In Kenya's remote Turkana District, one of the hottest places in Africa, life is an ongoing struggle. For years, the parched region has experienced severe drought, leaving hundreds of thousands without clean water. Many endure disease and poor health from drinking dirty water they access from shallow holes in the ground. Even worse, crops don't grow, triggering widespread famine and a rising number of violent conflicts. People and livestock live with the ever-present threat of death.
Josh Weingart is out to change that. He's the founder of WaterDrop Shop, a free-trade company that donates part of its proceeds to build and maintain new water wells in Kenya. The idea was sparked during the summer of 2010, between Weingart's freshman and sophomore years at Illinois State University when he traveled to Kenya to hand dig clean-water wells with Water For Life and Livelihood. The solar-powered wells provide both drinking and irrigation water to the communities where they are built.
"I knew I wanted to go back to Kenya and do more clean-water wells, but I didn't know how that would happen," he says. "It kept stirring in me for a while."
In business for good
The following year, after returning to the U.S. following five months of studying in Australia, Weingart came across sandals made of recycled tires that he'd worn in Africa. An idea took hold. What if he could manufacture stylish sandals from recycled and sustainable materials, sell them in the U.S., and give a portion of the proceeds to fund new wells in Kenya? That's when the idea for WaterDrop Shop was born.
Weingart, 25, who double majored in business management and finance, spent his final two years in college honing his business model for WaterDrop Shop. He launched the WaterDrop Shop in September 2012 during his senior year and began really ramping up after graduating the following spring. He partnered with the small African sandal manufacturer Maasai Treads — a fair-trade company that pays Kenyan locals a living wage and gives a portion of its profits to animal conservation groups — to design sporty sandals from recycled and rejected car tires and inner tubes, leather and hemp. He was even named one of Inc.'s Coolest College Start-ups in 2013.
"When I was younger I always wanted to do something to help people," Weingart says. "I also knew I wanted to run a business. It was kind of amazing how my college career, and time in Africa and Australia, came together in the culmination of WaterDrop."
Circle of giving
Weingart sells his handcrafted sandals on Amazon, as well as in a few stores in Bloomington, Illinois, where he currently lives. Sandals sell for between $42 and $50, and 10 percent of the retail price (not WaterDrop's profits) goes directly to Water For Life and Livelihood to dig low-cost wells. That's about $4 to $5 per pair of sandals sold donated to build more wells.
Water For Life and Livelihood's mission also includes community involvement, which means the locals take ownership by building the wells alongside volunteers and maintaining them after they're gone. This DIY approach significantly reduces the cost of well development — about $2,500 for a hand-dug well versus up to $100,000 for a machine-bored one.
"I've always felt like if I'm going to give to something, I want people to earn it," Weingart says. "It's like that saying: 'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.'"
WaterDrop has already fully funded two wells with Water For Life and Livelihood with more to come. Weingart plans to expand sales of his sandals into additional stores and is working on shoe designs that will encourage more footwear sales year-round. After that, he hopes to replicate his concept in other countries and partner with local craftspeople to export eco-friendly products they already make.
"I'm just a guy who's trying to make a change," Weingart says. "I want there to be good in everything we do — a circle of giving. You start with something good, somebody buys it and part of their money goes back to help others. It continually circles."