7 Small Ways to Solve Big Problems
Kelsey Langdale is tackling the global water crisis, one backpack at a time.
Today, one billion people don’t have access to safe water. It’s a massive, mind-boggling global problem, and one that Kelsey Langdale was exposed to first-hand on a post-earthquake relief trip to Haiti in 2010. “When you’re in a community that’s just been hit with disaster, you think about the true necessities,” she says. “It starts with water.” Kelsey, along with a group of people from her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, started by digging a well. As is common in most water-insecure communities around the globe, women and children exclusively would come to the well to gather water and carry it back to their towns. “There’s a deeply ingrained stigma around carrying water—it’s a ‘woman's job,’” explains Kelsey. The women carried the water in buckets, which often weighed 40-50 pounds.
Beyond the potential long-term effects of carrying these heavy buckets every day, for hours on end, there was also the problem of where the buckets came from. “Two of the guys who were on the relief trip with us run one of the largest plastic packaging manufacturers in the world, called Grief. They realized that they had produced some of these buckets,” she recalls. “They flipped them over to see what they used to hold, and found that many were once used to carry gasoline, motor oil and pesticides, among other things.” Around the world, it’s not uncommon for the women carrying the water to lack a safe, non-toxic vessel to transport it in. Kelsey and Grief CEO David Fischer developed the PackH2O, a water carrier that’s both clean and comfortable to carry.
Since introducing the pack to communities in Haiti in 2012, they’ve brought PackH2O to 35 countries in Latin America and Africa, with 200,000 packs in the hands of the women and children who so desperately needed them. Kelsey and her team estimate that each pack creates a ripple effect that serves about five people. (To contribute, go to PackH2O’s site, where Kelsey and her team are launching several awesome initiatives in celebration of World Water Month.) What strikes us most about Kelsey is the fearless way in which the 26-year-old faces such an incalculably huge problem. She shared her stories on tackling the issue from the ground up, finding like-minded allies and taking her solution global.
1. Identify the top-level goals
This is a massive problem, but we broke it down into three main goals—prevent waterborne illness, take the daily pressure of gathering water off of women and give the communities a means to provide for themselves. We came up with one solution, the pack, that checked all of those boxes. It helps women carry water without contaminating it and without putting so much pressure on their bodies. We’re also setting up manufacturing facilities in the communities so that the people living there can produce and sell the packs, which helps the areas become more economically independent.
2. Focus on what you can control
Most organizations are focusing on getting access to clean water closer to home. But there’s upwards of a billion people in need of this access—and sufficient "access to clean water" can still mean the well is a few miles away. It will be decades—maybe longer—before we have have clean running water in everyone’s homes. However, the problem that we can solve in the near future is how water is transported, and that’s the one we’ve chosen to focus on.
3. Get on the ground
We designed several different iterations of the pack and brought them to Haiti. We gave them to women there, and asked them to use them and give us their feedback. We’ve handed out a lot of free packs over the years just to see how they worked. It was a completely new product, and we had to create the demand for it in the market—people were so used to the very flawed, dangerous system of transporting water that they knew. If we had just dropped off our product and left, there’s no way it would have worked. We had to teach the women to use it and clean it, and educate them about the benefits of it.
4. Ask for feedback
When we first introduced the pack to communities in Haiti, we asked the women using it for their feedback. For example, they asked us to make the straps thicker to decrease the pressure on their shoulders, and to make the spout wider to improve the water flow. We spent a year and a half creating new versions of the pack and testing them in Haiti, which has led us to a really effective solution.
5. Partner up
In order to bring the pack to new communities, we work with other organizations that have an established presence on the ground. When the earthquake hit Haiti, the people there saw headlines about all the money going into their country, but they personally didn’t see a dime. It was tough to gain their trust. Organizations like Partners in Health, Habitat For Humanity, Special Olympics and Operation Blessing had already been on the ground before the earthquake, and they helped us bring the pack into the communities. They also spread the word about the packs to the many other small organizations they work with.
6. Find mutual benefits
When it comes to getting partners, find a two-way street, where you’re helping each other solve whatever problem it is you’re focusing on. Each organization we work with has its own mission, and our mission fits well with theirs. You can't solve any problem in the developing world without first providing safe water. You can’t provide health care without safe water. You can’t build a clean water supply without a safe way for people to transport it. You can’t provide education if kids don’t show up to school because of waterborne illness or because they’re off carrying water (it often takes hours).
7. Do your due diligence
When we first approached huge disaster relief organizations like UNICEF and Red Cross, they told us the only way we’d get our solution off the ground was with solid research to back it up. Fast forward three years, and we’re starting to get a lot of the data in and it’s all positive. 98% of people who are introduced to the pack accept it, and percentages of waterborne illnesses have gone down in many of the communities. It’s really amazing to see, and having those numbers gives us the ability to seek funding from bigger organizations and grow this into a global solution.
8. Stay motivated
It’s hard at times. It's been four years, and when I start to feel my passion dwindle, I check back into where it all started. For me, that means being more hands-on (like I was in the beginning), working with kids locally to raise awareness, traveling to visit partners and creating real connections with people we have helped with the backpack.
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Image courtesy of PackH20