Divining a Solution

Providing clean water to earthquake-ravaged Haiti is no simple task, but Bobbi Dunphy is spearheading a vital ‘profit for purpose’ initiative that will not only provide advanced water purification technologies but will also help Haitians get back on their feet.

When the hyperkinetic Bobbi Dunphy is asked why she spends so much of her energy and time in helping earthquake-ravaged Haiti, the Melbourne-born social entrepreneur simply says. “Haiti called me to her. Not the other way round.”

As Chief International Officer of LifeGivingForce (LGF), Dunphy is spearheading a bold initiative to get clean water to Haitians, who are trying to not only rebuild their fractured country but are also dealing with a rampant cholera outbreak.

“Even prior to the earthquake, water and sanitation were an acute problem but now cholera is endemic and you have a situation where virtually no water source is safe,” says Dunphy.

Since the earthquake they have provided clean water to over 500,000 Haitians with 47 installations country-wide in Haiti.

By utilising a model of ‘profit for purpose’, LGF leverages the most advanced water purification technologies and expertise to provide water solutions in the most challenging settings. Directly after the earthquake in Haiti on 12 January 2010, LGF Haiti (the Haitian subsidiary) deployed numerous emergency response water purification systems (producing upwards of 10,000 litres a day from a mobile suitcase) to clinics, IDP (internally displaced person) camps, schools and orphanages in multiple regions in Haiti.

“Water is a big issue not only in Haiti but will increasingly become an issue all around the world,” says Dunphy, 48. “As Australians we understand that water is gold. We have gone through a decade of drought. People elsewhere don’t yet have this awareness.”

Living away from her beloved homeland for the majority of the past 25 years in Tokyo, Stockholm, New York, Barcelona, London and San Francisco, Dunphy now splits her time between Haiti (70 per cent) and her Northern Californian home in lush Mill Valley north of San Francisco (30 per cent), which she shares with her husband of six years, American-born Thomas Christenson.

Her childhood in Australia gave her an early start on her path, growing up as one of five siblings in an 18-room home in the bayside suburb of Elwood in Melbourne. “Even though we lived a privileged life, Mum and Dad instilled a sense of independence and responsibility in all of us from an early age,” she says. “My first job was selling knick-knacks I’d made at a stand in front of our house to raise money for our Get Up and Go Club which was a club made up of my siblings and other local kids who were go-getters and very socially conscious activist types. All of them still are.”

She was inspired by the tenacity and drive of her father, Frank Dunphy, who was one of Australia’s youngest-ever QCs (Queens Counsel) specialising in personal injury. He succumbed to cancer at the age of 40 when Dunphy was only 15. “He was a brilliant guy and very ambitious and his premature death led me to become a perennial searcher. I thought a lot about the meaning of life and searched hard for something that made sense to me in terms of a legacy,” she says.

Like many Australians she took off to explore the world at an early age. “I finished high school and left the country with $850 in my pocket and didn’t come back for 13 months,” she says. “That’s what I love about Australians. We are adventurous and we get the chance to find out who we are early in life.”

After completing a double major in English Literature and Politics at Melbourne’s prestigious Monash University, Dunphy spent the early part of her career juggling her various jobs in the film industry as a producer working with such luminaries as celebrated Australian film director, Fred Schepisi and her deep resolve to help the planet. “I have always been a vested member of every community I have lived in so the lines blur between the professional, the philanthropic and the personal,” she says.

After a chance meeting with Australian philanthropist/entrepreneur Steve Killelea, she became a Founding Member and Project Director of the Global Peace Index (GPI) initiative which is recognised worldwide as one of the key indices for the measurement of peace.

“Peace is pivotal for global stability and it was a way to establish an index to rank countries according to their level of peacefulness in order to demonstrate this,” she says. “It turned into a much larger project with signatories such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, former US President Jimmy Carter, Richard Branson and Queen Rania of Jordan.”

Dunphy was also instrumental in the production of the accompanying award-winning documentary, Soldiers of Peace, which celebrated the unsung heroes working on peace initiatives, travelling extensively to capture their stories on film.

Dunphy has never been one for being office-bound. “I have always been a more hands-on type of person so working on the ground and solving issues in the field made more sense to me than doing so from an arm’s length,” she says. “I threw myself into the Sustainable and Practical Development arena where I could manifest my real passion: the implementation of appropriate technologies in the developing world.”

