Charles Banda

Ashoka Fellow
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.

The Ashoka community mourns the loss of Fellow Charles Julius Banda who passed away on August 5, 2013 in Blantyre Malawi.

This description of Charles Banda's work was prepared when Charles Banda was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


The global Ashoka community mourns the loss of Fellow Charles Julius Banda who passed away on August 5, 2013 in Blantyre Malawi. Charles, the first Ashoka Fellow elected from Malawi, founded Freshwater Project Malawi to provide clean water and decent sanitation facilities to households and primary schools in Malawi’s rural communities through an asset-based community model. Charles worked to create local governance systems of water supply to ensure that rural people are healthy and empowered to identify social problems in their localities and to design their own solutions. By 2013, Charles had reached out to more than 750,000 people through the construction of more than 3,000 boreholes and 5,000 pit latrines in various rural areas of Malawi. A full profile of Charles’s work can be found on Charles, a humble and visionary social entrepreneur and family man is survived by his wife and five children. His wonderful work continues today.

The New Idea

Access to safe and affordable drinking water is a very serious problem in the rural areas of Malawi. Charles is providing access to clean water and decent sanitation facilities to rural areas as an entry point to engage people in community development initiatives. Through Freshwater Malawi, Charles drills boreholes in villages and schools to provide safe and clean water for household use so that people no longer rely on contaminated water sources that expose them to fatal waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery. Villagers are stimulated to assess their social environment to identify water and sanitation problems themselves. The boreholes are drilled using the simplest raw materials most of which can be sourced locally from the communities, like sand, cement, water, bricks and labor. The community does a self-assessment on what they will be able to source from amongst themselves and contribute to the development and Freshwater provides the rest of the materials including technical expertise. This builds community ownership for the borehole, an aspect which ensures commitment from the whole village towards its sustainability and maintenance, and is concretized by local water supply governance bodies that Charles helps establish.

However, Charles realized that only providing clean water to the communities will not necessarily solve the problem of persistent outbreaks of waterborne diseases if decent sanitation facilities are not available. As such, he conducts campaigns to create awareness of the importance of decent sanitation facilities on top of clean water. Through these campaigns, willing communities approach Freshwater to seek assistance on how to introduce safe sanitation practices throughout the village. Freshwater then assists in building simple and low cost but sustainable pit latrines according to the needs and capabilities of the individual households. The latrines are built in a way that allows the ‘waste’ to be harvested, treated and be used as manure which then helps to boost produce in the kitchen gardens. Further, Freshwater encourages the communities to use surplus income from the kitchen gardens to engage in other community development projects for the village in line with the needs of each respective community.

Through this model, Freshwater has reached out to over 750,000 people with clean water and sanitation services through over 3,000 boreholes and 5,000 pit latrines provided to rural communities within and around Blantyre district. Most of the villages he works, with especially in Blantyre rural area, have reported zero deaths from cholera over the past five years. Further, most communities have gone beyond worrying about the ill effects of water and sanitation and now spend their time engaging in community development initiatives. Freshwater now works in six districts in the Southern region of Malawi and two in the central region, and is planning to scale regionally into neighboring countries.

The Problem

Access to safe and affordable drinking water remains a big problem in Malawi especially in the rural areas where almost 84% of the country’s population is found, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Although 95% of the urban inhabitants in Malawi may claim to have access to clean and improved water sources, reports by WHO indicate that more than 42% of the population in rural areas still rely on shallow, hand-dug wells or unprotected surface water bodies that are contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or toxic chemicals for household use and consumption. Poor quality water from these sources has serious negative implications on people’s health and may result in increased prevalence of water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, typhoid, and dysentery. These diseases are fatal and account for high death rates in rural communities especially in rainy seasons where the risk of water contamination is at the highest. Statistics indicate that 80% of illnesses in Malawi and other developing countries are related to problems in water and sanitation and that diarrhea, mostly caused from consumption of contaminated drinking water, accounts for 15% of all deaths in under-five children and also 8% of all deaths across the population in Sub-Saharan Africa (WHO). Use of unsafe stagnant water surface sources also encourages the spread of opportunistic skin diseases such as scabies and also stimulates the breeding of mosquitoes that spread malaria, another fatal disease accounting for more than 23% of all deaths in Malawi (World Life Expectancy Report).

