Episode 146 – Project Spotlight – Water Access Rwanda

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39 minutes
Home Manage This Podcast Episode 146 – Project Spotlight – Water Access Rwanda

About This Episode

Christelle Kwizera

At age 20, Christelle Kwizera founded Water Access Rwanda in response to the dangerous conditions that Rwandans would face when collecting water from rivers and dams, including crocodile attacks and disease-ridden water. Listen in to an inspiring project story as Christelle shares her vision to eradicate water scarcity while creating jobs for young people. This team had a goal to look for solutions that intersect the impact on planet and profit. As project managers, we need to challenge the solutions we’ve bought into IF they are not working for the stakeholders. Christelle explains how they discovered the importance of listening to the community and local stakeholders rather than large outside organizations, when they realized the current water projects were not viable long term options. She elaborates how they researched a plan that was sustainable for the future.

Hear about how they obtain funding and track their impact, and the many challenges the team has had to overcome. Christelle also shares her unique personal experience of being a black female founder. She describes in depth the impact of this project in the community, as well as the lessons learned and the biggest takeaways on this remarkable project.

Christelle has won the Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award, and is also a PMI Future 50 2021 honoree. With a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Oklahoma Christian University, she is a Resolution fellow, a Rainer Arnhold Fellow, a Sierra Club GPEP fellow, a MILEAD fellow, a princess Diana awardee and Fondation Channel’s 2019 Woman Entrepreneur of the Year; all awarded on account of her leadership in addressing social issues. Christelle is featured in the book 100 Women Using Their Power to Empower, she is also featured in the Sheroes of COVID19 book. Christelle continues to serve as Member of the Consultative Advisory Group of the World Bank affiliated Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET).

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Favorite Quotes from Episode

"…I think one of the biggest lessons is there’s a lot passion and drive can do.  There’s a lot money can do.  But it really all comes down to the people you have.  And I learned that not very quickly, but within a year I kind of had figured out that if we’re going to scale and do more work, that I really need good people by my side." 

Christelle Kwizera

"…for me I was like, okay, I’m going to fund a company and figure this out long term.  Actually, when I started it was out of, one, I don’t want to claim this project as successful when I know in one year it won’t be.  Secondly, somebody needs to innovate here.  Somebody needs to do better, listen to the people."

Christelle Kwizera

The podcast by project managers for project managers. Listen in to an inspiring project story about eradicating water scarcity, while creating jobs for young people on the Water Access Rwanda project. Hear about solutions that intersect the impact on planet and profit, and the importance of listening to the community and local stakeholders.

Table of Contents

03:20 … Water Access Rwanda Project
04:18 … Christelle’s Story
08:59 … Importance of Sustainable Solutions
15:10 … The INUMA Solution
17:35 … AMAZI, VOMA, and UHIRA Solutions
22:47 … Funding the Project
26:29 … The Impact in the Community
32:23 … Lessons Learned
34:52 … Black Female-Founded Organizations
36:10 … Get in Touch with Christelle
38:14 … Closing

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA: So I think one of the biggest lessons is there’s a lot passion and drive can do.  There’s a lot money can do.  But it really all comes down to the people you have.  And I learned that not very quickly, but within a year I kind of had figured out that if we’re going to scale and do more work, that I really need good people by my side. 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and here in the studio with me is Bill Yates.  We like to bring you stories about projects.  Sometimes we find people who are doing incredible things and who are managing amazing projects.  And that is the person that we’re talking to today.

I found Christelle Kwizera on PMI’s Future 50 2021 Honorees, and she has just a remarkable story of how she founded a project called Water Access Rwanda.  And it’s a company that works in response to the dangerous conditions that Rwandans face when they collect water from rivers and dams.  She’ll go into that in a lot of detail.  She really tells us her story.

