to see that everyone on the planet has access to clean water and sanitation by 2030. This seems achievable given the progress of the past several decades. The greatest challenge appears to be getting everyone access to sanitation.

The UN reports that as of 2015, 2.4 billion people lacked access to “an improved sanitation facility.” That’s a bureaucratic way of saying 2.4 billion people don’t have toilets.

Prabasi highlights the challenges that come from a lack of access to a toilet. She notes that regardless of the amount or quality of food, kids in communities without access to sanitation are so frequently sick with diarrhea that they are malnourished. “Nearly 900 children under the age of five die each day from diarrheal diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation.”

The problems resulting from a lack of sanitation disproportionately impact women and girls. Women are sometimes victims of sexual violence when they make late-night excursions to find a private place to defecate.

In addition, she says, “women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water for their families from water sources that are often remote and unsafe to drink.”

There are also health problems that result simply from “holding it,” she says.

The problem extends to public health facilities in the developing world, where Prabasi says she too often finds there is no running water and no toilet. One can only imagine the lack of hygiene in a clinic without these basic facilities.

Prabasi says progress is being made. “WaterAid and its local partners have helped two million people gain clean water, three million people gain toilets, and more than eight million people gain access to hygiene education” over the past year.

She says, she’s proud of the organization’s innovation. WaterAid helps “specifically by promoting vocational training, entrepreneurship, sanitation marketing and supply chain development.” Prabasi adds, “A great example of this can be found in the job skills training program that we’ve piloted with at-risk teens, and with former gang members in Nicaragua.”

Prabasi’s work with NGOs has clearly influenced her approach to entrepreneurship. When she launched Buunni Coffee in 2012, it was the city’s first Ethiopian coffee shop. “It was important to me to do something that would help New Yorkers go beyond the usual famine- and poverty-stricken images of Ethiopia by bringing a new perspective and a slice of the country’s rich coffee culture to NYC.”

“Formerly a shoe repair shop, I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve created a vibrant community space at Café Buunni that supports local writers and artists, hosts community events and ‘walks the talk’ of socially responsible business,” she concludes.

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Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!

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