From fashion to designing for development: Q&A with Sophia Sunwoo

Sophia Sunwoo, CEO and co-founder of the Water Collective. Photo by: Kimberly Jauss / Water Collective

The Water Collective’s goal for 2017 is to provide water filters to 156 families living in Dabal, Uttar Pradesh, India. The main water source for families in Dabal is the Kali River, heavily contaminated with poisonous metals such as lead and chromium.

This is quite different from the nonprofit’s projects in Cameroon, where its work centered around building catchment systems in communities and rehabilitating water systems by adding new tap stands and fixing broken ones.

But that is the model Water Collective follows: no one-size-fits-all approach. The aid organization tailors its solutions to what they discover is needed in the community they’ve partnered with, which isn’t always about the lack of taps or water pumps.

“My co-founder, Josh [Braunstein], and I started Water Collective because we’re seeing that a lot of the water projects in the developing world wherever you went 30 percent to 50 percent of these water projects would be broken,” Sunwoo told Devex. “So it really started out from this question of why are these water projects broken and why are not many water organizations talking about this aspect of the water crisis?”

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It took both Sunwoo and Braunstein a few years of researching and revising before arriving with their current model, which ultimately ends with a Water Independence declaration — that moment when communities no longer rely on outside help to maintain their water systems. How long communities take to get to that point of self-sufficiency depends on a number of factors, such as the complexity of their water systems and ability to organize.

Here’s an excerpt from Devex’s conversation with the CEO and co-founder of the Water Collective, edited for clarity and length.

Your background was in design. How did you end up working in the water sector?

I did my undergraduate studies in design strategy, but prior to Water Collective, a couple years back, I had started a clothing company with a friend that became really successful. We ended up selling the company, and that is sort of the backstory as to why I wanted to go to design school. But when I was in design school I realized that I wanted to explore design as applies to solving social issues. So I actually spent a year doing my senior thesis on studying that specific field: How can we use design to help solve the world’s biggest problems?

How did you decide you want to focus on water?

My senior thesis was specifically focused on natural disasters. I was studying what do places like Haiti and other developing communities that have absolutely no resources do when there is a natural disaster. They don’t have ambulances. They don’t have immediate medical care, and maybe not the best infrastructure to protect them during a natural disaster such as a tornado or hurricane.

So I studied specifically that, and then when it came to water, I think that I was at a point where I graduated from design school and I really wanted to go into the NGO world, but it didn’t turn out the way I wanted to. I ended up working at a consulting job, [and then] I met my co-founder Josh, who has been in the water space since he was 15. He had been working on water projects in Kenya, Uganda, Southeast Asia, and he had heard from a colleague of mine at my old job that I’d been an entrepreneur and [that] I wanted to go into the social impact space.

So he had that information in his head, and when he and I started talking it was just a very natural conversation of him saying “oh I want to start an organization,” and I was like, “I would love to help,” and it evolved from there.

I think it was just a very serendipitous meeting of two people that are just very motivated, and when they said they want to do something they actually do it.

Was there anything in particular from design school that heavily influenced on your operating model at Water Collective?

So for me that’s kind of the same approach I had with the solutions for these social issues. When it came to water specifically, obviously there is this water crisis and people not having water, but this underlying problem of people getting water, but a year or two later they would lose that clean water because of poor design. It just feels to me that there’s so much opportunity for someone like me to come in and figure out how do we redesign this so that it’s better and more efficient and it serves the person at the receiving end better.

Sophia Sunwoo with co-founder Josh Braunstein. Photo by: Kimberly Jauss

How did you apply that approach in practice?

When we research why these water projects were breaking, our first assumption is it’s probably an engineering problem. But while we’re researching, we realize that it actually had very little to do with engineering. It had to do with the fact that a lot of these communities live in rural areas and therefore they’ve usually never seen or had to deal with keeping up with the maintenance of a water project.

