In Kenya, saving lives with carbon credits

Mikkel Vestgaard Frandsen

The Skype connection to Kenya crackles. Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, the 38-year-old CEO of a Swiss company that bears his family name, tried to make himself heard. His excitement is palpable.

“Watching this unfold is crazy,” he tells me. “There are so many things we’re trying out here, things we’ve never done before, things that no one has ever done before.”

Vestargaard Frandsen is a Swiss for-profit company that’s in business to save lives in the global south. Its products include LifeStraw, a water filter and PermaNet, a long-lasting bednet to protect people from malaria.

Ordinarily, it sells these products to aid organizations and governments. Then they’re given to people in need. This time, Vestergaard is trying something different: It’s directly giving away about 1 million LifeStraws, at a cost of nearly $30 million, mobilizing thousands of local people to do so, tracking results carefully and expecting to be paid back in the form of carbon credits. Mikkel’s right–this has never been done before.

How this came to pass is interesting. Founded in 1957, family-owned Vestergaard Frandsen originally produced material for work clothes. About 20 years ago, it started a line of relief products like blankets and tents. By 1997, when Mikkel became CEO, the company had phased out conventional textiles to concentrate on relief aid products.

“We’re fortunate to be able to build a business around the opportunity to save lives,” he says.

Mikkel got especially excited about a simple water filter that the company developed as part of an effort led by the Carter Center to fight guinea worm, a waterborne infection that afflicted millions of people in 20 countries in Asia and Africa.

“It’s a pretty nasty thing,” Mikkel told me. “The worm gets into your body, and it grows to about a meter long, and then it has to get out of your body somehow.” We’ll spare you the sickening details.

Today, thanks in part to the filters his company produced, the disease has been confined to four countries and is on the verge of disappearing. “It will be the first disease eradicated without a vaccine,” Frandsen said.

Lifestraw Family

From there, the company went on to develop portable LifeStraw filter and then LifeStraw Family, a complimentary water purifier designed for use by families at home that cleans waters to EPA standards and lasts long enough to filter 18,000 liters. LifeStraw Family is typically sold wholesale for about $25.50.

Back in September, 2008–on September 15, to be precise–Vestergaard Frandsen launched a campaign to give away a product called CarePack in western Kenya. About 50,000 people who came in for HIV testing were rewarded with CarePacks which including “60 male condoms, an insecticide-treated bednet, a household water filter for women or an individual filter for men, and for those testing positive, a 3-month supply of cotrimoxazole and referral for follow-up care and treatment.” I mentioned the start date of September 15 because of something else that happened that day: Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, setting off the global recession. Mikkel realized afterwards that raising funds from donors and governments for his company’s products was about to get a lot harder.

That’s when the company turned to carbon markets, in this case the voluntary markets. In these markets, companies or individuals buy credits to offset their CO2 emissions.

LifeStraw qualifies for carbon credits, it turns out, because when people in poor rural areas like western Kenya have a way to purify their water, they no longer have to gather and burn firewood to boil it. The program was approved for voluntary carbon credits under the Gold Standard certification scheme. J. P. Morgan Chase is among the first buyers of credits, and will sell them to its clients.

To qualify for credits, though, the use of the water filters has to be documented and carefully monitored. So Vestergaard Frandsen has hired and trained 4,000 community health workers and another 4,000 drivers to give the filters away over the next five weeks. Each is equipped with a smart phone to provide GPS coordinates and photos of each family using a LifeStraw. And the company will hire hundreds more people to make sure the filters keep working–because its revenues depend on proving that it is offsetting carbon.

Can you see why Mikkel is excited? The Carbon-for-Water program gets clean water to hundreds of thousands of people and protects their lungs from the indoor air pollution created when they burn wood. It creates jobs (albeit temporary) and income in a poor country. It brings carbon finance to Africa, which so far has received less than 5 percent of all carbon finance revenues. It’s transparent and accountable, unlike many aid efforts.

And if all goes well, it can get a lot bigger–because Vestergaard Frandsen expects to profit.

“The carbon-for-water campaign could be a game-changer if we can take this to scale,” Mikkel said. We’ll see.


  1. says

    I founded and operate a small NGO called Mikinduri Children of Hope in the Mt Kenya area.
    WE have several prgrams as you can see from visiting our site.
    My question whether we might become a registered distributor of your Life straw.
    We have an exc dir and other staff that can be assigned to the program
    Please advise
    Thx TED Grant President, Mikinduri Children of Hope

  2. Bob Lazar says

    Dear Marc,
    Working in indigenous sustainable development across Africa, I am obligated to ask a few questions amidst the excitement around the LifeStraw:

    1. Is it absolutely necessary for the patented chemical-water treatment components within the LifeStraw, to come from Dow Chemical Company ? (listed this year as the US’s 11th. most toxic air polluter (up from 15th. in 2010) by: )
    Their contribution to Climate Change over a decade would affect many more millions of African communities than what these components could possible offer in ‘saving lives’ ? !

    2. Manna Energy (who conceived the idea for VF) have created a ‘Gold Standard’ that J.P. Morgan Chase is supporting. Would it not be disturbing to find onward Carbon Credit sales to one of their affiliates namely, The Dow Chemical Co. ?

    3. Finally may I ask if VF has any recovery program in place following the end of life of the product? OR will our African brother & sisters break open these tubes to find & be exposed to, the chemical resins within?

    Finding solutions to water, nutrition & disease prevention & cures remain top priority for many but do we honestly question the unseen impact of that involvement ?

    Bob. – Namibia


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