SPOUTS: A tenacious duo providing clean drinking water to Ugandans

Following a visit to Uganda in 2010, Kathy Ku went back to Harvard University with one idea in mind: to provide clean drinking water to Ugandans.

by Julia Migné

SPOUTS uganda clean water
SPOUTS distributed around 14,000 ceramic filters in two years. Photo Courtesy of Kathy Ku

One third of the Ugandan population lack access to clean water, representing a total of more than 10 million people. From water borne illnesses like diarrhea to malnutrition, this scarcity of clean drinkable water also prevents recovery from diseases like pneumonia.

Kathy Ku, an American student from Harvard University, witnessed the situation first hand when she travelled to Uganda in 2010. Getting sick from drinking water, she went back to the US with one idea in mind: to find a way to provide clean drinkable water to Ugandans. Convincing John Kye, an Economics student, to join the adventure, the tenacious duo went on to designing a ceramic filter that could be made from materials present in Uganda. SPOUTS was born.

Five years later, SPOUTS has now grown and employs more than 40 staff members. The enterprise distributed around 14,000 ceramic filters, called Purifaayas, in two years and installed some in 32 schools providing access to safe water to over 6,000 students. SPOUTS also distributed Purifaayas to over 300 households, clinics and schools families in refugee settlements in both Uganda and South Sudan.

Kathy Ku and John Kye talk to INKLINE about how SPOUTS all started and the challenges they faced along the way.

INKLINE: Tell us a bit more about how you met and started SPOUTS? 

Kathy Ku: I travelled to Uganda in 2010. I was teaching at an all girls academy and living with a host family and realised that this lack of clean drinkable water was a huge problem. I was getting sick all the time, my host family was getting sick all the time and so I went back to school and decided that I wanted to work on a design project to see if we could come up with a better solution to provide clean drinkable water access across the region. That’s when John and I got together and decided that we wanted to manufacture water filters in Uganda and start a social enterprise.

I: How did you manage to launch a social enterprise while still both being students?

K: This was like a students organisation for a little bit and then in December 2011, John and I travelled to Uganda for the first time together to do an assessment trip. I think it was manageable back then and at a certain point we realised we needed to take time off and do this full time if we wanted to do it. In the latter half of 2012, I took a year off and spent eight months in Uganda and John took a semester off following that.

John Kye: One more detail I’d like to add is that I can almost still remember the first time I saw the business plan that Kathy had previously worked on whilst she was taking the design course back in Harvard. The shock or the hit that I took of the business plan was just remarkable. It was enticing enough for me to just put aside some of my other activities and really try to focus all my energy outside the classrooms into developing this idea.

I: How did you build a network in Uganda while being American and Korean yourselves?

K: Honestly, time! We needed to spend the time in Uganda to get the network really gone.

J: Although I think we’ve done a fantastic job at attracting resources and creating network on our own, especially in the early history of SPOUTS, we’ve got some really lucky cases as well. When I really decided to join SPOUTS and really go along with this project. I realised that the dorm that I was living in was headed by a headmaster, a professor at Harvard, that had been running an organisation in Uganda for 25 years previously. She became a great mentor to us, introduced us to a bunch of things we needed to understand to run an organisation in Uganda.

When we actually came out, we found great local partners on the ground, as Kathy said, with time. We tapped into not only the American network but also Korean network as well. We really try to maximise our chances given all the opportunities.

I: Can you take us through the process of producing a filter from beginning to end?

K: You take raw materials of clay, sawdust, and broken filters and you grind them up into small pieces. Then you just add water, mix it, press it in a hydraulic press to create the pot shape that people associate with the filter, and then you fire it. When you fire it, it leaves behind microscopic pores where the sawdust used to be, and you end up with this porous clay pot that allows the clean water to go through but retains the dirty bacteria on top.

In theory, the production process is quite simple. You just take raw materials, mix it, press it, dry it, fire it but in practice, it ends up being a little bit more complicated because you need to consider the size of the pores and a lot conditions that you really don’t have a lot of control over. 

