World Water Day: The patience you need for safe drinking water in Pakistan

Re-posting my blog post on Acumen’s website and the reason why I’m currently in Pakistan.



In the last 2 years since I helped start the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation and in the six months I’ve been a Global Fellow at Acumen, I learned a great deal about patience.

As a part of my fellowship with Acumen, I moved to Lahore, Pakistan to work with Pharmagen Healthcare Limited, the social enterprise behind Pharmagen Water, which aims to provide clean, safe and affordable drinking water to low-income communities through a system of water shops around densely populated areas.  This service is vital in Pakistan as millions of the urban and rural poor still rely on outdated water systems or poorly-maintained water facilities.

In Pakistan, 40-60% of diseases are caused by drinking unsafe water, and according to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, 100% of tested water sources in Lahore contained unacceptable levels of arsenic contamination and half had unsafe levels of bacteriological contamination.  The health implications of this are grave and are a major reason why Pharmagen is working to improve public health by providing safe drinking water at the lowest possible price: around $0.45 for a 20-liter container, which is enough for a family of six for two days.

Paying to ensure your family has clean water may seem like necessity, but adoption among the poor can be difficult and slow. They have been using free water from public taps for years and are often unaware of the health risks associated with these unsafe water sources. Part of the difficulty in driving adoption is demonstrating that an investment in preventive healthcare actually saves money in the long-run by reducing medical costs.  This is especially true for children—clean water is an investment for proper nutrition and healthy human development.

My main job at Pharmagen Water is to convince potential customers of this truth.  Designing marketing campaigns is a challenge, not only because I still can’t speak Urdu proficiently, but more importantly, social enterprises face a different set of problems than traditional business.

One of Pharmagen’s street kiosk demonstrations in Lahore.

In a way, we’re competing against the mindsets of both our employees and target market as the social enterprise model is new to them.  Some employees have a hard time understanding why we sell a high-quality product at such a low price. Our target market is not accustomed to paying for water at all.

To say the least, building a successful social business is hard work.

Here are 3 things I’ve found to be critical:

  1. Focus on Social Impact – Patient capital is exactly that – an investor that is patiently waiting for the organization to get the business model right because the focus is on maximizing social impact. The challenges inherent in a social enterprise are almost completely different from a for-profit and a nonprofit so it’s important that the “capital” is willing to wait for a longer period of time before the organization is able to scale. The risk of failure is also an integral part of the learning process and in getting it right.
  2. Adaptive Leadership – Leadership without purpose is meaningless. Social enterprises are born out of a need to address a social problem.  Most of the time, the social enterprise’s management has to chart their own path – find a spot in the field and patiently grow what was planted. Pharmagen Healthcare Limited is probably the only organization of its kind in the whole of Pakistan – it takes tremendous amount of courage, persistence and patience to build something like this.
  3. Collaboration – We’re moving away from a world view that values competition as the only source of healthy growth – for social enterprises, nothing is more important than building linkages and relationships with the communities where they operate. That means building trust, not only with customers, but also with employees that are taking a bet on a new approach.

Social enterprises and social entrepreneurs are a different breed—they see a social problem in dire need of a solution and they go in not fully knowing the pitfalls but are ready to face what comes.

You need to have the strength, resilience, humility and the patience to see things through.

And sometimes to truly understand your customer, you must have three cups of chai tea with them – and, though it takes patience, it’s worth the wait.

Pharmagen Healthcare Limited supplies safe, clean and affordable drinking water to low-income residents of Lahore, Pakistan through an existing chain of open water shops. With Acumen Fund’s investment, Pharmagen is opening 32 new water shops. They currently supply more than 100,000 liters of safe water to customers each day, impacting the lives of over one million people in Pakistan.

New York 2012

It has taken me more than 2 months to write about my recent experience in New York – September-November 2012. As many of you already know, I was chosen as one of the 10 Global Fellows for 2013 by Acumen Fund last May 2012 and I’m currently in Lahore, Pakistan working with Pharmagen Water as part of the 12-month program.

New York

Arriving in New York last September was truly exciting. It was my second trip to both the United States and New York City. I was in the US last May 2011 as well along with Alex Lacson, Tony Meloto, Efren Penaflorida and many others for the WeAreOneFilipino (WAOF) event in Las Vegas, Nevada.

I didn’t really know what to expect upon arriving in New York. I guess every child dreams of one day coming to New York City. Given the dominance of Western influences in Asia, more so in the Philippines, I have always dreamed while I was growing up in Cotabato City to one day visit places like New York City, Los Angeles, Rome and Paris.  And today, I have visited all four. Up until four years ago, I never really thought I would be here one day.

