Story by Monique John
It had been almost 20 years since Saran Kaba Jones had set foot in her home country of Liberia when she went back to visit in 2008. Saran fled the country with her family when she was 8 in 1989, right before Liberia’s civil war began.
After living around the world and attending college in the United States, Saran returned to Liberia with a personal mission: She wanted to formally launch an initiative focused on funding children’s education. The initiative would be called FACE Africa — “FACE” being an acronym for “Fund A Child’s Education.” However, Saran got a rude awakening once she arrived and saw the nation’s education problems with her own eyes.
“I saw a country that was different from the Liberia I knew growing up,” Saran says. “I had this notion of going in and solving the education crisis. And when I got on the ground, I realized that there were much bigger problems that Liberia was facing. Education was just one of them.”
The conversations she had with local parents about the issues preventing Liberia’s children from going to school prompted Saran to recalibrate her priorities and shift the approach of FACE’s mission.
“One of the recurring themes from my discussions in these communities was the issue of water and how they were having such a hard time getting safe drinking water,” Saran says. “Their children were getting sick from drinking water. I realized that this issue of water was a barrier to kids getting a proper education because kids weren’t healthy enough to go to school, or schools didn’t have the right facilities for young women going through puberty.”
Addressing inadequate access to safe water is vital, as the resulting problems run even deeper than hindering education opportunities. UNICEF reports that water-related illnesses are one of the leading killers of children under five. A 2016 study from George Washington University also shows that up to 39 percent of Liberian children in some areas are the primary water collectors in their households, spending more than 30 minutes fetching water each day — losing countless hours that could be spent in classrooms.
FACE Africa was accredited as a 501(c)(3) in January 2009, and Saran set forward with the organization’s new mission to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure and services in rural areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa. FACE has since served 25,000 people and brought clean water access to 35 communities across Liberia alone. These efforts have saved their beneficiaries 1 million hours that can be used for more productive activities such as going to school or work.
Emmett Wilson, FACE Africa’s Country Manager and the organization’s first employee, says the team’s passion is a core element to their success.
“We’ve had our share of tremendous challenges, from lack of funding to building capacity and sustaining the organization,” Emmett says. Despite those challenges, the team stays motivated knowing that they’re serving a need.
“We’re moved by that, just doing the little we can do,” he says.
FACE Africa is 100 percent Liberian-staffed with a team of 33 people. The organization has a three-part approach: It installs new wells, rehabilitates old ones, and distributes filters and buckets to communities that are too small to meet the government standard of having a well put in place. FACE provides pump maintenance training to ensure that communities are invested in and prepared for the construction of wells. The organization also guarantees female participation in the construction and maintenance processes and hires local talent to create jobs and make sure that repairs can be made when necessary.
Infrastructure problems in Liberia can impede FACE’s productivity, as it can take hours on foot for local workers to reach the most remote areas. Emmett also cites minimal engagement from the Liberian government. Saran wants the current, low standards for social progress in developing countries like Liberia to be raised so that the results are improved.
“We’re providing a temporary solution to an issue that’s quite urgent,” she says. “But I think long term, we need to be thinking about water in terms of how we see it in the West and shouldn’t have these mediocre benchmarks that we assign to developing countries.”
Rather than simply aiming for all communities to be within 15 minutes walking distance from a clean water source, Saran hopes the conversation will be pivoted towards how to get indoor plumbing in every Liberian household a decade from now. If the government work towards lifting people out of poverty through fixing roads and electricity, she says it will open opportunities for the country and for her organization to transition into becoming a private water infrastructure provider.
Even with these frustrations, the FACE Africa team is excited about the work it has before it and is determined to move forward by building upon its accomplishments.
“We’re not just trying to build a quick impact project and then leave,” Saran says. “This is our home. This is our country. We’re not going anywhere and I feel every single person on the FACE Africa staff feels a personal duty to ensure that we get the job done.”