And she talks about how people would have to walk, I think it took an hour a day just to get water.  They would have to go to crocodile-infested and disease-ridden water to get their daily supply of water.  And it’s just remarkable what she has done.  She’s been awarded the Cisco Youth Leadership Award, the Global Citizen Prize.  She also came in third position at the inaugural Africa Business Heroes Awards by Jack Ma.  That’s just some of what she has accomplished.

BILL YATES:  She’s so impressive.  And this is such a personal podcast for me.  Just talking about access to water is so important.  For years we’ve been involved with a group called Engage Burkina.  Burkina Faso has the same issue that Rwanda does of looking for solutions for those who need access to clean water.  And Engage Burkina has dug over 1,000 wells in just a short amount of time to help transform communities.

We’re going to go deeper.  This isn’t just about digging wells.  We’ll find this out as we unpack the story with Christelle.  But she looked at, beyond wells, how do you sustain those wells?  What if something breaks?  What if people want something more than just well water?  So this will be a very interesting conversation.  And one thing we just have to remember, when Christelle had this challenge that she rose up and created an organization, she was a university student.  She was 19, 20 years old when this idea first sparked her imagination and got her involved with her home in Rwanda.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  And another thing, Christelle is talking to us from Kigali, Rwanda.  And sometimes the audio’s not quite that clear.  We would rather bring you her whole story than not.  And so if some of the audio is not quite clear, please remember that we do have a complete transcript of all that is said on the show.  Just go onto the website and download the transcript, and you can follow along with everything that’s been said.

Hi, Christelle.  Welcome to Manage This.  We’re so glad you’re with us today.

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Hi, Wendy.  Thank you for having me.

Water Access Rwanda Project

WENDY GROUNDS:  We are so excited to hear about the work that you’re doing and the projects that you’re working on.  Can you tell our listeners what Water Access Rwanda is all about, including the visions and the goals of this project?

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Yeah.  So Water Access Rwanda is a for-profit social enterprise with a mission to eradicate water scarcity while creating jobs for young people.  It’s a company I founded in 2014, and now we’re more than seven years old, which makes us quite an old company,  But we’re still very young in terms of the tasks we have, the work we do.  There’s a lot of fresh ideas and innovation happening in the company.  What we’re really doing on a daily basis is providing safe tap water for everyone, not just in urban areas, but also in rural areas, ensuring that people have tap water that they can drink, that is reliable, that is very accessible and affordable for them.

Christelle’s Story

WENDY GROUNDS:  I’m very interested in hearing a little bit more about your background.  What just amazes me is you were just 20 years old when you began this company.  How did you start this?  You were here in the states at the time.  Could you give us your story?

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Yeah, well, it wasn’t a very direct path, founding the company.  At this time I was actually 19 years old, so still a teenager.  I was an advocate on several platforms including the African Union in the United Nations. And I had caught the attention of the president of my university.  So at the time I was going to Oklahoma Christian University in the United States.  And he approached me and said there was an opportunity to raise up to $60,000 from Rotary Foundation and Rotary Clubs in Oklahoma to do a project in Africa.  And he was really interested to see, if I had that kind of money, what would I do with it.

So at the time I wasn’t that interested in water.  My interests were really about space exploration.  My dream since I was a kid was to become an astronaut.  So I focused on that.  Until I think 2013 I had read more articles about the potential signs of water on foreign planets than I had read about access to water on our planet.  So when it came to that project basically I was like, okay, what is a project I could do that could really impact young people?  So even then, you know, in my activist work I was obsessed with young people in the way there’s so many programs for young people, but a lot of them look at providing access to services, not necessarily working on young people to want those services.

And I knew the experience I was having getting my U.S. degree, and I knew the experience my colleagues in Rwanda were having getting their degrees from local universities.  There was the lack of practical projects, things that I was experiencing in the United States that were not very available to young people studying in Rwandan universities.  So basically my biggest challenge was what project can I do with the $60,000 that would get a lot of young people involved and work hard and have more meaning in their careers than just, graduating and getting a normal job.

