Public Health + Mario + Yale

December 17, 2009

Social marketing meets public health in the Yale dining halls. I’m really impressed by this initiative:

By adding Mario noises to a hand sanitizer station, the Yale Entrepreneurial Society increased the use of machine sevenfold.

Cool stuff:


Browse for a Cause

December 16, 2009

While Finals Week has prevented me from making any substantial post, I did find something that I wanted to quickly share.  Browse for a Cause is a Firefox add-on that automatically donates a percentage of any online purchase you make to the charity of your choice.

Easy.  Simple.  And a great way to donate to your cause.

A Gathering of Great Minds

December 4, 2009

A little over two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend Acumen Fund‘s Investor Gathering – a quazi-shareholder-meeting for a non-profit organization which works to use entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of poverty.  It was a true honor to be in the same room as successful entrepreneurs, passionate donors, the hard-working Acumen staff, and active friends of the patient capitalism cause.

The morning kicked off with  “deep dive discussions.” The topics included Building Healthcare Systems for Low-Income Customers, Talent for the Social Enterprise Sector, Crossroads Pakistan: Emerging Opportunities, and the discussion I attended:

Innovations in Water and Sanitation.
It’s easy to talk about the importance of water; it’s harder to pose a solution that remedies the enormous lack of access to this basic human resource. Overcoming the challenge of a sustainable (clean!) water supply takes creative thinkers that fight the status quo and seek new means for the provision of basic needs.   The leaders of the conversation were just those people.

Moderated by Acumen Fund Ripple Effect Project Manager Sangeeta Chowdhry, the discussion featured:

  • David Kuria (Founder and CEO of Ecotact which builds and operates high-quality “ikotoilet” and shower facilities inKenya. He was also a winner of the Africa Regional Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009.)
  • Sanjay Bhantagar (CEO of WaterHealth International which provides safe drinking water for more than 300,000 customers per year.)
  • Marc Manara (the Water Portfolio manager of Acumen Fund)

Hearing from the leaders in the field was incredible.  I remember thinking “If everyone heard their message, people would be throwing money at them.”  More than once, I felt the enthusiasm and passion that drove these projects and wanted to jump up and demonstrate my support.  (And this was about sanitation!)

The classic argument that water is a basic human right and should be provided free by the government can make market-oriented approaches like Ecotact and WHI difficult.  The truth, however, is that 1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion lack access to hygienic toilets. There is an economic cost of water purification and someone has to pay: public or private. Frankly, the public system is broken and not adequately addressing the problem at hand.

Businesses like WHI and Ecotact have demonstrated how effective market forces can be in expanding access to basic services.  They have proven that even impoverished populations will pay for quality products when made available and therefore

An example of one of Ecotact's Ikotoilets

these markets can help in promoting social justice.  Where the public sector fails, social enterprise can kick it up a notch to get things done and push public interventions to improve.

Following the morning discussions, multiple Acumen Fund leaders and friends took the stage to provide updates on the progress of the patient capitalism ideas, sharing lots of on-the-field stories.  I’ll summarize a few of my favorite speeches:

Keynote by Arif Naqvi – Founder and CEO of Abraaj Capital: When the leader of the largest private equity firm in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia kicks off an event; you know something big is happening.  Naqvi provided an eloquent speech, describing the future of socially-responsible investing.  This is not just a current trend, but a revolutionized way of combining business and philanthropy to shape the next era of global development.

Portfolio Update by Acumen Fund CIO Brian Trelstad: I admit I was confused when Brian began his speech with a story about 17th century pilgrims and his family lineage.  After a few slides, however, the point became clear.  It turns out that the Acumen Fund is a lot like Brian’s great-great grandfather (or twice-removed uncle? I forget the actual relationship): they are both pioneers.  The idea of “blended value” seeks to achieve both financial sustainability and big social returns in the long run by evaluating both financial and social profits.  Has it worked?  It’s too soon to tell.  But the excitement from the audience was clear and the general vibe: optimistic.  Brian gave a comprehensive update on the Fund’s 33 investments and the future possibilities in consideration.  The majority of investees are performing well and the future looks bright.

Bringing Clean Energy to Low-Income Consumers- From Vision to D.light: One of Acumen Fund’s investees, D.light, serves as a paragon of social innovation.  Its creators identified a major problem: low-income families rely on expensive and

D.Light allows families to have safe lighting during the night

A woman cooks under D.light's design, instead of using a kerosene lamp.

dangerous kerosene lamps for basic lighting at night.  To address this issue, two Stanford grad students (including speaker Sam Goldman) designed a very simple, very inexpensive solar powered light source targeted at developing communities.  Now, for $10, families can purchase a sustainable solution for their poor lighting needs.  Children can read at night, mothers can cook without fear of knocking over flammable gas, and families can depend on the light for the long-term as it recharges on its own.