Another angle of the problem stems from lack of proper sanitation facilities both for household use and also in the primary schools in most rural communities. Statistics indicate that more than 40% of the rural population do not have access to decent sanitation facilities (and resort to open defecation in the bushes, rivers and around their houses) as compared to only about 10% in the urban areas. Even where sanitation facilities are available, people may not use them efficiently as they lack education and understanding of the importance of having decent sanitation facilities and how this helps in the prevention of waterborne diseases and outbreaks. Similarly, lack of proper sanitation facilities in primary schools force learners to use the bushes around them for disposal of body waste. Open defecation pollutes the environment and accelerates the rate of outbreaks for waterborne diseases especially during rainy season and this also negatively affects the rate of absenteeism in classes. Further, the rate of drop outs, especially for the girl child is also high in schools where there are no proper sanitation facilities.

Although Malawi has significant groundwater resources, lack of infrastructure in the rural parts of the country makes it difficult for rural communities to have easy access to this water in an affordable way. The government’s efforts to provide decent water and sanitation facilities are frustrated by other socio-economic challenges like the rapidly growing population and high levels of illiteracy in the rural areas. Although strategies are made to reach out to rural communities with water and sanitation interventions, high levels of corruption and lack of efficiency in government structures result into failure in implementation. Further, weak economic performance and heavy donor dependence means that the government lacks capacity to implement whatever policies and strategies aimed to resolve the problem. As a result, for example, the pupil/toilet ratio in rural primary schools is still as high as 131:1 although the benchmark for the government is actually 12:1 for boys and 10:1 for girls (Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality).

Other non-governmental organizations and development partners have also tried to intervene by providing water and sanitation to rural communities in Malawi. For instance, UNICEF, WHO, Médecins Sans Frontières, Action Aid and the National Red-Cross Society formed a partnership to provide boreholes and sanitation facilities to schools in rural areas. However, the top-down donor driven approach used results in detachment of the community members from the whole process which undermines community ownership crucial for sustainability of the facilities in terms of maintenance. Some organizations however have dedicated their efforts to treating the symptoms of the problem without actually addressing the underlying cause. For example, Red-Cross Society sets up temporary cholera clinics in health centers in rural areas during cholera outbreaks in rainy seasons. Although this is a helpful intervention, it does not resolve the underlying problem of access to clean water and sanitation facilities, such that the solution is temporal and targeted to the symptom and not the actual problem.

Clearly, the problems in water and sanitation in rural communities aggravate the prevalence of poverty, food insecurity and other social problems. People are concerned and spend most of their time and resources in managing the ill effects of waterborne and other diseases that are spread through the use of unsafe drinking water and indecent sanitation facilities. Nonetheless, this high level of attention and of negative effects on their lives has not yet been followed by an active role in coming up with their own solutions to address and manage these problems. Furthermore, this passivity reflects also in the mindset of these communities, since they tend to ignore that many of the other pertinent social problems affecting their lives could be resolved or attenuated by properly managing their resources and improving their health, and, vice-versa, that by being more healthy, they can better engage in solving all the other problems they have. This then culminates into a vicious cycle of poverty and undignified living standards.

The Strategy

Charles has developed an eight point step-by-step methodology through which he engages the communities in solving their water and sanitation problems. The first step is Community Request. Freshwater lays groundwork by creating awareness of the importance of clean water and decent sanitation facilities as a way of preventing waterborne diseases through workshops and sanitation training conducted in the targeted area. A leading member from the community, usually the village head, school headmaster or a member of the school management committee approaches Freshwater to request for assistance in their water and sanitation problems.

