For the past couple of months I’ve been doing a work-trade position at the Minneapolis Impact Hub to learn more about the incredible social impact work being done in my own hometown. The Impact Hub is part of a global network of over 100 hubs around the world that works to inspire, connect and provide resources to help entrepreneurs drive positive social impact. Through my work at the Impact Hub I’ve met a lot of amazing people doing some pretty inspiring work such as Wes Meier, CEO and Co-Founder of EOS International. EOS stands for Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability. EOS’s mission is to empower rural families in Central America with access to safe drinking water and opportunities to generate income through simple technology solutions and education.
Since their founding in 2008, EOS has accomplished 2,325 installations of simple, inexpensive, and locally serviceable technologies helping over 534,167 Central Americans access safe drinking water improving lives and prosperity in Nicaragua and Honduras. I had the opportunity to talk with Wes about EOS International and here is what he had to say.
How did you get into this line of work?
I grew up in Iowa and studied Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University. After I graduated I was scared to jump right into a 9-5 job so I looked into other opportunities. I love travel and wanted to explore a new area and learn Spanish. So, I decided to join the Peace Corps.
In the Peace Corps, I served in the Agricultural and Food Security sector in Nicaragua. I lived in a rural community near El Sauce, Leon, and it was a truly life-changing experience. It opened my eyes to a lot of things and I realized that I was extremely passionate about this kind of work.
I initially started working with local farmers to incorporate sustainable farming practices such as live erosion barriers, improved fertilization strategies, and planting nutritious family vegetable gardens. My work quickly morphed into technology design and implementation, where I implemented several of our early-stage technology solutions in the community. This quickly grew to other Peace Corps volunteer sites throughout the country.
The journey has kind of been a slow process but I’m really happy that I had the opportunity as a Peace Corps Volunteer to test out models, technology solutions and really understand some of the needs and resources available. It was during this time that I met our co-founder and current country director Alvaro Rodriguez, and we founded EOS International. That was back in 2008 and we have been learning and growing ever since.
What is the mission of EOS International?
EOS International empowers rural families in Central America with access to safe drinking water and opportunities to generate income through simple technology solutions and education. EOS promotes, manufactures, installs, tracks, and educates its users on life-changing technology projects that allow access to clean water and create economic opportunities for individuals to break the cycle of poverty and improve their quality of life.
Nicaragua and Honduras, where EOS primarily operates, are some of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Around fifty percent of the rural population live below the national poverty line. A large majority of the impoverished population lives in rural areas, where access to basic services is limited and to where businesses and NGOs rarely travel. In addition to living in remote areas and possessing little purchasing power, most rural families continue to live without access to clean drinking water and have little opportunity to generate income.
Through strong community partnerships and investment from technology beneficiaries, EOS creates sustainable, life-changing solutions for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Whether it is providing improved ovens for women to start bakeries, helping rural business owners to create a chlorine distribution store, or saving lives through water purification systems, EOS is dedicated to creating a long-lasting impact in Central America.
Why Focus on Water?
Water is a basic human right yet over 780 million people lack access to clean water worldwide. In Central America, more than 85% of people do not have access to safe drinking water as the water sources are contaminated with bacteria.
Water-borne bacteria often leads to diarrhea which is one of the leading causes of death in children under age 5 who have not developed a strong immune system yet. It also makes people sick, causing adults and children to miss school and work, meaning lost income and opportunity. If we can provide safe drinking water, it can have a ripple effect throughout the entire community and help lift people out of poverty.
The WHO estimates that 3.4 million people, mostly children, die annually from water-related diseases. Most of these illnesses and deaths can be prevented through simple, inexpensive measures. Over 85% of Central Americans do not have access to safe drinking water. Every $1 invested in clean water brings a return of $4 to $12.
How does EOS provide safe water?
First, we target water quality. Most Central America communities are developed enough where they have some type of a water system. Generally it is a gravity fed system where water is gathered from a stream or in the mountains and piped into an elevated tank to the community. The community tank has pipes that provide each home with running water. However, over 90% of the water is contaminated with bacteria. Therefore, our first step is to test the water systems in each community to understand what they are drinking.
The second step is water treatment which is done via water chlorinators. Chlorine tablets are the most effective way to treat unsafe water and remove the bacteria that is making people sick.
The third step is ongoing monitoring, evaluation and distribution of the chlorine tablets. We use a market-based model to distribute the chlorine tablets to community distribution points throughout the country.