Also working with schools and refugee centre, the enterprise is having a real impact on Ugandans’ lives. Photo Courtesy of Kathy Ku

I: How did you develop the process of making these filters?

K: I think it took a good two years for us to get a good feel for the production process! Originally, John and I and another Ugandan employee hand-make ten filters a day but none of them passed the production testing stages cause we wouldn’t get the right mixture so it would crack or the filters wouldn’t have the pore size that we wanted so it took a lot of trial and error to get it to work.

J: And in addition to the trial and error process and iterations that we went through on the ground, there are also networks of ceramic filter manufacturers around the globe and organisations like Potter for Peace. They put out quite good research materials on how to get the mixture right, and how to figure out the best way to produce the filters with maximum consistency. We always had an eye open to some of the new research coming out and I think we did a fair amount of research in addition of getting the data ourselves from the ground.

I: What was your biggest challenge going through this process?

K: I feel that if you take a timeline of where we’ve been, at every given point, there were at least a dozen challenges that we were facing! I think it is the idea that you have to keep moving all the time because the challenges keep on coming so just waking up everyday and getting ready to face it all over again I think is a challenge.

John Kye, SPOUTS co-founder. Photo Courtesy Kathy Ku

J: There has been always many, many technical challenges that we faced and had to deal with. For me personally, I think that being an entrepreneur in itself can be pretty challenging and there are so many moments when you don’t have the greatest faith in the work you do because you are facing challenges left and right, up and down, in the middle and in the centre!

At the end of the day, it really depends on your personal characteristics and how resilient and tenacious you can be in face of challenges hitting your face one after another. Being able to manage a consistent level of energy to always go through the challenges has been I think one of the biggest challenges that I learnt to deal with a little better.

I: Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement with schools and refugee centres?

J: We’ve managed to distribute around 14,000 filters for the past two years – ever since our first sale in 2015 – and about 40% of the filters have gone to what we call an AID market. It’s a market composed of beneficiaries and users who often get our filters for free or at a highly subsidised rate by the customers we deal with usually in form of NGOs or governments or sometimes by us.

It’s a really tricky balance to hit between pursuing a profit and maximising your impact and the way we’ve tried to approach pursuing both values is by introducing segmentation in the way we evaluate our market, the Uganda market. Only about 50% of Ugandans have any treatment for their drinking water and the bottom 50% don’t treat their water to drink primarily because they don’t have the money to do so. The most popular method of water treatment in Uganda is boiling.

SPOUTS new factory. Photo Courtesy of Kathy Ku

It’s used by more than 17 million Ugandans, 45% of the population, but a little bit more than 20 million people don’t have the capacity to even boil their water  because they cant afford to buy charcoal or to get firewood and these are the people we really wanted to reach out through these aid projects.

K: We either fundraise for the filters or we get grants or other people coming in and they say they want to work with us and we take these filters and we install them in refugee camps, schools, health centres, and other public spaces. I think recently we made a decent headway in creating impact in the spaces where we feel our filters are doing a lot of good.

I: What would your advice be to the next generation of social entrepreneurs?

K: For anyone who wants to have a profit driven company but also have a positive impact in the world, I think it’s really important to carve out how that market is going to look like and what your role in that space is going to be! 

J: If I were to share one piece of advice that has resonated within myself for the past few years is that people say the career you want to pursue is going to belong to an overlap between what you are really good at and what you really love. Through my years with SPOUTS, the way I look at the diagram is by just adding another layer: creating a positive impact.

I don’t think the technical definition of social entrepreneur matters as much as really identifying what you want to do, what you’re really good at and whether this thing is going to create a positive impact.

You are going to have a great time pursuing it, you are going to excel at your job and you doing your job is what creates positive impact. I don’t think the technical definition of social entrepreneur matters as much as really identifying what you want to do, what you’re really good at and whether this thing is going to create a positive impact. If you can identify the overlap between these three criteria I think you have found  your social business idea.

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