Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the USAID mission in Malawi plans to add its own funds for dispensers. The Malawi mission is already in its piloting stage. The story has been corrected.
A single plastic container, blue like the color of a recycling bin, sits on a conference table at the USAID headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
In sub-Saharan Africa, dispensers just like it have prevented thousands of children from dying each year of diarrheal disease caused by drinking dirty water.
“That’s it,” Jill Boezwinkle says, lifting the lid to show a smaller tank inside that dispenses an exact dosage of bacteria-killing chlorine with a twist of the valve.
“Simple,” she adds.
Simple, maybe. But by next year, the Dispensers for Safe Water project, of which the container is the star, should reach more than 5 million people in Uganda and Kenya, organizers said. The hope is that its use then will spread to other countries.
To get this far took complex teamwork by people across several sectors to rethink an old, ineffective solution and invent a better one.
Boezwinkle, 34, leads the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Development Innovation Ventures, the team responsible for helping launch the water-dispenser project. The team’s work can be described best as a mix between the brainstorming and energy of a start-up and the data focus of a science lab. It’s the federal government version of a venture-capital fund, this one seeking to help end extreme poverty.
DIV accepts funding proposals from anyone — nonprofit organizations, for-profit groups, academics — then awards grants to the most promising ideas, helps hone a business model and finally uses USAID’s network to scale up the project’s scope so that it reaches as many people as possible.
The program has awarded about 100 grants overall. Projects go through three stages: the idea stage, or proof of concept; effectiveness tests; and ultimately expansion. The dispenser project is at stage three. DIV can grant proposals for up to $15 million. So far, Boezwinkle’s team has invested $4 million in the water dispenser and will invest more if it continues to work.
The water project has led to Boezwinkle’s being named a finalist for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America National Security and International Affairs Medal.
The medals, known as Sammies, are awarded by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and are among most prestigious awards for the federal workforce. The winners will be announced at a September gala.
Before the dispenser, families depended mainly on women to go to the market to buy chlorine bottles to treat water. Evidence showed that just 5 percent to 10 percent used the bottles at home; they cost money and time.
Researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley worked with the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action to develop a simpler chlorine-distribution process, and the dispenser was the result.
The biggest breakthrough has been behavioral.
Now the new DIV-funded chlorine dispensers purify water for free from where it’s retrieved: wells and streams. In areas with dispensers, about five times as many people as before chlorinate their water, project organizers said.
“You’re doing science in the lab, but you’re really working with people,” said Alix Zwane, 39, the executive director of Evidence Action, the group charged with scaling up the dispensers initiative.
Boezwinkle said DIV, formed almost four years ago, is a pioneer in a broader change in the way the entire development sector, including USAID, does business. Conventionally, the aid sector approaches vendors and asks them to solve a specific problem, she said. DIV flips that. It engages those with the problems, listening for solutions from the ground up.
“We say, ‘We’re not going to tell you how to address it, or what we want, we just want to hear your ideas,’ ” she said. “What are the solutions that you who are the closest to the problems have? And we get really fascinating things.”
She gets excited discussing another project. Sanga Moses, a Ugandan man in his 30s, quit his accounting job in Kampala after he visited home and saw that his younger sister was skipping school regularly to collect firewood in their heavily deforested area. Moses invested his savings to find an alternative and created “briquettes,” compact disks made from leftover agricultural waste that burned cleaner and longer and were cheaper than charcoal.
“It’s so cool,” Boezwinkle said of the initiative. “I’m always surprised by the way people approach things.”
Moses wasn’t sure he’d qualify for a DIV grant but applied anyway. “We didn’t expect to go past the first round, but we got $100,000,” he said. “Without [DIV], we would have struggled.”
Boezwinkle started her career at USAID almost 10 years ago, after graduating with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan. A native of Grand Haven, Mich., she said she is profoundly aware of the economic hardships her state faces. A declining auto industry affected many in her family, she said.
“I think it’s nice to have that grounding,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re in D.C., it’s easy to be in that D.C. bubble. Being able to have the perspective that the nation and my home state are going through tough times, it’s really, really important to make sure that we are using taxpayer dollars very responsibly.”
Her diverse team of 12 includes new federal employees fresh from experiences with venture capital, think tanks and nonprofit organizations. It’s largely a young group with a few longtime USAID staffers like herself.
They’re close. Boezwinkle’s desk sits along what the team calls “Innovation Alley.” Each desk has its own whiteboard, and someone drew stick-figure family portraits on each. Boezwinkle’s has her, her husband and their daughter, now 11 / 2 years old. All the babies born to staff members, or the “DIV-lets,” as they are known, have matching onesies.
Team members went behind their boss’s back to nominate her for the Heyman medal.
“I think to be an entrepreneur within a big bureaucracy, at the end of the day, means you can cut through a lot of tape with grace,” DIV member Brittney Bailey, 29, said in describing Boezwinkle.
Boezwinkle wanted the grant for the dispensers to be catalytic but eventually sustained through funding elsewhere. That meant engaging the USAID offices and the governments of Uganda and Kenya. The USAID mission in Malawi has begun piloting the dispensers.
Former manager Ricardo Michel, 45, said Boezwinkle’s strength is her ability to marry DIV creativity with USAID’s existing networks.
“You can put career technocrats or bureaucrats in a room with newly minted entrepreneur start-up types,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to walk away with something that’s going to live beyond this. [Jill is] able to bring in new ideas and new stakeholders, but more importantly allow them to work in the mechanisms that the rest of the agency understands.”
Challenges remain, however. The volume of proposals is increasing, and the team is trying to speed up the evaluation process and improve its selection skills.
“Jill makes sure we’re not resting on our laurels, but she also makes us take ownership so we’re constantly improving,” said Kristen Gendron, 26, another DIV staffer.
Gendron describes, for example, a competition that Boezwinkle organized in which team members, divided into small groups, had to come up with ways to streamline the process.
The prize? A game of laser tag.
The profiles of Washington area federal workers who are finalists for the 2014 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals will run weekly through September.