So our team in Cameroon and India first assess if a community is in need of a new water system, or if they have a broken water system, how do we go about fixing that? Once we figure that out, throughout the whole process our water independence program will train the community to create these systems I was talking about. They are making sure the caretakers are checking up on the system every month, making sure there’s a treasurer and a secretary providing that system, teaching those concepts, and then going to the stage of being hands-on about it, because we’re realizing that we could do as many training sessions as we want, but people don’t retain information unless they practice it and do it themselves.

So up to two years after a water system is installed, our teams on the ground will actually act like in-person customer support where whenever the community has issues. For example, a water system is dispensing a low volume of water, our team will be in the field and troubleshoot with them, saying “where should we look first? OK there’s no problem with that catchment plate. Why don’t we walk the pipeline and see if there are any cuts into the pipeline or blockages in the pipe?” So they walk them through that whole thinking process, so that at some point they’ll actually be able to think for themselves and be able to troubleshoot with their fellow committee members.

But it’s funny because all of my [initial] ideas never turned out the way it should. So, for example, in the first year we had a completely different model. We weren’t focused on maintenance. But when we were gathering research and back from the field, we realized that our first concept in the first year didn’t make any sense according to what people needed on the ground. So we kept on revising our model to accommodate.

What was your first model and how come it didn’t pan out?

The first model was focused on not only providing clean water, but also economic empowerment.

We just felt like we were contributing a couple nickels and dimes here and there to different buckets, but we weren’t contributing enough to one big bucket that was making a huge impact.

— Sophia Sunwoo, CEO and co-founder of the Water Collective

In these rural communities we work with, a lot of their deterrence to development growth is the fact that they don’t have many resources when it comes to income-generating activities and that was also a blockage when it came to bringing a water system into the community — because they just didn’t have the financial assets to make that possible.

So we did a couple of workshops for the first years. For example, we would hold a piggery workshop with the Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Fishery explaining how does it work, how do you take care of the pigs so that they are able to be sold and things like that.

That was great, but it just got to the point where we were just doing too many things at once, and it was really not sustainable in the respect that we were doing so many different things that we weren’t good at one thing.

We just felt like we were contributing a couple nickels and dimes here and there to different buckets, but we weren’t contributing enough to one big bucket that was making a huge impact.

So we went back to the drawing board and really tried to focus on, “what is the strongest need when it comes to what our partner communities are saying that they need? How do we address that in the most efficient way possible?”

How many revisions did it take for you to figure out what communities need?

I would say that we knew in the back of our heads that maintenance was what we wanted to focus on, but we just didn’t know how.

So our second inclination after we decided to let go of the economic empowerment part was maintenance, but the revision process to rebuild that took about two years where not only did we gather research from the field, we also worked with an organization that focuses on design strategy on consumer research and we worked with them to figure out what will the actual program and modeling will look like for this water independence program that we’ll eventually be creating.

So it took a couple of years of not only working with expert consultants on how to even build something like this, but also gathering the research and also testing that to make sure that the program actually made sense and provided something useful for the communities we’re serving.

Any lesson from design school and your experience you think other nonprofits can learn from?

I think my best advice is listening to your users. I think the underlying principle with design is always making sure that when you design a solution, you don’t say, “oh, I already have the best solution. Now let’s figure out how to bring it to market.”

That’s not a good solution because you are really completely removing the user from providing their very useful insight on what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. What designers always think about is that they always start from the user first. For instance, with water, we’re asking: What does this person like and doesn’t like when it comes to water? What are their natural behaviors when it comes to collecting water? What do they even think about clean water and what are their opinions about dirty water? Why is it that, despite them knowing it’s dirty, they keep on drinking and using it?

Once you start from there you can really create a solution that’s useful for people and it really addresses their natural inclination when it comes to gathering water. And a really smart solution is one that understands the obstacles as to why people keep drinking dirty water and they create a solution that reverses that behavior.

So definitely the simplest, simplest advice is start from the user, talk to them, figure out why they do certain things and figure why they like or dislike certain things.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.