So as I researched, I came around articles that were saying that in Rwanda, some parts in the eastern part of the country, people were having to face crocodiles when they went to fetch water.  And this completely broke my heart because I remembered when I was very, very young that fetching water was the fun activity for me.  But then I could see how different it would have been if my mother, for example, could send me to fetch water, and she knew that maybe a crocodile could get me.  And I think at the time six deaths had already been recorded under similar circumstances.  So I was like, okay, we’re going to drill water points in this area.  We’re going to do a project, employ young people.  And it’s going to be three months.  I’m going to change lives and come back to my space career.

So back down in Rwanda we ended up raising money.  I received some training. I learned how to drill boreholes in Oklahoma and, you know, bought drilling equipment, get a team back in Rwanda.  Traveled back, and we started digging.  We partnered with different ministries in Rwanda, different local governments.  UNICEF in Rwanda gave us support towards training.  Again, we’re supported by many Rotary Foundation Clubs.

So basically we do this project, and I’m very excited.  From the first borehole we opened, I could see how life-changing one water point could be, not just for the people who are going to get water from it, but the people who were building the water point.  Because unfortunately, the space we’re in, a lot of these interventions are done by foreigners, by big foreign NGOs or random foreigners who take up these projects.

So local communities, especially small villages, are not used to seeing other Rwandans or other people within their same nation come with money and tools to provide them with water.  So this completely surprised everybody, and the way the community regarded us young people who were doing the project, the way it just created so much joy for everyone.  We lived within the community, we ate with them, we lived like them.  We would, you know, spend the day drilling boreholes for them.

Importance of Sustainable Solutions

So it completely transformed my view of how I could have impact in the world.  And I had done my biggest dream, which was to empower the young people.  And now access to water became something I deeply cared about.  Because unfortunately for me, the technology I was installing at the time was not very sustainable.  So although, we know how to drill boreholes, we can install pumps, I soon realized that this solution that was published in so many books, I had done my research to select what kind of project I was going to do.  But although it was featured in all these books, no book or research was talking about the amount of things that would break.  And by the time we finished the last borehole, the first one was already broken.

BILL YATES:  Oh, no.


CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  When we went to investigate, it was a very, very simple reason that the borehole had broken.  It would have cost maybe 10 cents to fix it.  And remember we had done the usual committee to train the community on how to fix this thing, put them together, elect officials who are going to manage the water point, all of this work.  Suddenly we need to come up with 10 cents, and it became tough.  It became really tough.  And for me what I feel like should be very easy wasn’t.

So again, I went back to the same people I was getting a lot of advice from and other NGOs in this space, and I felt like all of them were quick to blame the community.  But then I felt a big sense of responsibility because I had raised all this money, spent it in the communities, and I knew somehow, somewhere, this project might not be sustainable.  And so I felt like was failing, that I wasn’t achieving my project.

On deeper research, I actually found out it wasn’t just my project, that many, many water projects in rural areas in Africa end up in broken water points that do not get repaired and get abandoned by the community.  And at the time in 2014, this was a growing challenge that was being more and more documented.  There was kind of more of a light being shone on what actually happened when, you know, a project ends, or when an NGO leaves the community, what actually happens to those water points we drill for the community.

So although it was easy to just keep my big nice pictures of opening day ceremonies and call it a, you know, a summer project, I was like, no, somebody needs to do better.  And I stopped listening to the research papers, to the big organizations doing this, and I asked the communities, what would you pay for?  And they said piped water.

BILL YATES:  Ah, okay.

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  So they started suddenly complaining, well, you know, with this water I have to pump.  I use my energy.  So why should I pay for it?  Or there’s always a line.  So rather than wait at the line, I’d rather walk to the lake because at the lake there is a huge riverbank, you know, I don’t have to wait in line to anybody.  So wasting time, convenience, walk time to the water point were major, major barriers for them to value the water point, to the point that they said we would pay for piped water, and we pay people to go deliver us water, you know, they were paying people to go get water for them on bicycles, which wasn’t even clean, and bring it to them.

