Quench: development lessons in a startup

International development projects have long been subject to critiques that they are unsustainable, inattentive to local needs and overly costly. But young self-starters continue to see value in bringing their ideas, resources, and skills to countries that lack necessary infrastructure, such as potable water systems. The task for these optimists is to balance their desires to help with an awareness of the complexities and potentially detrimental effects of development.
Ashley Milton, a master’s student in Public Administration at American University, founded Quench in February 2010 to address unmet basic needs, such as water access. After nearly a year of research and planning, she organized a group of ten undergraduate students to travel to Africa with her to update a nonfunctional water system in a northern Senegalese village. (Disclosure: I worked alongside Ashley Milton and Ousmane Pame, the mayor of this village, in a research program in 2010.)

Rachel Signer: What inspired or motivated you to start Quench? How did you decide to begin this water project in Senegal?
Ashley Milton: I founded Quench after traveling to Senegal to study the environmental components of health care. It seemed more liked ‘voluntourism’ than anything. We came and left, and we didn’t do anything. I also wanted people from my undergrad institution, [the historically black university] Florida A & M, to have the chance to go abroad. Every time I’ve been abroad it’s been mostly white people, and I thought it would be great to get other African-Americans and other minorities involved in study abroad.

What led you to learn that water infrastructure was a need in Senegal?
In Senegal I saw that trash was a serious problem and I started working on that. But to address the trash problem would require government structures to get involved. So I started looking at water issues.

And then you found out about this village in northern Senegal?
I got in contact with Ousmane Pame, a professor at the University of Dakar, who is also the mayor of the ecovillage I did my project in, Guede Chantier. Ousmane said that there were communities in his ecovillage that didn’t have access to clean water.

What’s an ecovillage?
An ecovillage is a community that is developing but they do so with respect for the environment, and the biodiversity they live in, and try to keep it sustainable. For example, if it’s a really dry zone, they use that environment as an advantage to become more productive.

Speaking of sustainability, how did you take into account the previous failures of development projects, particularly concerning water systems, in Africa and elsewhere?
I’m mostly against top-down aid. When I was doing research, I stumbled across this project called Play Pumps, which made merry-go-rounds for children to ride on and pump water at the same time. But it wasn’t sustainable: it exported lots of materials, the community didn’t own it and they couldn’t repair it, and after a few weeks the children got tired of it.

So how did you take steps to make sure your project wouldn’t have the same issues?
Guede Chantier has a water management committee based in their community. The committee basically told me what they needed and what the community’s needs were. They had a plan, and we came with the funding to help them build it.

Did you also get Senegalese students or engineers involved in the project, along with the ten students you brought with you to implement this project?
A few of my Senegalese colleagues did join us there and they worked with the community. The community itself also worked with us. We all dug into the ground together for two weeks.

How did you raise the funds?
We held events, selling art from Senegal, which intended to redefine people’s perceptions of Africa. We did things called ‘Fill the Bucket’ where students passed out sheets with ‘water facts’ around campus while asking for money for water. We also had a $10,000 grant from Proctor and Gamble, and the student association at Florida A & M gave us $10,000.

What were some challenges or surprises you encountered during the project?
The district of Diery, in Guede, was really in need of water, but we ended up not doing our project there. But there was a conflict between Diery and another village that was claiming it to be part of them. The conflict was almost to the point of violence, and this prevented us from working there. So we did our pipes in Fresby instead, but Diery was where they most needed the project.

Also, there were cultural barriers in Senegal. For example, me being a woman and controlling the funding created some rifts in a male-dominated society where women are not normally managing projects.

Do you think there is a risk of projects like yours creating dependency on foreign NGOs?
I feel that question is only relevant when the good is not something that is imperative for life. When it comes to something like water, you can say that the state should be working on it, but if they’re not going to act, or not in a timely manner, people need water to survive.

You mentioned that women were walking to get the water. Now that this water system is installed, will women be able to work less?
It’s hard to know. People think that when you do something in a community, change happens immediately. Now maybe some parents will send their daughters to school since they are no longer needed to fetch water. But there are still cultural barriers to that because in Senegalese society it is seen as more important to educate men.

What’s next for Quench?
I’m planning to do a Quench project in Haiti in December.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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