School children in uniforms throwing cups of water into the air.

Safe Drinking Water: Business or Charity?

Cover image courtesy of LifeStraw.

–by Will Ruzicka–


This article analyzes the success of the company LifeStraw’s charity project “Follow the Liters,” assesses the impact it is has on the community it helps, and seeks to understand why this business appears to be more like a charity than many charities. LifeStraw sells straw-shaped water filters that filter out practically all biological threats for a relatively cheap cost. They run their business much like any business, however they do contribute a sizable amount of their profits towards the cause of keeping clean and safe drinking water available to schools in Kenya. We analyze why they don’t follow the lead of other organizations and pose their charity as their selling point, why it receives so little criticism.


There are plenty of businesses in the world that advertise their goal to help Africa. These businesses often boast about the charity services that they provide, whether they are feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, or saving lives. This business practice of advertising the benefits your purchase will bring to others works, but is often scrutinized for not making an contribution towards that charitable cause—or even having adverse effects.

But what happens when a business does the opposite? What about a business that advertise their products for what they are, and uses their profits to help the community? Well this is the business model of Vestergaard, otherwise known as LifeStraw, a Swedish company that sells their water filters (LifeStraws) and contributes part of their profits towards bringing their water filters to schools in developing countries [1]. This article will assess the charitable actions performed by this company, how much charity they do compared to companies that project their cause before their products, what their goal is, why they don’t advertise their charity over their products, and how that has allowed them to have success.

A business evolved to have a ‘side project’

It wasn’t until 20 years after the company LifeStraw decided that they would launch a program, that would become a charity. [2] Vestergaard originated in 1994 by creating a simple device to filter Guinea worm larvae out of drinking water. They changed the design into a cylindrical shape, and LifeStraw was born. The company made advancements with designs over the years and released many different filters that range from straw to water bottle to communal water tanks that remove almost all microbiological threats from water intended for drinking. After several years of successful sales, they started their ‘Follow the Liters’ program in Kenya. This program would bring their water filters to schools that desperately needed clean drinking water. Now, they contribute more than 6 percent of their profits towards their ‘Follow the Liters’ program. [1]

Why not advertise their charity first?

Why doesn’t this company advertise the charity work they do? Other companies, such as TOMs shoes, have found success in centering their marketing campaigns around the charity work they do.[3] Simply put, that they didn’t know that at the time. This program started in the 1990s, well before the TOMS one-for-one business model was created in 2006. [4]

Another reason may be that they don’t want to attract unwanted attention, as any charitable organization is a target for investigation and validation that their charity is doing all that is says it does. While TOMS found success in their business model, it faced much criticismfor how much their company really helped versus how detrimental it was to the community’s economy. [5] With a company that sells something not as needed as shoes, they may not profit enough to be able to withstand people that question their charity, so they just accept that and admit that they are a business over a charity. Looking online, you may have a hard time finding someone who raises these questions to this company, but you will easily find articles that will attack larger organizations. In fact, you most likely find only positive reviews of their company.

LifeStraw does advertise their charity, as it does help with sales, but it certainly isn’t their selling point. Looking on their website, you will find that their motto is about their product making “contaminated water safe to drink” and their front image is of their product in use rather than it being given for charity. [6] You won’t find out about their charity until you scroll down past all their products. Where they do advertise is on their online articles, both on their own websites and off it. On their websites, they state what their ‘Follow the Liters’ program has done and currently does. On articles found outside LifeStraw’s website, you will primarily find first hand experiences of people, who won LifeStraw’s social media contest, who were invited to take pictures and hand out their water to the children at the schools they are visiting. This is a favorable way to win hearts of the masses, as the only people who are going to be writing reviews about their company are the ones who originally enjoyed their products and giving the products they enjoy to a more impoverished person. Their charity functions well because they are backed by the company, not the other way around.

LifeStraw’s charity – how does it affect the community after they leave?