That’s when for me I was like, okay, I’m going to fund a company and figure this out long term.  Actually, when I started it was out of, one, I don’t want to claim this project as successful when I know in one year it won’t be.  Secondly, somebody needs to innovate here.  Somebody needs to do better, listen to the people.  Because up until I asked the community what they would rather pay for, nobody had told me, oh, we’ve actually seen success when we provide piped water instead of hand pumped.  That is something no one is saying.  They were just saying, oh, no, do your community water training, or teach them how safe the water is, how valuable the water is.

But now with the knowledge of our community behavior change, you can’t change somebody’s behavior through education.  You can only change it through feelings and through convenience.  When I founded the company, I was like we’re going to provide solutions that are simple, that are affordable, and that are durable.  And so I registered a company.  We kind of took the tools and the trained people from the prior project and put them into this company, which has now grown to what Water Access Rwanda is today.

BILL YATES:  Christelle, there are so many teachable points here.  I’m just jotting down notes as I’m hearing your story.  And I keep looking and underlining that you’re 19, 20, 21 years old as you were going through this project and discovering this.  And here you are, you’re in the states working on a degree, yet you’re going back to Rwanda and working with friends, associates, local governments to try to make a difference there.

So getting a little bit nerdy with project management, one of the things that’s just jumping off the page to me is how many times we think we have a solution that’s going to work, that the benefits are what’s right for a community or for a customer base.  Then we deliver something, and they go, yeah, that’s not quite it.  I don’t like these aspects of it.


BILL YATES:  That’s so very interesting and such a lesson for us to continue to listen to customers.  And sometimes it’s not listen to customers to see if there’s a small tweak we need to make to our delivery or how we offer that solution, but it’s like, okay, thanks for digging this well.  It’s wonderful to have water.  However, this is going to break, and we don’t know how to repair it, or we don’t have the funds to do it.  What we really want is piped water.  That’s such a big takeaway to me of, you know, for all project managers to continue to listen to customers and not be afraid to step back and challenge the solution that we’ve kind of bought into and been pushing or preaching to the community.

The INUMA Solution

So that kind of brings me to the solution that then you came up with, which is, okay, now we believe piped water is the right approach to take.  So describe the INUMA solution which you implemented.  How did you go about that?

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Yeah.  So INUMA evolved over a few years, from 2014.  Actually our first piped system was in 2016.  And at the time we were partnering with farmers because farmers were always willing to pay for water because, you know, their crops depend on it, and they can see a financial income out of irrigating.

And then we were convincing farmers to sell water on the side to the communities nearby their farms, instead of those communities having to get water from other unsafe water sources.  So let me explain what INUMA does and is.  But it was a slow progress to get to the current design we have now.  But basically INUMA creates a water mini-grid.  So a lot of people have heard of mini-grids in terms of electricity.


CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Where you can go to a remote community anywhere, install solar panels, and channel the electricity to every house.  So we’re doing the same, but instead of flowing electricity we’re flowing water.  We go to a community, and usually the new communities we find already have broken boreholes that people like me in the past have done.  So we take that borehole, or we dig a new one, and we put a hybrid pump which can use both solar energy, but also on-grid electricity as a backup, and the water is purified.  We create a mini-treatment water facility where water is purified up to 60 liters per minute.

And then the water is made available at the public point, by the public kiosk, which is strategically placed within the center of the community so that everybody only has to walk five minutes to get to it.  So a trip to get water would be a maximum of 15 minutes.  But once we do that public kiosk, then we start slowly extending pipelines within the community so that the grid can grow and start offering water right inside people’s homes.


CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  So that’s what INUMA mini-grid is.  It’s a mini-grid for water projects, water treatment, all on a mini level, and then distribution throughout the community on a radius of one kilometer.

AMAZI, VOMA, and UHIRA Solutions

WENDY GROUNDS:  Now, you have also been working on some other solutions I saw on your website.  Could you tell us a little bit about those solutions and how they’re helping the communities?  I think it was, I’m not sure if I’m going to say this the right way, AMAZI, VOMA, and UHIRA?

