In the winter the children heard rumours that a truck would deliver a pump to lift water up the hill beside their school, saturating its soil and nourishing their coffee, coconut, and banana crops. But month after month no truck came, and the beneficiaries and staff at Thai Child Development Foundation wondered if the hilltop seedlings they planted would die with the onset of the dry season. The children remained hopeful, as children do, but the adults at the organisation wrote the whole idea off as too good to be true. A water pump would solve their agrarian worries, and harvest from their own land could sustain a small restaurant on the property, but who would donate and install such an expensive gift—and how? Local Thai companies tended to donate rice to the needy, and Western companies, if there were any aware of TCDF’s existence, preferred to write checks.
The following is not your average CSR success story. The brief but powerful alliance between TCDF, Irrigear, Franklin Electric, and SK Technology was as unlikely then as it has ultimately been successful now. Members from each establishment joined forces to orchestrate an engineering miracle in the hilly Thai rainforest, united by ambitious personalities and a common goal. Amid Australian wildfires, repeated government lockdowns, and debilitating floods in southern Thailand, anxious FaceTime calls across continents conveyed that hope for the project was lost—more than once. But over the last three years, the four pioneers were able to create something unprecedented, to the benefit of the hopeful children in a small special-needs school nestled in the mountain village of Paksong.
Rosalie Tieges left Holland when she was twenty-four, looking for an adventure. She had graduated university with a degree in social work, and thereafter set out to find volunteer opportunities for international humanitarian projects across Asia. But she never unpacked the sleeping bag she brought for the Nepali mountains, nor the hiking boots she packed for India. Thailand was her first and final stop. Rosalie quickly fell in love with the villages she worked in and decided to stay and devote herself to helping underprivileged children in rural communities. Her creation, Thai Child Development Foundation, is a non-profit that since 2004 has provided healthcare, education, and occupational training for children whose needs fall outside what the existing Thai medical care and education system can provide. The school, chicken, fish farm, and learning centres that comprise TCDF are run exclusively by Thai women, who teach the children a general academic curriculum until they turn sixteen, whereupon they are taught professional skills appropriate for their disability—farming, cooking, making compost, for example. The goal is, ultimately, to prepare them to return to their villages and families as self-sufficient individuals. TCDF also has a social-enterprise sister company, Eco-Logic Thailand, which manages a three-bungalow riverside lodge, complete with a yoga room, four family rooms, and an organic restaurant. The eco-lodge and the school sit a few hundred yards apart on the sixteen-acre rainforest property, only fifteen minutes from the beaten tourist track, but completely off the government water grid.
The hotel was created as a revenue source to reliably cover the operational costs of TCDF when the flow of donations is not enough, or even non-existent. For context: all too often activists happily gain support for the start-up of their non-profit, only to realise that their creation has an onerous overhead and no sustainable way of covering itself. Such is the non-profit catch-22: share photographs of weary kids with no support system and the donations rush in; build a beautiful, functional organisation where children are well-fed and rosy-cheeked, and people assume you no longer need their help. To this predicament TCDF was not immune. On any given week Rosalie must pay for chicken and fish food, utility bills, and the competitive salaries of her nine full-time staff members. Covering this overhead are intermittent foreign donations, whose regularity and beneficence is never assured. Rosalie thus remains in an equally optimistic and anxious mindset—one in which conservation of resources is key—since she is unable to accurately forecast TCDF’s financial health. Rosalie saw the hotel as the perfect solution to this dilemma: cover operational costs internally from the lodge’s profits, and allocate outside donations towards emergency funds, scholarships, and healthcare operations.
But standing in the way of a successful tourist lodge with a farm-to-table restaurant was actually having a farm. The lowlands at TCDF are fertile and corrugated with beds of mushroom, tea, and organic robusta coffee, but each year the rainy season washes away the crops. There is, in Rosalie’s words, always “too much water, or none at all.” The solution to the annual crop loss would be to relocate the crops to a sheltered hill nearby, well above the flood pathway, but how then to get water up the hill? An industrial irrigation system presented several challenges. One, it would be financially impossible. Also, it would be logistically fraught. The hardware would have to be donated and installed pro bono, but, according to Rosalie, Thai multinationals—those who would have the budget to give such a donation—only donate to well-known celebrity organisations like Greenpeace. If a Western company made the donation, besides their shipping and installing the machinery at higher expense, maintenance would be tricky unless locals knew how to operate and interpret the hardware. English error codes are useless to a demographic that only speaks Thai. Rosalie dared to believe the initiative was possible, but she couldn’t fathom how. Then, roughly 4,000 miles away, something fortunate happened.
Simon Treptow was at a national conference held by Irrigear, his employer and an Australian water-management group whose projects range from quaint balcony flower boxes to drought-prone cattle stations the size of Switzerland. During the conference the Irrigear team agreed on the need to boost their CSR efforts, and Simon left with the task of finding a non-profit that would benefit from some pro bono irrigation consulting. Who better to ask than Kelly Brantner, the CEO of Business for Better Society, an organisation that connects corporate donors with vetted non-profits in need? When approached by Simon, Kelly—who knew Rosalie personally—instantly thought of the children at TCDF. Within a week Kelly was on a plane to Queenstown, NZ, to galvanise the Irrigear team and pitch TCDF as a candidate for their support. When she left, everyone was optimistic. Irrigear would visit TCDF, assess their needs, and the rest would, somehow, fall into place.
