Water.org CEO Gary White Discusses Microfinance as a Tool for Access to Water

As CEO and co-founder of Water.org, Gary White introduced a financial initiative that has helped more than a million low-income individuals access clean drinking water and sanitation services.

White’s WaterCredit Initiative brought the power of microfinance to the water and sanitation sector in developing countries. The result, he said, is that people without access to traditional credit markets can now afford to solve their own water needs.

“We started the idea of WaterCredit,” White told students at the Yale School of Management on February 19. “We looked at this market and asked, how can we help the poor become paying customers?”

Direct aid alone won’t solve the clean water crisis, especially for the poorest citizens, who can’t afford to buy into subsidized programs in their communities, White said. WaterCredit works by connecting microfinance institutions with individuals who need clean water or toilets.

At first, microfinance institutions were skeptical that borrowers would be able to repay loans, but the model has proven viable, White said. Secure access to water is “income-enhancing,” he pointed out, because it allows individuals to focus on generating additional income rather than spending time and energy acquiring water.

White became interested in the global water and sanitation crisis when, as an undergraduate, he traveled to Guatemala and saw children collecting contaminated drinking water. He decided that he wanted to use his engineering background to help solve the problem. “I found that intersection between my greatest passion and the world’s greatest need,” he said.

Water.org was created in 2009 when White’s first organization, WaterPartners, merged with H20 Africa, an NGO founded by actor Matt Damon. Water.org currently has programs in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Kenya, ,Ghana, and Uganda. The organization has recently begun raising philanthropic capital and launched a new venture fund to supplement institutional funding and reach more people, White said.