LifeStraw in Kenya: What Can Your Gear Do For The World?

Lifestraw
Tara Lundy, on a boat on Lake Victoria, prepping to visit the Maduwa Primary School.

Photo by: Lauren Steele

Two of the most badass women in the outdoor industry seek sustainability and health for all.

“We often times get caught up in the idea of ‘what can my gear do for me?’” Tara Lundy, Head of Brand at LifeStraw, says. She pauses before adding the punch line: “But what about what your gear can do for the world?”

It’s not a righteous call for savior behavior in developing countries, but it is a reminder that innovative challengers like Lundy and retail companies with some form of social enterprise built-in are the linchpins of well-made, reliable gear and—more importantly—a sustainable future.

Kenya Map

I’m in Kakamega, Kenya, bouncing along a red dirt road with speed bumps the size of termite mounds jolting us every fifty yards or so in the backseat of a Toyota HiLux sitting alongside Lundy’s colleagues: Alison Hill, the Managing Director of LifeStraw; and Mikkel Vestergaard, the Owner and Chief Executive Officer of LifeStraw’s parent company—Vestergaard.

We’ve just come from our third primary school visit of the day—spending a few hours at each school to install LifeStraw Community safe water systems and give presentations on hygiene and technical use training for the systems; which will be in place for five years or more at each school. It’s the modus operandi of LifeStraw’s annual Give Back campaign in Western Kenya; which has been in place for six years now. I’ve learned a few practical Swahili sayings to get myself by with groups of hundreds of excitable school kids and a lot about what can happen when gear companies that have the ability to fill gaps in the market—in this case, ensuring that all drinking water is safe, regardless of source of use—and use their technology to solve global problems as well.

Maduwa Primary School
Assembly at the Maduwa Primary School.

Photo by: Lauren Steele

In the span of two weeks, a team of more than 100 LifeStraw employees and volunteers visited 237 schools here in Kakamega County and installed 1,522 Community filters that provided safe and clean drinking water to 158,588 kids. Those are impressive numbers on their own; but they become that much more impressive when you contextualize them with LifeStraw’s commitment to Kakamega. Since 2013, this program has ensured that more than 3.3 million Kenyan children in this nook of the world don’t have to worry daily about cholera, typhoid, cryptosporidium, rotavirus, and diarrhea—you know, the types of waterborne illnesses that a seasoned backpacker or traveler carrying a LifeStraw might worry about a few days out of the year.

“We believe in going deep instead of going wide,” Lundy says. “We don’t just drop a product off. We maintain our presence—we employ 40 local Kenyans full-time, we replace spare parts on Community filters, and we check in with all the schools we install at. You have to stay committed—that’s were you get sustainability.”

It’s that sentiment which brought Lundy and Hill together in Kakamega for the first time nearly a decade ago. Both women have backgrounds in global health care and first found themselves in Eastern Africa during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Lundy worked in Kenya, helping to establish a testing and treatment program that incentivized Kenyans to get tested and begin treatment for HIV/AIDS with the gifting of a Vestergaard PermaNet (a mosquito net that kills insects on contact), sanitation products, and a LifeStraw Family unit to take home. That transformed into the permanent Emusanda Health Clinic and Comprehensive Care Centre Satellite, as well as the annual Give Back Campaign. Meanwhile, Hill cut her teeth as an HIV/AIDS clinic director in Zambia 19 years ago.

“It was overwhelming work from 6am to 10pm every day—I would start every morning trying to figure out how to fit six bodies into three mortuary refrigerators so they could be stored properly before being buried,” she recalls as we continue bumping along that same dirt road. “And I knew that I was meant to be out in the field doing work that improved people’s health and quality of life, but it wasn’t until I joined Vestergaard and began directing LifeStraw that I realized I could make a bigger difference for the world through a company rather than a clinic.”

So Hill dived in. She took Vestergaard’s authority as a public health corporation and used it to turn LifeStraw into an outdoor retail company that makes a difference. “Once I convinced Mikkel [Vestergaard] that going into retail was a good idea, I was able to really run and learn and shape our product and mission—I feel like I really found what I was meant to do,” she says.

Lifestraw System
Violet Nginjiri and Emily Myer prep for the first primary school LifeStraw Community assembly of the day.

Photo by: Lauren Steele

Hill designed the Give Back program to marry retail sales and global health initiatives in a way that has canonized Lundy’s description of sustainable depth. It works like this: for every sale of a LifeStraw product, a portion of the sale goes directly toward the installation of a 50-liter Community water system in Kenya. “One product, one child, one year of clean water,” is the campaign tagline—and it sums up the initiative’s promise well.

And while Lundy and Hill make it look easy to jump the lines between outdoor retail markets and global health work to create gear that improves the lives of everyone from hikers to farming families in Cambodia, not everything is always as it appears.

A few years ago at Outdoor Retailer, the infamous industry trade show where hundreds of brands debut technology and gear, a male industry executive approached Lundy and Hill at the LifeStraw booth. “He looked at us and said, ‘Do you know what time the guys will be back—I have a few questions and want to schedule a meeting with the execs here,’” Hill recalls. “I told him, ‘What’s your question?—I’m sure we could help you.’ But he just shook his head no and said he’d ‘rather wait until the guys got back.’ I’m sure you can imagine how it felt to walk into the meeting that he scheduled later and watch his face when he realized Tara is the Head of Brand and I’m the Managing Director of the company.”

But industry indiscretions aside, both Lundy and Hill keep their focus pointed directly at continuing to make great gear and a big difference in lives across the world, one product and one million people at a time.

And the people who make up those millions aren’t just in developing countries—they’re in the U.S., too. The next step for the team is launching their newest addition to the product line—the LifeStraw Home Advanced Glass Water Filter Pitcher. The pitcher is able to filter lead, mercury, and other heavy metals; chemicals; bacteria; parasites; and microplastics—which are becoming an increasing problem as single-use plastics continue to find ways into our water systems.

“What people don’t think about is that it doesn’t take a natural disaster or a lack of a water systems to compromise the safety of your drinking water,” Hill says. “You hear about Flint and microplastics, and pesticides getting into water sources and water in our backyard becomes unsafe to drink. We want to solve that problem in a really simple, beautiful way no matter if you’re living in Flint, Michigan or you’re in a condo in California.” It’s inclusive products like LifeStraw Community and the Home Pitcher, innovative technology, and a strong foundation built on service to bettering global health that has allowed LifeStraw to uniquely bridge the gap between the selling awesome gear and changing people’s lives.

Back at the Golf Hotel in Kakamega—our home base for the remainder of the Give Back Campaign—I take off my dusty sandals and fall down onto my PermaNet-covered bed. I’m absolutely wiped from a combo of jet lag and spending the day dancing and singing song about hand washing for primary school kids. The sun hasn’t set yet, but I convince myself it’s okay to “rest my eyes” before dinner. But just as I’m getting ready to doze off, I hear Hill and Lundy’s distinct laughs. I look over my balcony to see the pair, along with Violet Ngunjiri—the Global Programs Manager at LifeStraw—on the patio below. In that moment witnessing these three women doing good, it’s easy to see why the LifeStraw Give Back campaign—and LifeStraw’s product lineup, for that matter—has become what it is.

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