Dunphy’s call to Haiti came when she was approached by the founding members of LGF, Shane Hackett and Sung Cho, who had already been working in the impoverished nation supporting the Cambry Orphanage in Les Cayes. They asked her to draft a plan for sustainability.

The core team of social entrepreneurs who make up LGF’s US division sat down together six days before the earthquake to discuss what their strategy would be going forward.

“On that day we re-committed ourselves to working in Haiti and to providing clean water there. That was 4 January 2010. Six days later the earthquake happened. I was thinking ‘Are we ready for this?’ then I thought, ‘How could I ask that?’ The Haitians were not ready for what happened to them either. So we got straight to it and started working 20 hours a day to get our emergency-response systems on the ground and into the hands of those who most needed them.”

LifeGivingForce LLC is a for-profit entity specialising in economically sustainable infrastructure for potable water in urban and rural communities in Haiti. Economic sustainability and local capacity building are key aspects to LGF’s mission and objectives.

“Our approach is to build sustainable, decentralised, long-term water infrastructure through community-managed water businesses,” says Dunphy. “We don’t just come in, drop off the technology and leave. We are there for the long term to ensure that the equipment continues to function and doesn’t join the technology graveyard that you see so often in developing countries. Our aim is to boost economic and social development in Haiti by giving Haitians the tools to help themselves.”

LGF provides water purification systems that are energy-efficient and self-sufficient, and are easy to maintain over the short and long term. “Our systems produce high-quality water at low cost.” Their systems remove 99.999% of all known bacteria, viruses and cysts including e. coli and vibrio cholerae but leave in minerals which contribute to good nutrition while ensuring that the water actually tastes good.

LifeGivingForce LLC works in parallel with its sister organisation, LifeGivingForce Foundation, a non-profit foundation delivering life-saving water and social and economic development programs in Haiti.

Since the earthquake they have provided clean water to over 500,000 Haitians with 47 installations country-wide in Haiti. “I’ve been with orphaned kids who haven’t been well enough to go to school and then we put in a system that purifies the water and within a day or so they are back at school,” says Dunphy. “It’s tangible and simple when you see it work. You know that providing access to clean water equates to helping improve lives when you witness these kids now able to go back to school and get educated.”

Some of LGF’s many projects include the installation of a clean-water system at Jacmel prison as part of the overall cholera mitigation response strategy. At the Wharf Jeremie Clinic, providing clean water on a daily basis was the key factor in reducing the number of cholera cases being diagnosed each day from 80 at the height of the outbreak down to five a day.

They also work closely with Sean Penn’s organisation, J/P HRO. They donated one of their emergency-response clean water purification systems to assist in their support of the Petiónville Golf Club IDP camp helping over 100,000 people directly after the earthquake. They are now partnering with them on an entrepreneurship project to help Haitians get back on their feet. “A lot of celebrities fly in and fly out, but Sean and his organisation are really committed and they are looking at the long term and that’s why we are so keen to work with them,” says Dunphy.

With the challenges she faces working on the ground in Haiti, Dunphy constantly draws on her Australian work ethic. “People are sometimes taken aback by my brevity and honesty,” she says candidly. “Australians just know how to get things done without mucking around. At the same time we have the ability to not take ourselves too seriously. It’s a really rare quality and you really need to be able to keep that balance.”

Now spending 70 per cent of her time in Haiti, often contending with difficult water, sanitation and safety issues on a daily basis, Dunphy has grown to appreciate the simple things in life. “I will come back to my home in California and just to be able to turn on a tap to clean my teeth or get a glass of water seems like a luxury to me. Haiti has really given me a perspective. I certainly don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” she laughs.

Dunphy was recently selected as one of 50 Australians to be honoured at a “50 for the Future” summit held in Silicon Valley by Australia’s global initiative, Advance. The event celebrated some of Australia’s most dynamic entrepreneurs who are shaping the innovation agenda.

“If we can do it in Haiti we can do it anywhere and the reality is we are making a very positive impact,” says Dunphy. “We are already being asked if we can replicate our model elsewhere in the region and beyond and that’s what we are looking to do in the future.”

20 Sep 2012
Katherine Tulich

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