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Yes, perfectly said.  These are very basic names, by the way.  One of the things I’m not good at is naming.  So my company is trying to bring access to water in Rwanda.  It’s called Water Access Rwanda.  AMAZI is the word for water in Rwanda.  VOMA means to search water.  And UHIRA means to irrigate.  So AMAZI is our product line that looks at urban residents and is addressing a challenge within the water sector which is not exactly what we were doing as a company before.

But back in 2018 something strange happened with our team.  We were kind of browsing Twitter, and all these people were complaining that, you know, it’s raining, and the tanks are empty.  You know, everyone has to have water tanks in Rwanda to harvest rain water.  And everybody was complaining that, you know, I haven’t had water in a while.  My tank is now empty.  And they were tagging the municipal water provider, WASAC, why haven’t you given us water for a whole month or for a few weeks?  And for us we were kind of like, well, it’s raining, people.  Why don’t you harvest the rainwater?


CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Because you already have a tank, you have a roof, and it’s raining.  Why is your tank empty?  So what we discovered then was that rainwater tanks in Rwanda were being installed very wrong.  And because of that, all the rain would carry with it all the dirt from the roof right into people’s tank.  So because of this, people had come to believe that rainwater is not safe water.

But then for us also we saw an opportunity.  If all of these people who have already tanks in their homes can harvest more rainwater and use it in their homes, that’s a business opportunity for us as a company because we can sell them filtration equipment.  But at the same time we can reduce the amount of runoff that Kigali was experiencing at the time.  And not just Kigali, all of East Africa right now.  People feel like we’re having more rain, but we’re actually having less rain.  But the rain is falling, and we have constructed houses everywhere.  So there is very little infiltration space for the rain, this is causing a lot of flooding.

So us being us, you know, we always look for solutions that intersect impact planet and profit. And so we were like, if we provide the solution, we will reduce runoff, going to help people adapt to climate change.  We can sell and make money as a company.  And we can help people spend less on their water, have less water shortages, and spend less on their overall water bill because rainwater is free water.  We just need to harvest it better to not spend a lot of money purifying it.  So that’s when we launched AMAZI.  So AMAZI’s actually rapidly scaling in Kigali, and we’re already looking to approach other cities within the Great Lakes region in East Africa.

VOMA is our custom-made project for bigger projects like NGOs, carbon project developers, CSRs.  So the water space is still a space dominated by philanthropy.  And so we can help people who want to educate water projects doing a way that is more sustainable, does it in a way that provides the convenience and accessibility that the community wants.  But at the same time we have developed as a company really good monitoring, too.  So we track our impact across many SEG indicators, and we’re able to show the impact of our project quite well.  So we track everything.  It’s GPS coded.  We know when a water point is functional/nonfunctional.  We use smart meters to track many of our projects.  So we’re able to sell that as a package for other needs like NGOs or CSR needs and so on, even politicians sometimes.

And lastly, UHIRA, that’s for farmers.  So that’s where we give farmers off-grid irrigation systems, but not just for farming.  It can be for livestock.  It can be off-grid businesses, for example, like meat packaging industry or vegetable washing industries or coffee washing.  So there is all kinds of uses for water within the agriculture space, and UHIRA caters to that.

So those are the other solutions in the company.  And they might sound like quite diversified, but for us it’s one technical team delivering the same solution.  It’s pipes, filters, and pumps  really when it comes to how the project looks like to us.  But we’re targeting different segments and how they use water.

So INUMA is looking at people who live in rural areas and in their homes need water, or schools established in rural areas.  AMAZI is in particular for urban residents.  VOMA is for big organizations and businesses.  And UHIRA is for farmers mainly and smaller businesses.  It’s just to different segments of the market and the amount of water they all need, which varies by volume and quality, as well.

Funding the Project

BILL YATES:  That is such a smart breakdown of your customers, if you will. So one thing that’s also in common is you’ve got to have money to make this happen.  How do you obtain funding?

