Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Clothing company’s sales fund clean water in Africa

During lunch and coffee breaks at Toyota's sprawling car plant in Cambridge, Aleks Poldma and Spencer Kelly talked about using their degrees in mechanical engineering to make a significant social impact and see the results of their work.

"Working in big industries you get swallowed up pretty fast, and it is very bureaucratic," Poldma said.

It was during a co-op placement at Toyota that the two University of Waterloo graduates thought about creating an online clothing company that does not sell products from sweat shops, and uses the revenue to support worthy projects.

"We decided to do something for ourselves, to see the impact we could make," Poldma said. That was the beginning of Hydrated World, described on the firm's website as "the apparel company with a mission to eliminate the water crisis."

The business, founded in October 2013, uses a portion of sales to build water filters in villages in South Sudan and elsewhere in East Africa. Poldma and Kelly contracted with suppliers, designers and manufacturers to produce a line of quality T-shirts and sweat shirts for men and women. The clothes are made in Toronto; sweat shops operating in Third World are not part of their supply chain.

Their Kitchener home doubles as a warehouse for the clothing. The young engineers fill the orders themselves. They calculate that each sale will provide 500 litres a year of clean drinking water for someone in East Africa for the next 25 years. As soon as they have enough revenue to build another bio-sand filter in East Africa, they do it.

They partnered with the Safe Water Project, which was founded in 2007 by Bruce Taylor, another UW engineering grad. Taylor leads an Elmira-based company called Enviro-Stewards Inc. Taylor liked what Poldma and Kelly were doing so much he hired them to work at Enviro-Stewards as engineers. Taylor also gives them one day a week to work on Hydrated World, which has become one of the biggest funders of the Safe Water Project.

The project shows villagers in South Sudan and elsewhere in East Africa, how to build bio-filters using concrete, sand and gravel. Each filter will provide clean drinking water for up to 30 years. Poldma and Kelly liked the Safe Water Project from the beginning because the project focuses on development rather than relief.

"They basically train the locals in technical skills on how to build these things called bio-filters," Kelly said. "But they also train them on basic business skills so that they can run these projects as sustainable businesses, and thus provide safe water to their communities for a long time."

Bio-sand filters are about one metre high. The columns are made of concrete, and are about 30.5 cm (12 inches) square. Inside are layers of sand and gravel. All of the materials can be sourced in or near the villages. "And the good bacteria in the water can thrive at the top where there is oxygen, so it forms this thing called a bio-layer," Kelly said.
When water is poured through the filter, harmful bacteria is caught in the bio-layer, Kelly said.

Poldma and Kelly promote Hydrated World and the Safe Water Project from their website, through social media and by reaching out to companies with policies on social responsibility. They say many companies buy T-shirts for employees, events, and as giveaways.

"So you could buy 100 T-shirts from someone who gets them from sweat shops in the Third World, or you can work with us to make a difference,' Poldma said. Hydrated World's T-shirts and sweats are designed to get people asking questions and talking about the Safe Water Project.

"This is how the word spreads, by people wearing our stuff and being proud of it," Poldma said


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