Since we are targeting a community water system as a whole, we are able to directly target the source of the problem and provide treatment to entire communities at once. It is the best system to guarantee success.
How do you also provide income for the communities?
In this part of the world, more than 50% of people live below the poverty line, and in rural areas, many people live on less than $2 a day. Education and employment are often hard to achieve in rural areas, creating a cycle of poverty for generations. To help break the cycle of poverty, we help women entrepreneurs to create their own bakery businesses by providing tools and training as well as other small business owners through the creation of chlorine distribution centers across the country.
What kind of impact has EOS made?
We have provided clean water services including training, education, and support for 1169 communities impacting 526,742 people. Our 50 chlorine distribution centers have created income generating opportunities for local entrepreneurs.
For our fuel-efficient ovens, over 40% of oven beneficiaries, which are mostly women, were able to start their own businesses. The ovens are safe to use and eco-friendly as well using approximately 80% less firewood than traditional wood-burning ovens. By baking and selling goods, users were able to increase their annual income by 65%.
What inspires you to do the work you do?
By school and training I’m an engineer so I have a passion for technology and technical solutions. During my time in the Peace Corps and running EOS International, my passion has morphed into solutions for scaling in business, all within the realm of of social impact.
It is thrilling to make a positive impact in the countries and communities that we’re serving. I am very fortunate to be able to travel into these countries and get to witness firsthand the impact we’re making. I’ve also enjoyed all the new challenges of growing a business from the ground up.
How did you choose EOS’ business model?
I think the idea stemmed from coming as a Peace Corps volunteer and seeing firsthand what development looks like. In my opinion, the Peace Corps model is one of the best models out there. By sending a volunteer into a community we were paid a stipend that was just above the local living wage, so I was paid about six dollars a day. This is critical because you’re living with the community members and living with the same resources and challenges as everyone else. This meant that I had to come up with solutions from within and that was much more difficult.
We used this same model with EOS, realizing that we are not giving out handouts and instead we are making sure people are investing and having some skin in the game. By investing in technologies, the community is investing in their own future. We tweaked the model a little bit so we can grow and expand. This model also allows the communities to hold us accountable so if we’re not providing the right solution, they will let us know and we can fix it.
How are you funded?
About 50% comes from the US (individual donors, foundations and grants), and about 30% of the investment comes from the actual community, and the remaining 20% comes from a local government. Our goal is to find the resources from within so currently about 50% comes from within country and 50% comes from our US base.
EOS is very people-focused. Why did you go this direction?
Over the years, we have evolved as an organization. Starting off with a technical background, I was always paying attention to the numbers but then I realized that it is just a number and that wasn’t what mattered. What matters is the people we are impacting and how we are improving their lives. Our job is to communicate and educate our investors and donors on what kind of impact they are making on the community level. Together we are making a difference and that is what counts.
How do you partner with other nonprofits?
EOS has stayed with one particular issue: water quality as it lays the foundation for a more prosperous life. While we have dabbled in other areas, we have found that we work best when we can focus on our niche. We work with partners who specialize in other water-related issues such as building latrines as well as partners in other fields entirely.
We’ve put a lot of energy into understanding what we can do best and focused on this one technology solution: Providing safe, clean water because water is life. We have seen how providing kids at a young age with access to clean water can propel them into the future.
We have benchmarked other organizations and have found that every dollar invested in a community’s water system yields $4-$12 in return. This creates a ripple effect throughout the entire community. If kids are healthy, they can go to school and will thrive. If adults are healthy, they won’t miss work and will be more prosperous.
Our vision is “a Central America where communities are healthier, free from poverty, and thriving.”
Want to learn more?
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Check out all the ways you can get involved with EOS International.
Read EOS’ latest blog post The Circuit Rider
Join EOS on an Impact Trip
EOS offers several trips a year to travel to Nicaragua and see the impact being made to help families lift themselves out of poverty. Additionally you will have the opportunity to install life-changing technologies and gain a deeper understanding of Nicaragua. Learn more about EOS International’s Impact Trips.
Great work. My nephew is studying the impact of fresh drinking water in underserved communities in the US. It’s changed his life direction.
Thanks so much Emily! That is fascinating. I’d love to learn more about what communities in the US face poor water quality. I’ve of course heard of Flint and know there are some real issues. A great topic.