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Yeah, so funding is our biggest obstacle to growing right now.  And we’ve not been able to raise as much as we would like to, to actually do the amount of work we’d like to be doing in the community.  But right now I’d say we’re in a good space and accessing a lot more funding.  One, we’ve won a lot of awards over the past few years, the biggest one being the Global Student Award, which gave the company $250,000.  So that was a lot of money, which really helped us build ourselves, especially right after 2020, which was a terrible year for us, like many other businesses.  And then beyond prize money we received some unrestricted grants from amazing foundations.

But also we’re a business.  So we’ve taken loans, and we’re actively trying to raise money through equity.  So we’re able to finance operations that way.  But as a company, our biggest source of money is revenue.  You know, we sell solutions that work, and communities pay for them.  So we sell water.  Communities are able to pay its very affordable price.  So right now, for example, with INUMA, $1 U.S. can get a thousand liters of water, which is drinkable water, but cheap enough that people can use it for whatever they need at home.

And with AMAZI, once the initial system is paid off, it will cost a family maybe 50 to $100 a year to access water.  And actually this results in a reduction in their water bill of 58%.  So basically customers, you know, they come to us, they save money, they achieve water security.  The farmers pay for their water system.

What we do as a company most of the time is we have all this cash that allow us to finance our customers.  So instead of pushing a new mini-grid, for example, a new, INUMA mini-grid costs around $40,000.  No community will be able to come up with that money.  But if they’re only paying $1 for every 1,000 liters on the volume, they will slowly pay this money off over some time.  So our role as a business is to find how do we get those 40,000 so that it can give the community time to actually either pay back on the capital through their volume sales, so us making a return on investment as a business, or for whoever is planning the system, but also keeping the system working through those user revenues.

And with AMAZI people buy the system.  All we do is just we give them payment plans of six months of a year so that it can fit within their usual incomes and salaries.  And just to mark this, whenever we talk about end users for us, we’re targeting people below $5 a day.  So we’re looking at people who are really at the bottom of the pyramid.  But at the same time, poverty tends to be confused sometimes.  People think everyone who is poor has nothing.  There is levels to poverty.  There is poverty where you’re very vulnerable and need support.  And there is poverty where you have something, and that something can afford a little bit.

So what we ensure as a business is we’re always providing water at a same cost which people can afford.  No one should pay more than 3% of what they earn every day to afford enough water for their family.  So we price with that in mind, and we ensure the business, you know, we stay lean.  We do what is necessary, obtain any possible subsidy so that the community can sustain their own system, but also be able to afford it even if they are living in some levels of poverty.

The Impact in the Community

WENDY GROUNDS:  Christelle, I’m sure that this has had an incredible impact within the communities.  Now, over the years that you’ve been doing this project within the local communities, what are some of the stories that you’ve seen?  How has this made a difference to the local people in your community?

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  So I will kind of share two or three stories.  The very first thing I always notice about a community whenever I compare the first time we encountered them and a time when I go back to see how they’re doing, maybe for a monitoring visit or just a random one, one thing I noticed is everybody looked cleaner.  And it took us a while because we weren’t doing our impact monitoring very well at the beginning.  But as of 2019, we know why.  They’re taking baths and showers more.  So actually our impact average is at baseline only about 60% report being able to take a bath every day.  But with clean water from one of our systems, they’re able to take it every day, over 98%.

And the other aspect of looking clean is in laundry.  So when you have to go do laundry at a dirty river bank, you know, where cows drink, where the water isn’t even visually clean, your clothes get dirtier visibly much quicker, and you’re not doing laundry as often as you’d like to because you can imagine if you’re going to wash all the clothes for your family, you know, making six trips from the river to your house and so on, it’s not very convenient, and people even in rural areas are very conscious about the time it takes.

So basically for me what I always notice is everyone looks so much cleaner.  And now we have the data to show why.  The more water is closer to them, the more accessible and convenient the water is, then they use it for more things that they need it for.  And this results in better hygiene.