Want to bring real change for your dollar?  $10 provides clean energy to the bottom of the economic pyramid.  Think what can be done when other innovations provide similar simple solutions for other major problems:  straws to purify water, cooking stoves that stop indoor air pollution, micro-drip irrigation systems to grow crops in drought.  This is social entrepreneurship. This the future of poverty alleviation and the Acumen Fund and companies like it are leading the way.

Building a Global Community: When Sasha Dichter took the stage, he did something I have never seen a Director of Development do: ask for money.  Albeit, I don’t come across lots of Development directors, but his speech was genuine.  He was not requesting donations, but was instead asking the audience to continue their support in a partnership dedicated to seeking solutions to poverty problems.  His manifesto should be read by everyone.

And, of course, the Acumen Fund Fellows: a truly impressive bunch.  Taking the stage with a truly theatrical entrance, the Fellows provided inspirational quotes in their native languages and proceeded to offer brief monologues demonstrating their passion for the cause.  These are the  leaders of social enterprise today (go check them out!).

To find out more about the Acumen Fund, check out this video: it summarizes all you need to know about the organization and in only 90 seconds:

Remember: World AIDS Day

December 1, 2009

Today is World AIDS Day and I have an Opinions piece in the Yale Daily News.  I wanted to post it here on the blog as well.

Berk: Not just a Disease — 12/01/09

Remember today.

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day — a day to remember the 33.4 million people infected by HIV, to remember the 2 million people who died from complications of AIDS last year alone and to remember that HIV has not gone away.

Since 1981, the disease has claimed more than 25 million lives (more than three times the entire population of New York City). Yet, although the statistics are dramatic, numbers cannot express the full weight of the epidemic. AIDS is not merely another infectious disease but rather a social disease with unparalleled cultural impact, the roots of which trace all the way back to the disease’s first recognition.

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control reported that five young men (all “active homosexuals”) had contracted an extremely rare form of pneumonia. The cause: unknown. This publication marked the beginning of a global public health crisis and did so in a way that would shape the political discourse surrounding the disease for decades to come.

There are few places where HIV and AIDS have not ignited controversy. Conflicts over the nature of the disease, the cause of the disease and the methods it controls have been numerous, intense and diverse. The association with homosexuals only fueled existing prejudice about gay sex and further stigmatized the homosexual demographic.

It took a social movement, led by those affected by the disease, to finally bring AIDS into the spotlight as a universal threat. Underground advocacy groups such as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power sought to overcome personal stigma, community apathy and government reluctance to fight for direct action against the AIDS crisis.

Self-educated HIV activists (not doctors, politicians or corporations) first highlighted HIV as not just a virus, but also an issue of social justice. They demanded more than anti-retroviral medicines; They required a human rights response to the maltreatment of a vulnerable population. They fought discrimination against AIDS patients who were denied medical treatment, refused basic employment and faced restrictions on international travel. They fought against the extremists labeling HIV as “the gay disease” and claiming that the virus was sent by God to eradicate those living in sin.

Thanks in large part to their efforts, today we have medicine, AIDS research funding and a greater understanding of the disease. We hear of cheap treatments in the developing world, of HIV patients living to an old age and of progressive ideas that bring an end to stigma.

And over the past decade, we’ve seen significant improvements and amazing progress in the treatment of HIV. A new report indicates that new infections have dropped 17 percent over the past eight years. Meanwhile, the number of childhood deaths from AIDS has decreased due to increased access to anti-retroviral drugs.

For those on medication, HIV is no longer a death sentence but a manageable chronic disease, comparable to diabetes. Moreover, for those properly educated, HIV is largely preventable.

But the crisis is not over.

While generic AIDS treatments exist, they are still unavailable to million of patients, both in the United States and abroad. Only 42 percent of the global population in need of life-saving drugs is actually receiving them. That’s the equivalent of treating only five out of 12 residential colleges.

And in the United States the uninsured and underinsured persons in the HIV community face significant barriers to receiving medications.

Moreover, especially in the middle of a financial crisis, organizations that provide services to those affected by the virus often do not have the necessary funds to continue their work. This July, Governor M. Jodi Rell, who presides over the third richest state in the country, attempted to end funding to AIDS Services, Syringe Exchange Programs and Community Services for Persons with AIDS citing budget shortfalls. The U.S. government has flat-lined funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has provided billions to combat HIV/AIDS since its inception in 2003. Médecins Sans Frontières warned last month that this retreat “threatens to undermine the dramatic gains made in reducing AIDS-related illness and death in recent years”

In addition, although we have the knowledge to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child, the global majority of expectant mothers still don’t receive the necessary services. As a result, over 400,000 children are newly infected each year. Increasing access to medication is great, but for every three people starting therapy five become infected. Without a biological vaccine, education and prevention programs are the best way to stop the spread of the epidemic, but many communities lack even the most rudimentary programs.

As we commemorate World AIDS Day, our communities, our nations and our school continue to struggle with the devastating impact of the virus. We must celebrate the progress we have achieved and mourn the tragedy of those who fell to the disease. But most importantly, we must remember that there is still much to do.

Update: Another great blog post on World AIDS day can be found on  Better the World’s Blog.