Judith Li '23 helps deliver solar-powered safe water in Rwanda and Uganda
Participating with the Miller Center Lewis Family Fellowship, Judith Li provided two deliverables to their enterprise partner to advance the mission of delivering solar-powered safe-water filtration systems to off-grid rural areas of East Africa, applying sociological insights to the real world.
By Judith Li ‘23
In the past 9 months, I received the Miller Center Lewis Family Fellowship to explore a social entrepreneurial solution to safe water access in East Africa. With the support of our mentors and Miller Center staff, my partner Riley Casey ‘23 and I researched the willingness to pay for safe water in rural communities in Rwanda. We worked with the social enterprise Solageo to advance their mission of delivering solar-powered safe-water filtration systems to off-grid rural areas of East Africa.
Local communities in rural areas of East Africa often suffer from a lack of stable and safe water access. Many women and children need to spend 2-6 hours a day fetching water, losing the opportunities for education and other economic activities. Many of them also suffer from water-borne diseases that contribute to high mortality rates. We analyzed the business model of Solageo and the water filtration device they tried to market. We interviewed local social entrepreneurs to develop an evaluation rubric for franchisee qualification paired with a questionnaire. This deliverable helps Solageo find reliable business partners in the local markets to ensure the long-term success of the project. We also designed a survey to quantify customer behaviors, understand attitudes toward water use, and evaluate financial constraints related to water consumption in a local community. Using the field data from the survey, we generated a market report that helps Solageo set an affordable but also profitable price for safe water and tailor their business models to align with the local contexts.
My sociological training equipped me with rigorous quantitative and qualitative skills to design and analyze the interviews and the survey. Applying sociological insights to the real world, I learned to take the context into account by carefully listening to and deeply understanding the local communities’ constraints and needs. For example, Riley and I faced the challenge of deploying the survey. Considering many of our surveyees might be illiterate and might not have access to mobile data, we could not directly send out the online survey. We adjusted the format of questions so that the field researchers we worked with could orally ask questions and record the answers easily. More particularly, we adjusted the method of calculating willingness to pay from the literature to better fit the local context. Riley and I rehearsed five times to improve the survey. We spent almost a month adjusting the survey based on the incoming information from the interviews, which helped us better picture the context. It turned out that our efforts were worth it. The execution of the survey was smooth and seamless, although from hindsight, some details of the survey still can be improved. This process helped me understand the difference between theory and practice. Understanding the contextual factors ensures the executability of the plan and avoids potential problems. It will also make sure that our data are valid and representative.
Looking back at my four-year study in the Sociology department, I believe that the core of sociology is deep compassion for human society. My love for sociology comes from my curiosity about human interactions, my exploration of social phenomena, and my motivation to make human society a more inclusive and sustainable place. This fellowship experience fulfills all three of them. It deepens my passion for sociology and further enlightens me to apply sociological insights in the business domain. As I head to graduate school, I will always keep what I learned from my Sociology professors with me, passing on the spirit of compassion and committing myself to making the world a better place.
Judith Li presents her research at the Family Weekend 2023 CAS Dean's Reception and Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression Forum.