Now, the other part I always hear is the happiness.  People are just happier when we talk to them.  And I’ll share my favorite story.  This is a lady called Hadija.  She lives at one of our mini-grids, which is actually not too far outside of the center of Kigali.  So I visited her.  We were actually doing a film, and she had volunteered to be an ambassador for us within that film.  We traveled to her house with a film crew.

  This wasn’t the first time I was visiting her.  I had been there before.  And this time, you know, kind of unconsciously I started removing my shoes as I entered her house.  And she was like, no, please keep your shoes on, and I’m like, no, I don’t want to dirty your floor, and she’s like, dirty it all you want.  The water is right there.  I’ll clean up.

And then she started telling her story how before she was so angry all the time at her kids, at every visitor, because every time her floor was dirty, it meant a long trip to the river to go get water, waiting in line and so on, and having to clean up.  But now the water is right there so she can clean up any time she feels like it.  And it’s hard to bottle that feeling.  But knowing that the things you want to do to take care of your home, of your family, now are much easier.  You have more free time.  You no longer carry the burden of what it means when things get dirty and you have to clean up.

It’s very hard to measure this, but it’s a story I hear all over.  You know, you see women carrying their children more without carrying their children and a jerry can of water.  Right?  They carry just their children, or they’re doing the laundry at home.  Before laundry there was a huge, huge undertaking.  Now it’s right at home.  When you consider this, it creates quite a lot of joy.  I like to say also to connect with the sometimes American audiences, the average shower, the average eight-minute shower uses 60 liters of water.  So in a rural area in Africa you would have to make two trips to a water point to get enough just for an eight-minute shower.  That’s how much water or how many trips it takes to carry water.  And it’s a lot.

Now, the last aspect we see is people are generally healthier.  Less water point diseases, which we see a decrease from around 30% to very close to zero, like 1 to 2%.  Which with water borne diseases, you can’t really reduce without targeted effort.  You still need to encourage people to get proper toilets, have better hygiene practices, and so on.  But we measure a lot of impact.  So for example through our solutions we’re able to reduce carbon footprint a lot.  Last year I believe we reduced carbon emission by 23,000 tons of carbon from the air by just giving people clean water.  They no longer need to boil water.  We no longer need to use generators because we’re using solar.  So this has a very positive impact on the environment.

But the biggest one I love is time saving.  We on average, when people don’t have water at home, we save them 53 minutes on every water trip they will take.  So in a week, for a normal family of five, we give them back a full day.  And what they do with that full day is up to them.  We are actually not tracking what people do with their extra time, but it might be something we would love to start tracking.  I just feel like, if I get an extra free day to lazy around, or an extra free day to work harder, whatever.  It’s my time now.

BILL YATES:  Yes.  That’s right.  What a huge impact.  I hadn’t even thought about that, coming into this recording.  You know, I can think of some of the obvious things about being healthier.  I hadn’t thought about happiness.  I hadn’t thought about the impact of just being in a cleaner environment.  And I certainly had not thought about the time savings.  And that completely makes sense.  I can’t believe I hadn’t thought about that.  But what an impact.  A day a week?  That’s huge.


Lessons Learned

WENDY GROUNDS:  So I wanted to ask you, what has been your biggest lesson learned as a leader of this project?  What’s been something that’s been the biggest takeaway for you personally?

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Oh, there’s a lot.  You know, I started the company when I was very young.  I had very little experience working in a professional environment when I started my company.  So, you don’t have a benchmark on am I a good boss or a bad one?  It’s something I’ve always been very self-conscious about, and actually maybe that made me a good boss.  But the first person I had to fire was a really tough one.  And I kind of delayed that decision till the person was, yeah, you know, I’m just going to resign.  Because I couldn’t.  But we both knew, okay, that’s what’s going to happen.