All this changed when I boarded the yellow boat of hope more than 2 years ago.

It has been an amazing ride ever since and it brought me to New York City last September 2012.


The Global Fellows Program includes a 2-month training in New York followed by a 9-month placement in one of Acumen’s investees (the reason I’m in Pakistan) and then the fellowship culminates with a mini-graduation in New York (for me that’s around September 2013). I’m excited about this since my birthday falls on September 13, 2013 (9/13/13).

The goal of the program is to develop emerging leaders so that they see this new way of tackling global poverty. Acumen is driving change in the fields of both philanthropy and impact investing by calling for new innovative approaches at tackling poverty where aid and markets have failed. For me, this is an exciting time to be in the social sector. Indeed, given the challenges that the US itself is facing along with Europe, Japan and the rest of the Western world, it is time to re-imagine a new way of doing business.

Back to Acumen

The 2 months of training in New York was nothing short of extraordinary. In a span of 60 days, I have met a NASA astronaut, popular book authors, Muhammud Yunus, met with Filipinos working in the United Nations, and of course I met the amazing 9 other fellows and most importantly, the people working with Acumen. It has been many years since I started following the work by Acumen and it is only after being able to co-found the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation that I felt compelled to become “part” of it. I wanted to learn more about this new field called social entrepreneurship and I wanted to learn more about how they do it and most importantly, why they do it.

Part of the challenges we are facing in the Yellow Boat is how to ensure our support to these communities is sustainable and empowering.

And that is what I set out to learn with Acumen and the investee that I was assigned to (more on that later).

Some of the highlights of the 2 months:

Meeting the team behind LitWorld (on my birthday, September 13)
First day at Acumen Fund’s office with Shahd AlShehail and Michael Craig (September 17)
2012 Fellows graduation night with Junko Tashiro and Jacqueline Novogratz (September 19)
NASA astronaut Ron Garan in Acumen (September 20)
Meeting Muhammad Yunus at the Social Good Summit (September 23)
Leadership retreat at the Berkshires (September 24-28)
The whole gang in Yellow Boat Tshirts before we left the Berkshires (September 28)
Meeting Batman (September 29)
Venture capitalist Jim Hornthal at Acumen (October 5)
Learning Human Centered Design at IDEO (October 13)
Good Society discussions with Jacqueline at Wallkill, New York (October 15-18)
Gangnam style in Yellow Boat Tshirts at Wallkill, New York (October 18)
Manhattan from Williamsburg, Brooklyn (October 20)
Storytelling workshop with The Ariel Group before the Investors’ Gathering (November 7)
Visiting the United Nations (November 12)

New York 2012 was a blast and I look forward to coming back again in September 2013. On November 15, I flew to Lahore, Pakistan, where I am going to spend my next 8 months.

The countdown

There’s a month left before I leave for New York to start my fellowship with Acumen Fund.  As some of you may remember, I was chosen last May 2012 to be one of the 10 Global Fellows of Acumen Fund.

Acumen, for me, is one of the best social entrepreneurship incubators you can find in the world, if not the best out there.

They offer the most exciting approaches and solutions at tackling global poverty and I intend to learn more from them and their partners around the world so that I can bring back these best practices to the Philippines and hopefully start to influence the social sector in the country too.

Being the Chief Storyteller of the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation has its perks but one thing that clearly keeps me up at night is the issue of our sustainability.  I believe entrepreneurship coupled with a social mission just like a few others who have gone before us is the best way to go at empowering low-income communities.

I believe that if we truly want to empower people who are financially-challenged, we must start by equipping them with the right dose of confidence and skills.

For me, it really starts with getting an education.  Hopefully all the way up to college.  I have met so many people in our communities who could have gone farther in life if only they have been given the education they rightly deserve.  It all starts with that.  It is not necessarily the knowledge and skills they gain while in school but it is the confidence and the feeling of empowerment that then translates into dignity and allows them to dream for a better life.

I also believe that we need to challenge them, that they can dream, that they can have a better life.  And that starts by slowly empowering them and later on, they would be able to help themselves.  It is a lot like parenthood.  Many of us may hate our parents but we just don’t realize it that they are part of our success or failures.  And that’s why it’s important that as we help these communities; we should also be slowly building them up, just like our parents.  There are a few exceptions to this rule but so many of us have parents who have guided us from childhood and even to adulthood.

30 days

I have a little over 30 days to wrap up my current affairs where together with the board members of the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, Inc., I have decided to take on this exciting challenge which will take me to the US particularly in New York for an intensive two-month training in Acumen Fund’s headquarters and then to a 10-month field assignment in Asia (more on that on my next post).

