Women Entrepreneurs Embrace Failure to Create Lasting Change

More people in Africa have access to a cell phone than to a water faucet or a toilet. Learn how Well Beyond's Co-Founders Sarah Evans and Kathryn Bergmann leveraged East Africa's abundance of mobile technologies to address its scarcity of safe water.

By Lisa Wirthman, Contributor

In remote rural communities across East Africa, the key to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases or viruses isn’t just about how long you wash your hands, says Well Beyond co-founder and COO Kathryn Bergmann. It’s about accessing clean water and actually making the soap.

More people in Africa have access to a cell phone than to a water faucet or a toilet. While this fact is disheartening, Bergmann and Well Beyond Co-Founder and CEO Sarah Evans see an opportunity to leverage the continent’s abundance of mobile technologies to address its scarcity of safe water.

Across the globe, more than a billion people lack access to safe water and 6,000 children die every day of water-related illnesses. Well Beyond, a consulting company working to improve the global WASH (Water and Sanitation and Hygiene) sector through technology, strives to improve this troubling figure.

According to the World Health Organization, preventative measures like hand-washing are the most powerful tools for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other communicable diseases or viruses. But with limited travel by the Well Beyond team and local nonprofits during the pandemic, it has been a challenge to share this critical health information with remote rural communities, Evans says.

That’s where the wide adoption of mobile phones throughout Africa becomes a key asset in the fight against the coronavirus, she continues. The co-founders are leveraging their expertise in implementing sustainable clean water systems throughout East Africa to provide a free global app for interactive WASH training.

“We are small and we are agile,” says Evans. “We are not averse to obstacles, we are not afraid of change, and we are really passionate about being able to help address this problem.”

Evans and Bergmann have plenty of experience in tackling difficult challenges—and in pivoting to meet communities’ emerging needs. Their first venture was Well Aware, a nonprofit launched in 2006 by Evans that funds and implements sustainable clean water systems in East Africa.

More than a decade later, the co-founders’ new mobile phone app bridges a critical gap between public health recommendations for preventing COVID-19 and the actual resources that are available for clean water and sanitation in remote rural areas, says Bergmann. With 93 percent of residents in 35 African countries having access to cell phone service, the app can widely disseminate sanitation training. It also offers how-to guides for making soap, tippy taps (hand-washing stations), and cloth face masks.

“A lot of places don’t have access to soap, and they don’t have a running faucet, so we’re showing them how to use everyday tools that they do have to create a tippy tap or make their own liquid soap.” If communities don’t have soap, Bergmann’s team shows them how to use commonly found charcoal to disinfect things, she explains.

Well Beyond is also customizing the WASH tool for different regions to ensure that the information it offers aligns with local government recommendations. The app provides real-time chat support and enables Well Beyond’s nonprofit partners to collect data to measure the tool’s impact in the communities they serve.

Eventually, the WASH app will include diagnostic and maintenance information to help remote rural communities repair broken water wells and ensure continued access to clean water systems where they are available. The co-founders are also working to make the app’s remote chat features accessible via the SMS text messaging systems for those without smartphones.

Addressing Failure

Evans and Bergmann have plenty of experience in tackling difficult challenges—and in pivoting to meet communities’ emerging needs.

To help remote rural communities become self-sustaining, their first startup, Well Aware, assembled a technical team of engineers and hydrogeologists to make the nonprofit’s sustainable well projects both long-lasting and fail-safe.

Overall, some 60 percent of water projects in Africa fail, most often during the first year, Evans says. But Well Aware commits to 100 percent success for its sustainable water projects across East Africa, she continues.

After several years at Well Aware, Evans and Bergmann decided that they could make a bigger impact on clean water access by making all water systems more reliable—not just their own. “We realized that if we wanted to go bigger and help more people, we needed to figure out how we could help prevent failures across the entire sector,” Evans says.

“We realized that if we wanted to go bigger and help more people, we needed to figure out how we could help prevent failures across the entire sector.”

—Sarah Evans, Co-Founder and CEO of Well Beyond

With an eye on the rapid growth of mobile technology and internet connectivity in the region, the co-founders launched Well Beyond in 2016 to address the sector-wide failure rate. Well Beyond not only fixes and rehabilitates broken water systems, it also teaches local communities how to do the repairs themselves. The Well Beyond app works offline to provide diagnostic, maintenance, and repair instructions for wells.

When a water system breaks down, it is most often due to an issue that can easily be repaired with the right knowledge, Evans says. For example, a disconnected float switch, which regulates the water pump, requires no tools to fix. The diagnostic feature of the app will walk community members through a simple decision tree customized for their specific water system. The app will also provide images and videos to illustrate problems and inform repairs.

“The more a water system breaks and the longer it is down, the less likely it is to ever be revived again,” says Evans. “Instead of trying to direct more resources into the water sector to build new projects, we thought we could redirect the resources that are already there to create projects that last.”

The co-founders were in the midst of creating their diagnostic and maintenance smartphone app when the pandemic hit in March. The co-founders pivoted once more after realizing they could widely disseminate hygiene and sanitation training through the new app to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“We were not planning on deploying the tool in this way,” says Evans. “But when COVID hit and we had to quickly regroup, we realized that what these communities need the most is sanitation and hygiene training.”

Well Beyond launched the new WASH app in June in three countries: Kenya, Ethiopia, and Rajasthan, India, and will add more regions and countries in the coming months, says Evans. The app will include the maintenance and diagnostic features in a future release.

Encouraging Women in STEM

Evans and Bergmann share their lessons learned with other female founders in the field, including through participation in the Dell Women’s Entrepreneurs’ Network (DWEN).

“It has been a great resource to hear other perspectives and to see what’s happening in the field,” says Evans. “It makes me feel braver knowing that there are other women who are forging paths that are specifically in male-dominated industries.”

DWEN was also a helpful resource when the pandemic hit by enabling members to share resources and provide support. “Knowing that you’re not in this alone is very helpful,” says Bergmann, who left a high-level corporate position to work on Well Beyond. “Continue to follow your dreams and just know that you’re not limited by other people’s perceptions and what they say you can and can’t do.”

Evans quit her job as a lawyer to follow her dream, became a single mom a couple of years after founding Well Aware, and moved in with her parents until she could afford to give herself a paycheck.

“That was a humbling experience, to say the least, but it solidified my direction in life,” she says. Evan’s daughter Violet, 8, is now an honorary vice president in the company as well as a future coder: She found a bug while testing out the ease of use of the first iteration of the app.

Evans and Bergmann also want to train local women, who walk for miles each day to collect water for their families, to use the forthcoming diagnostic and maintenance tool.

“The women are the main users of the water system and gaining that knowledge can potentially give them more power,” says Evans. “Clean water always impacts women and children the most.”