The families of rural East Africa rely on public wells, the region’s only source of clean water for drinking and cooking. Yet, with 47 percent of the wells in disrepair, villagers are forced to fetch water on foot from nearby streams that are shared with livestock. The contaminated water must be boiled, requiring families to spend their modest resources to buy the wood that is chopped for their stoves, which in turn has led to deforestation. Climate change has compounded these issues, making life in the already impoverished region even more dire.
Those challenges have been noted by Irish nongovernmental organization Vita, which is working to repair all of the broken community water wells in Eritrea by the end of 2018. To broaden the reach of their charitable efforts, Vita enlisted Sidley’s lawyers to provide pro bono legal advice on the formation of the Vita Green Impact Fund, an innovative investment fund that allows investors the opportunity for a modest return while facilitating strong social impact.
Vita’s well restoration projects bring relief to the villagers and the environment: Each community water well saves approximately 1,000 tons of carbon each year. The carbon offsets, which are referred to as carbon credits, are then sold, with the profits reinvested back into the communities through the Vita Green Impact Fund.
“Vita has been doing a great deal of work to make clean water and renewable energy sources accessible to the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea,” said Stephen Ross, a partner in Sidley’s London office and global co-leader of its Investment Funds, Advisers and Derivatives practice. “The Green Impact Fund has been widely admired, and I think it will encourage more entrepreneurs and philanthropists to consider launching similar social impact funds,” he said.
Ross and Will Smith, a partner in Sidley’s Tax practice, have been leading the regulatory-focused work, with additional support from Global Finance partner John McGrath (alum). The team has been advising Vita since 2015.
In addition to repairing the wells, Vita helps the villagers achieve sustainable livelihoods by providing improved cooking stoves, which particularly benefits the women in the communities. Women are traditionally responsible for collecting firewood for their families, but with more efficient stoves, the time they spend collecting firewood is cut in half, empowering them to contribute their skills to work that generates income for the communities.
Although he has not been able to see the results of Sidley’s assistance firsthand, Ross said the residents have shared their gratitude through pictures.
“It’s amazing to see the pride that people have in their new cook stoves,” he said. “These are very simple enhancements to their life, but it really makes a difference. The pictures we’ve received of the families cooking meals around their more efficient stove have been incredibly heartwarming.”
Vita reported that Sidley’s support has so far provided 20 water pumps, 1,000 solar light kits to replace kerosene lamps, 2,000 improved cooking stoves and 25,000 new trees to combat deforestation. Moreover, 10,000 people in the region now have clean water.
“This has changed all of our lives,” says Mrs. Haddas, who lives in the village of Balwa. “The water pump is so close to us now, and I no longer get up before sunrise to fetch water from far away. The best thing is the feeling of not worrying so much. We can all feel safer watching our children drink now.”
Published April 2018 - UPDATE: Vita’s Green Impact Fund was recently awarded “Best Individual Offsetting Project” for 2018 by Environmental Finance magazine.