The second step is Needs Assessment: this is where Freshwater and the community leaders jointly assess the magnitude of the problem and the possible solutions that befit the community’s capacity. This is done in consultation with the local health center, and public health officers from the government. At this point, the community is assisted to come up with a set of alternatives to resolve the problem and identify one that they would be happy to pursue. The community thus decides on the affordable and efficient technology to adopt in resolving their problem. If the community decides to involve Freshwater in its solutions, then the technical teams is called in to assist in step 3, community contribution. At this stage Freshwater’s technical team works with the community to come up with the materials that would be needed for the borehole and/or required pit latrines. The community must demonstrate its commitment towards the project through willingness to supply most of the locally sourced raw materials like sand, cement, poles, clay bricks, and labor. Freshwater will supply the expensive materials like pipes, the actual borehole mechanism and technical expertise including the drilling equipment. This emphasizes the need for the community to embrace ownership of the facilities for sustainability.

The fourth step inaugurates one of the most important elements of Charles’s strategy which is the creation of local water governance systems, which he calls Community Water Point Committee. At this point, the community elects a committee which is empowered to take charge of the construction, oversight and maintenance of the borehole/pit latrine including mobilizing community members for cash or in-kind contributions towards the project. Freshwater encourages inclusion of women in the committees as it has learnt that from experience, women are closely connected to water problems in the village and committees that have at least 60% of women are more likely to make informed and effective decisions. The committee works in a transparent way and communicates back to the community on every step of the project to build trust and demonstrate accountability. The fifth and sixth steps are Funding and Implementation. Once the community water point committee is ready to start working, Freshwater allocates funding and kick starts the project to facilitate implementation. The technical team, project management team and the water point committee all work hand in hand to ensure that the project is executed as planned. Government officers from public health and works department are incorporated during implementation to ensure checks and balances in adhering to required procedures and standards for the facilities without compromising quality.

Finally, the last two steps are Community Training and Handover. This is when the community is trained on the maintenance of the facilities including general repairs in case there is a problem. The training also incorporates general hygiene practices for the whole community to ensure an all-round approach to health and sanitation for the village. The facilities are then handed over to the community during a celebration and from this point Freshwater ceases to be part of decision making on the sustainability of the facilities although they regularly do follow up and monitoring and also retain an advisory role to the community on other issues of development. The same methodology is adapted when working with schools by interacting with the school management committee as the contact point.

As soon as the borehole or sanitation facilities are handed over, Charles challenges the people to start thinking about other social problems prevailing in the community and how these can be solved through collective action of the community members. The model draws on the trust built between Freshwater and the community and also on the fact that outbreaks of waterborne diseases are reduced, leaving people with enough time and resources to engage in other social development activities. At this point, the methodology falls off and each community comes up with its own problems and ideas on how they can be solved. The rate of progress and success in development projects depends on how efficiently the committee mobilizes social capital in the village and this differs between communities. Freshwater interacts constantly with the communities to offer guidance and also links them to organizations that can help them in their development initiatives.

Charles started working with the communities of Blantyre rural and has managed to penetrate all the major traditional authorities in the district which are Kuntaja, Kapeni, chikuli, mpemba and Kunthembwe with a total population of 1.9 million people. Currently, almost 70% of people in Blantyre rural communities, and 90% of primary schools in the area have access to clean water and decent sanitation services. Freshwater has so far managed to drill over 3,000 boreholes and build over 5,000 sanitation facilities in rural communities mainly in the southern region of Malawi. Within the first 5 years of operation, Chileka area (where Freshwater is based) recorded a drop of Cholera cases reported at surrounding health centers from 70% to 6% such that Red-Cross Society no longer needs to put up emergency cholera clinics around the area in rainy seasons. Most of the villages in the area have gone beyond focusing on clean water and hygiene and now concentrate of solving other social problems in their communities. One such example is Galufu village in traditional authority Chikuli which now has a fish pond, an orphanage, adult education facilities, part time tutoring for secondary school learners in the village, an advanced kitchen garden, a man-made forest to supply firewood and building poles to the village’s construction projects.