I will surely miss a lot of people who have made this Yellow Boat Journey with me and with all of us a very fruitful and fulfilling endeavor.

I hope you will continue to follow us as we take the Yellow Boat global. 🙂 Dream big, right?

Training at Acumen Fund

Yesterday, July 13, 2012, the US Embassy in Manila approved my application for a J1 Exchange Visitor visa to the United States.  A J1 visa is required for an individual who is joining a training program in a US-based organization.

Some of you may remember that last May 3, 2012, Acumen Fund, announced its 2013 Global Fellows and I am honored to be one of them and the first Filipino to be chosen at that.

It is truly an honor and a privilege to be part of these diverse and inspiring group of individuals who are making such a remarkable impact on poverty in their own respective countries and communities.

Becoming a Global Fellow involves being part of a one-year training program that combines two months of multi-disciplinary leadership training in New York City with a 10-month field placement in India, Pakistan, East Africa or West Africa where each Fellow provides on-the-ground management support to one of Acumen Fund’s investee companies on the front lines of tackling global poverty.

Acumen Fund is a global leader in venture philanthropy with extensive experience in Africa and Asia.

US Department of State Secretary Clinton called Acumen Fund one of the most innovative foundations “combining philanthropy and capitalism” in her January 6, 2011 remarks on development in the 21st Century and Forbes Magazine featured Acumen Fund in a cover article last December 2011.

Here’s my signed copy which I asked Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen’s founder, to sign during our final interview in Mumbai, India last January 2012.

I am so lucky that my co-founders and partners in the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, Inc. (aka Yellow Boat Project) have allowed me to participate in this training program and that I hope to learn more about global best practices in the nonprofit and social sectors.  And to apply these learnings when I get back after the program to make our organization better.

Acumen Fund’s vision is that one day every human being will have access to the critical goods and services they need – including affordable health, water, housing, energy, agricultural inputs and services – so that they can make decisions and choices for themselves and unleash their full human potential. This is where dignity starts – not just for the poor but for everyone on earth. 

And one of my personal reasons why I chose to help in the education sector as well is to be able to help children in the Philippines unlock and unleash their full potential because that is what our youth needs today – to learn about life, about history, about culture and the need to understand the world around them in order to succeed in life.

It’s important we give hope to these children because that is what will make them dream to help us build a better future.

The program will start this September and I will be flying to New York then to join my soon-to-be new friends – Mustapha, Abbas, Shahd, Michael, Natalie, Nicole, Mohammed, Christina and Junko as we embark on this transformational journey.

We would be sharing our experience and insights on Acumen Fund’s blog so please take note of the site now:

Again, I want to thank everyone who have been and are still part of our Yellow Boat Journey and hopefully you will continue to support us at the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation (and me as we try to take ourselves into the next level in our fight to end poverty).

Success without succession is a failure

I recently read the document that Acumen Fund released entitled “10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty,” and the one thing that really struck me to be very important was Lesson #4:

We won’t succeed in the long term without cultivating local leaders, local money, and strong local communities.

The biggest challenge that any organization faces is sustainability. And for me (esp. for the nonprofit world), what particularly drive sustainability are three things: leadership, resources, and community involvement. Leadership not only provides the direction but also the inspiration so that members and volunteers can deliver on goals, objectives and can raise enough funds and resources to get things done.

Leadership is also about reproduction of future leaders and this is where most organizations fail – for me, the real test of sustainability is when organizations are able to attract potential leaders who can take on future challenges and also when they are able to cultivate local leaders.

In our example, a bulk of our fundraising comes from Manila, which is miles away from Zamboanga and Masbate so it is very important that there are local teams in these areas as well who can raise enough resources on their own.

Lastly, when we were starting out at the last part of 2010 and early part of 2011, Anton Lim, our Chief Dreamer, introduced the concept of sweat equity in Layag-Layag wherein he made sure that the local community we are about to help and support will also do their share in the project.  He talked to our key partners and the community leaders on the ground that the boat (and any other future boats) needs to be maintained by the community as a whole.

We also made sure that they begin helping themselves by bringing in experts who can help them improve their livelihood, access to government agencies who can help them in their healthcare needs and their access to social services, and also volunteers from other organizations who can teach them about how to clean and take care of the environment and other basic stuff.

What this lesson didn’t mention though is the important presence of both passion and patience in an organization’s leaders and members.  Passion is the difference between interest and commitment. When you are interested in doing something, you do it only when it is convenient. When you are committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.

To end, I agree with known venture capital guru, Randy Komisar that “only passion will get you through the tough times. It’s the romance, not the finance that makes business worth pursuing.”

And so for the rest of 2012, I wish that you find your passion in life and remember sharing success creates more of it.