So I think one of the biggest lessons is there’s a lot passion and drive can do.  There’s a lot money can do.  But it really all comes down to the people you have.  And I learned that not very quickly, but within a year I kind of had figured out that if we’re going to scale and do more work, that I really need good people by my side.  But one thing I learned is that it doesn’t get easier.  And I always thought if I applied the stick, then I don’t have to worry about people anymore.  So that’s been the biggest lesson as a leader.  People are constant work.

And I’ve actually had to reform how I think and plan and so on because I’m a very ambitious person so I tend to really overshoot in my planning.  So kind of coming down to earth and being like, okay, what would I like to see done versus what is my team able to do now?  So this has been a very big lesson for me throughout my leadership journey.  And it’s also like embracing things you don’t feel ready for.  So like firing your first person, hiring people who are way older than me.  I remember hiring a person who is, you know, the same age as my dad, and they’re calling me “Boss” and everything.  That was pretty weird.

And also at some point everybody was like, the best thing they can say about the company was me.  And I didn’t want it to be that way.  But I was too visible without the company being visible enough, as well.  So making sure that, you know, I don’t take a lot of the limelight, but shine it back to the company and the amazing people now that are really driving all this impact everyone gets to see.  Those have been kind of big learning points.

Black Female-Founded Organizations

And also dealing with challenges.  One of the toughest things I did come to realize was the challenges I was facing, not that I was just any founder, but being a black female founder.  So many times I would really get, almost depressed and feel like I’m such a big failure.  I wouldn’t understand some of the rejections we were getting or why were these people able to take the opportunities, yet we were better in this way or another.

And I don’t know if it’s a leadership lesson, but it’s something that to really come out of that exceeds my now different kinds of activism where I help draw attention to like, hey, this is really how fundings flow.  If you’re looking at the statistics, and they don’t look good, you know, how much money is going to black female-founded organizations? Like imagine how it feels for every black African female founder who is trying to raise money and can’t.  So that has also been another big lesson that, despite best intentions, despite great projects, great people, great execution, there is so many more barriers out in the world that may be independent of us.  So, yeah.


BILL YATES:  Those are so strong.  You could write a book on those, just those three big takeaways.  Those lessons learned are terrific.  Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing those with us. 

Get in Touch with Christelle

WENDY GROUNDS:  Definitely.  If our listeners want to hear more about Water Access Rwanda, they want to see what you do, where can they reach out to you? 

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  We have a website, and we’re on most social media.  So Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube.  So WaterRwanda is our handle for most of those.  But we also have a website, WARwanda, Water Access abbreviated, WARwanda.com.  That’s a good way to reach us.  I’m very active on Twitter.  Want to connect with me directly, that’s a good place to start.  Yeah.  And if people are coming to Kigali or East Africa, they can visit us, and we’re quite strong.  We’re now a team of 85 people.  So there’s a lot of amazing people to come and meet and see just the work we’re doing.

If anybody is passing through Kigali, that’s our hometown.  You know, I can talk for hours about what we’re doing, or I can take pictures.  But it’s always different when you see it.  Some of my best friends who have never visited a project site, when they visit they are wowed.  So it always comes to life when you see it.  So we invite everybody to make a stop when they’re in Kigali and come and see us.

BILL YATES:  Thank you so much for sharing your passion.  And there are so many stories within this story. Just your transparency in sharing some of the lessons that you learned and not being stubborn, having the openness to look at the solutions that you thought were going to be the right thing for your customers and then going, oh, wait a minute, that’s not really what they want, or they can’t sustain it.  There’s so much for us to unpack with this.

And the goal of bringing fresh water, healthy water, to a nation, to people in need, is just remarkable.  So well done.  Thank you for your efforts for what you’ve done.  You could have just been another astronaut, and instead you’ve changed the lives of so many, and your organization continues to do so.  Thank you for your time today.

CHRISTELLE KWIZERA:  Thank you, guys.  It was very nice.  This was really enjoyable.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you so much for joining us today.  You can visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see that complete transcript of the show.  You’ve also just earned your free PDUs by listening to this episode.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.


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