The first part was easy. Simon recruited Irrigear members Ross Mars, a doctor of permaculture who specialises in sustainable water management, and Harry Iedema, an irrigation master of national renown in Australia, who were both keen to donate their time and expertise. The team flew to Paksong and took stock of TCDF’s existing water source: a hand-dug well by the riverbed. After testing the well’s water-flow, the Irrigear team felt confident that a four-inch submersible solar-powered pump could be installed inside the well, and easily pump thirty tonnes of water up the hill every day. But the most pressing question remained: who would physically do this work? From where would they acquire a solar-powered pump, and who would pay for it? Irrigear intended to help TCDF in a consulting capacity, but there had been no green light for sponsoring a $14,000 pump project. Even if Irrigear could help source the pump, it would be unwise for Irrigear to install it. Over the years Rosalie had encountered many unfortunate examples of well-meaning foreign companies dropping in to donate technical systems in Thailand, only for those systems to fail and remain defunct when there were no local parts or technicians who knew how to service them.
With this cautionary tale in mind, Simon suggested that instead of Irrigear shipping a container filled with equipment from Australia to Paksong, TCDF’s best bet might be to enlist a local supplier to provide the parts; but it quickly became clear that the Thai irrigation companies they contacted had neither the physical parts nor the engineering capabilities to install the kind of system Simon and his team envisaged. So Simon, committed to finishing what he started, contacted Franklin Electric, an American company, who agreed to provide a state-of-the-art pump and panels, as a donation. The first piece of the puzzle was in place. Then Franklin Electric’s Asia-Pacific office found a Thai contractor familiar with their products who could build and install a design based on what ancillary small parts were used in Thailand. This part was crucial: it would have been simple for Simon and the Irrigear team to specify a design using Australian industry-standard materials, such as ultraviolet sterilisers, for example. But that technology isn’t practical in Thailand, so it was imperative that the local contractor, SK Technology, developed their own design, one that was current, familiar, and most importantly serviceable, in Thailand.
The plan was set into motion. Lockdowns, the Thai monsoon season, and wildfires in Australia caused seemingly endless delays—so that a project that could have taken two or three months took almost three years to complete. But on December 7th, 2021, Rosalie emailed Simon and Kelly to inform them that the pump installation was complete and that thousands of trees on the hill outside her bungalow were successfully being watered from the well fifty metres below. With the benefit of hindsight, the roles assumed by those involved seem straightforward enough. Irrigear conducted the initial site-analysis and overall feasibility report and brought in Franklin Electric as a key collaborator. Franklin Electric donated the largest parts, such as the pump and solar panels, and recommended a Thai contractor for the technical design and installation. SK Technology specified the smaller, integral parts that they were familiar with and sent a team of a dozen men to TCDF to physically build and construct the system. What everyone involved shared was a recognition that they were improvising as the mission evolved, as none of them had done anything like it before. And no one was compensated financially for their above-and-beyond efforts; although SK Technology was paid by Rosalie for the installation, they offered her a steep discount and provided service that was outside their normal scope of work. Everyone tirelessly rallied toward the common goal, as opaque and at times impossible as it seemed, simply because they believed in the greater good that could come of it.
But there is another world in which the pump installation didn’t have to be so complicated to organise. Had a Thai corporation spearheaded the project, they likely would have needed to consult a specialist like Irrigear, but they could have managed the overall strategy in-country. COVID-19, floods, and fires notwithstanding, everything would have been relatively streamlined. When asked her thoughts on the success of TCDF’s new water system, Rosalie’s blue-grey eyes sparkle with gratitude and optimism: “I would love for multinationals to realise that there are initiatives like this in Thailand that they can support. It doesn’t have to cost that much money or time, and it can make a sustainable difference. They give something one time, but with their knowledge and skills it gives a forever return. Maybe a water-system isn’t as attractive as a wheelchair, but it’s infinitely more valuable to us.”
In addition to the classrooms and farms on TCDF’s property, there are also small learning stations where visiting students and volunteers are invited to learn about sustainable living. This New Year TCDF’s pebble beach gains a new learning station: the water pump. As the pump lifts water to TCDF’s hill crops, it is also a physical symbol of what the future of sustainable CSR can look like. For every successful corporation there is a non-profit who would benefit from receiving their in-kind support. Experts like Mars and Iedema from Irrigear, for example, exist in many companies and can exponentially expand the horizons of a project with their knowledge and ingenuity. The question then is: are Thai companies willing to reach out to small, local humanitarian organisations and offer them their services? Are Western corporations willing to invest the requisite time and effort to ask non-profits what they need? Almost always a targeted donation is the most helpful kind, and it can be as simple as getting in touch with a given organisation to ask about their specific needs, be they tangible or fiscal. Times are changing. In an increasingly connected world, highly targeted in-kind donations are all the more feasible.
We have only to look at the partnership between Thai Child Development Foundation and Irrigear to see what a difference genuine corporate interest and compassion towards the non-profit sector can make.
Author: Ms. Celeste Drubiner