With the demand of clean drinking water being higher than the output, the actions of LifeStraw are much harder to see backlash than the Mitumba, or donated clothes markets, that crumbled the cloth industry in Africa. [7] Surface water is highly polluted and piping from clean areas is too expensive to feasibly achieve. Groundwater is reasonably clean and seems to best choice of tap water, but even drilling for water comes with its own expenses and metal contamination. [8] In turn there just simply isn’t a cheap way to produce enough clean drinking water out in sub-Saharan Africa to quench the thirst of all the people who inhabit it.

In Kenya, over 40% of the population has no access to clean drinking water. [8] So, LifeStraw’s charity project aims to lower that statistic. With clean water, comes a reduced chance of catching deadly diseases such as cholera and typhoid; possibly lowering scary statistics such as one child dies of diarrhea every 21 seconds. LifeStraw brings their community-sized products to local schools, commits to maintain the filters, and teaches community members not only how to use the filters, but also the effects of having clean water will have. [9] After leaving Kenya, the children there will have access to clean water that will not make them sick, as well as the knowledge of avoiding dirty water which in turn may lead to a child who would miss school due to sickness become educated and make a decent living later in life.

LifeStraw’s actions of going to Kenya to bring safe drinking water to the school children is much less likely to cause a negative impact than giving out free items that could otherwise be sold, solely because they didn’t have even have access in the first place. The water industry in Kenya won’t take a dent profits as the people they are providing weren’t using it in the first place.

How LifeStraw resembles a charity

LifeStraw contributes 6% of its AGI (Annual Gross Income) towards its charity program, which is higher than the average charity organization that makes as much income as them, with a rate of 5.6%. [10] They have given over 10,000 filters to 1600 schools in 3 years, and it all came from their own profits. [11]

The company has seen praise from large news companies such as CNN and BBC and received awards such as the 2008 Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas and the ‘IDEX: 2005’ International Design Award and “Best Invention of 2005”. [12] Not only does this company distribute a way to have clean water, but they designed the cost-efficient way to do it themselves.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.


Vestergaard, the company that owns LifeStraw, with the simple goal of bringing safe drinking water to everyone, whether it is someone who buys their products, or Kenyan school children. Their business model is the opposite of TOMS shoes, as their business doesn’t rely on the charity’s popularity, but their charity solely relies on the success of the business’s invention. To maintain good standing, the company avoids criticism by being overshadowed by more successful companies such as TOMS and maintaining their media as one that is from those who enjoy their products rather than one who investigates it analytically. Using their cheap invention and business success, “Follow the Liters” helps make an expensive problem of getting water in Kenya a little bit smaller without having a serious economic backlash.

Works Cited

  1. Lewon, Dennis. “What Has Your Gear Done for the World Lately?” Backpacker, Backpacker, 18 Sept. 2017,
  2. “LifeStraw Trip: Follow the Liters.” Climb Healthy, 18 Nov. 2015,
  3. Daily, Lisa. “Chapter 12 – Change Your Underwear, Change the World.” DIY Utopia: Cultural Imagination and the Remaking of the Possible, by Amber Day, Lexington Books, 2017, pp. 227–243.
  4. Wilson, Haylee, and Audrey Hopewell. “Buy One, Give One: What TOMS Shoes Tells Us About the West’s Urge to Help Africa.” The Urge To Help, 11 May 2018,
  5. Knowledge @ Wharton, “The One-for-one Business Model: Avoiding Unintended Consequences,” Knowledge @Wharton online. 16 Feb. 2015,
  6. LifeStraw –
  7. Introduction.” Salaula: the World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia, by Karen Tranberg. Hansen, University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 1–20.
  8. Lewis, Lori. “Water In Crisis – Spotlight Africa: Rural and Urban Issues.” The Water Project, 6 Nov. 2017,
  9. Marshall, Samantha. “The water crisis in Kenya: Causes, effects and solutions.” Global Majority E-Journal 2.1 (2011): 31-45
  10. Frankel, Matthew. “Avg. American’s Charitable Donations: How Do You Compare?” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 4 Dec. 2016,
  11. LifeStraw ‘Follow the Liters’ –
  12. Cheshire, Tom (1 March 2010). “Work Smarter: Vestergaard Frandsen”. Wired. Retrieved 23 March 2012.

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