Charles realized that he needed a financial model that could be instrumental in spreading his idea. Currently, Freshwater’s main funding partners are Malawi Social Action Fund, Concern Universal, Christian Aid of Malawi, Voluntary Service Overseas (Malawi), UNICEF, Water for People and USAID. To further build financial sustainability, Charles set up a sister organization called Freshwater International in 2011 to help fundraise internationally for the purposes of scaling Freshwater Malawi’s innovation to other areas. However, Charles plans to strengthen the income generation model towards self-sustainability by establishing a ‘water purification and bottling’ section that would sell purified bottled water for profit. The effectiveness and success of Charles’ model has a pull factor on the market such that the government and some citizen-sector organizations that provide water and sanitation facilities to rural areas outsource their projects to Freshwater. Freshwater then applies its model in the areas specified and charges the organizations market rate for providing the facilities. The funds are then channeled towards the ‘not for profit’ part of the model to help in reaching out and scaling to other villages. Similarly, individuals and private clients also request Freshwater to drill boreholes for them and this is done at a profit to ensure sustainability of the organization. Charles modified the standard low cost boreholes by adopting windmill and solar powered pump mechanisms that enable water to come out through taps without requiring manual pumping. These models are targeted towards the paying clients as they are comparatively expensive.

Now, Charles scaled his model to other districts of the southern region like Chikhwawa, Thyolo, Mulanje, Nsanje and Neno, and also Lilongwe and Nkhota kota in the central region by establishing partnerships with other CSOs interested to work in those areas through Freshwater. Charles plans to establish offices in the central and northern parts of Malawi to extend his services to all parts of Malawi. The idea is to use one community within the area he wants to penetrate to demonstrate the effectiveness of the model to get the ‘buy in’ from other communities and district authorities. Charles plans to extend Freshwater’s model to other countries in southern Africa that face similar water and sanitation problems like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. For this purpose, Charles intends to use the partnerships he has developed with international organizations like UNICEF, Water for People and SIMAVI to connect with their local offices in these countries to create demonstration villages as an entry point for Freshwater.

The Person

Charles was born in Malawi in 1956 to a father who was an Anglican Church minister and he grew up mostly in the poor communities in rural areas of the country. Born in a Christian family, he was taught the values of giving to the less advantaged very early in his childhood even though they did not have a lot themselves as a family. Orphaned at seven, he stayed with foster parents who encouraged him to finish his education until he trained as an aviation firefighter and started working at Chileka airport (in the 1980s) in Blantyre rural where Freshwater is currently based. Although he did not earn much as a fireman, Charles always had the urge to extend help to those that were less fortunate than him in surrounding communities. He developed a strong connection with social work under Christian values and he became an evangelist conducting revival meetings under a Christian group called New Life for All. It is during this period that he realized that the basic needs of the poor had to be addressed in order for many of the community development initiatives to be successful. With that realization, Charles started using part of his salary to buy second hand clothes to distribute to poor people around Chileka area, where he established a strong connection with rural communities. However, he was struggling to fend for his family and continue with his social work in the villages on his meager salary. He then decided to raise money and buy a small car that he used as a cab targeting people that needed transport to and from the airport. He operated the taxi business after working hours and the income was used to sustain his social work in the villages.

One day on his way to the revival meetings in 1995, he met with a couple of cholera patients being ferried to the health center in wheel burrows and hand-made stretchers from tree poles. Arriving at the venue he was told that the meeting has been cancelled due to an outbreak of cholera and most people in the community were busy either taking care of patients or organizing funerals. At this point he realized that community development in rural areas would never be possible until the problem of using unclean water and unhygienic sanitation practices is resolved. He realized he had been approaching community development the wrong way through charity rather he should help people resolve the water and sanitation problem as an entry point to empower them towards solving the other social problems in the community.

With the encouragement from family and friends, he initiated the idea of Freshwater Malawi in 1995 and using his own money, he set up an office in his house. He however continued to work as a fireman to sustain his family. He drilled the first borehole in 1995 with money from the taxi business and he started fundraising on a small scale to supplement this. Charles retired as a fireman in 2001, which allowed him to start dedicating more time to his organization. But it was only a few years later that, having managed to secure strategic funding for his idea, he managed to employ two technicians to help in the project. Due to the rising demand and need to reach out to as many communities as possible, Charles started approaching local and international organization in the same field to partner with and market his model. He established partnership with MASAF, Concern Universal, Christian Aid and VSO and started scaling. Soon he was getting national recognition from the government because of the effectiveness of his model and now is in the process of increasing its sustainability with supplementary for profit projects in order for Freshwater to have full national reach.