Remarkable People

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Malaria claims the life of a safe water champion

“I don’t like the idea of a franchise” he had told me over dinner in Cambridge. “It sounds too much like McDonalds.” I was having dinner with Ron Rivera and discussing his idea for a locally produced clay pot that could remove 98% of pathogenic bacteria from drinking water. His work had caught my attention while I was doing research on potential technologies for the emerging water portfolio at Acumen Fund.

While he was skeptical at the time of the role that a commercial approach could play in improving access to safe drinking water, over the past years, he helped launch 30 factories to produce affordable clay filters in Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Kenya, Cambodia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Darfur. Working with Potters for Peace, he was the drive and energy behind an effort that got 300,000 filters to the world’s poorest. According to the New York Times, “He often traveled in the wake of water-related disasters — following floods in Ghana or a tsunami in Sri Lanka — capitalizing on the rush of aid money to establish a locally owned enterprise that would sustain itself long after he left.”

His life was claimed in September by a bout of malaria he contracted in Nigeria while opening his 30th factory. He was 60 years old. His goal was to build 100 factories to produce these simple but effective clay pots and to reach 4 million people with safe water.

While I only met him a few times, Ron Rivera was someone who stood out in my mind as the “real deal,” someone who was driven to make a difference in people’s lives, and who himself was continually learning about how to have a greater impact. He may have been skeptical at first when I suggested he look at these factories like a McDonald’s chain, with standardized designs, manufacturing processes and marketing materials, but he ultimately found his own way to encourage local enterprises to take up this innovative business model. It was an approach that required him to personally connect with, train and inspire local entrepreneurs – work that was undoubtedly rewarding and effective, but that proved incredibly dangerous. His work will fortunately continue to impact people’s lives, as many of his protégés have committed themselves to carrying it forward. My hope is that we honor his life and what he worked for through our efforts to make affordable drinking water solutions available to the billions who need them, and our investments in health enterprises that can make diseases like malaria history.

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