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Well Aware

Single mom came up with ‘secret sauce’ to deal with problem that plagues hundreds of thousands

By Pieter Colpaert on November 18, 2016

It’s a little-known fact that as many as 60 percent of the water wells in Africa– many of them built by well-intentioned non-profit organizations — simply don’t function. Some 40 percent of them even stopped working after just one year.

One woman in Austin, Texas, set out to change this. Sarah Evans is the founder and executive director of Well Aware, a non-profit which funds and implements sustainable clean water solutions in impoverished African countries. On Tuesday, she was named Toyota’s latest Mother of Invention at the Women in the World San Antonio Salon and she spoke during a panel led by Darlene Dorsey, a reporter for News4/Fox29 in San Antonio.

Her company, she explained, figured out a “secret sauce” to deal with this problem. A study on broken water systems in East Africa revealed two main issues — one was technical oversight, and the other was a lack of community partnership: respect, involvement, training and education. “Knowing how water systems don’t work, we’ve designed a model to approach this work so it does last and is sustainable,” she explained to the live audience at the event. “We work in high-yielding water systems that affect entire communities and it starts at the very beginning when we first enter a community. It starts with partnerships, respect and lots of questions.”

Amy Costello, Founder and Managing Editor of Tiny Spark, an independent nonprofit news program, agreed that community partnership was key to any successful non-profit. “One of the most important questions to ask is: Does the community want this? Did they ask for it? Or is this a solution in search of a problem?” she said, praising Evans for her humility and willingness to ask questions, an essential part of Well Aware’s success.

Evans, a single mother, said she stumbled on her mission almost accidentally, spending several years working for free and eventually ditching her job as a corporate lawyer to figure out how to do the work the right way. “I sold a house, I sold a car,” she explained. “But then I had my beautiful daughter Violet, and needed to move back in with my parents, so I could keep doing this work and make sure she was getting all the love, nurture and support she needed.”

But Evans’s sacrifices have paid off. Since 2010, her company has completed more than 30 durable water systems, serving about 120,000 people in total. She will now be able to continue her work thanks to Toyota’s Driving Solutions grant of $50,000.

“There are things like solar power, new kinds of pumps which are really changing the way our work is done,” Evans said. “I think that in the years going forward this work will become more cost-effective, and we will be able to do exponentially more work. We have this great project-model, and we just want to keep going.” Watch the full video of the panel with Evans at the top of this page.

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