Scott Griffin just stared at the picture. A little girl about 3 or 4 years old was struggling to carry what looked like an ammonia bottle filled with water.
It was her daily ritual—fill it with water, carry it up the hill to her house and then go back for a refill. For the people of Haiti—and for millions around the world—fetching water is a burdensome task that sops up a large part of each day.
Griffin was already in Haiti with Greif Inc., a 138-year-old manufacturing company that was trying to improve job security and water procurement in the country. He had already created a solution to improve the way rain barrels collect and preserve water, increasing water conservation by 14 million gallons. But a solution to the most important issue—sanitation—was proving elusive.
Until he saw the little girl in the photo. “For some reason we were failing to pay attention to how the water we gave them access to was being transported back to the home,” he says.
A former employee of Dow Chemical, Griffin, who earned his MBA in 1993, knew the danger of putting drinking water into containers originally designed to carry products like ammonia or petrochemicals. And as chief sustainability officer for Greif, he had a responsibility to correct it.
So Griffin and the company’s product designers came up with WaterWear, a backpack made of a lightweight polywoven fabric that carries up to 45 pounds of water, fits comfortably on a person’s back and has a spout that allows access to the water without contaminating it with dirty hands or utensils. The material is leak-proof, puncture resistant and sunlight resistant, and it has a hook so it can be hung up at home. A smaller version fits children.
One of the areas where the packs were tested was the J/PHRO refugee camp, the largest camp remaining from the earthquake of 2010. It’s managed by movie actor Sean Penn and is where Griffin first introduced the pack last year, plopping one on the back of a 125-pound man who jogged around the camp to show off the pack to his neighbors.
When Griffin saw the smile on the man’s face, he knew the WaterWear packs would be a hit. And they have been. As part of a pilot “Buckets to Backpacks” program, last year Greif delivered 2,000 packs in Haiti. They’ve proven so successful the company expects to produce millions for use in developing countries and disaster sites worldwide. One important twist: They will also be an economic boost for Haiti, with Haitian residents using microloans to finish the packs.