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Giving back to her community: Interview with social entrepreneur Annie Wilkes, of Crazy Cat Ceramics
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
August 26, 2009

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Annie WilkesWhat is Crazy Cat Ceramics?
Crazy Cat Ceramics is a pottery business that I started in Masasa in Harare. It's run as a cooperative and we make terracotta clay pots. We are now making ceramic water filters.

What need did you see in your community that motivated you to begin manufacturing these filters?
Cholera. The outbreak of Cholera and the dire water situation in Harare and in the country as a whole. I saw information on this filter. I have a pottery business. So I put two and two together and I thought, well let's try this.

How did Crazy Cat Ceramics get involved with Potters for Peace?
The founder of Potters for Peace passed away in December 2008. There were a lot of articles written about him at that time. Kubatana found an article from the New York Times and published it on their website, and somebody else also sent me an article. And at the same time, all in the same month, the French Red Cross came to my pottery business looking for somebody to make the filters. I saw all of this as a sign and said let's make some filters!

What is a Flow Filter?
A Flow Filter is a ceramic pot that looks like a flowerpot. It's about 30cm high, 25cm wide, and it's made of 50% sawdust and 50% clay. It's then fired in a kiln and it becomes very porous. The size of the pores are small enough not to allow bacteria, cholera or protozoa to go through.

What additional processes if any do you put the filters through to make them more efficient?
The filter is made on a hydraulic press, and then fired in the kiln. After it comes out of the kiln, it's then tested for flow rate. It has to have a specific flow rate of 1.5 to 2.5 litres an hour. More than that means it doesn't stop bacteria, and less than that means that it's not going be functional enough to give water. It's designed to give water to a family of 6. After that process its then actually dipped in colloidal silver, which is a bacterial agent making 100% sure that it will stop all of the bacteria, and protozoa, helminthes, bilharzia. It stops all that kind of stuff. It sits inside a 20l plastic bucket with a lid and a tap on the bottom. The pot is suspended in this receptacle. You just pour the water in at the top and voilà . . . clean water comes out the bottom!

What are the major benefits of the ceramic water filters?
Stopping diarrheal diseases, especially in kids. It's a huge problem in most countries, especially in rural communities. The filters also help to fight cholera. The filters don't take out pesticides, but remove all the bacterial diseases and protozoa and that sort of stuff, and that stops dysentery.

What are the major risks associated with the ceramic water filters?
Well, the filters are breakable. If you drop a filter, it's going to break. So the idea is that you give a filter to a community and its put it in the kitchen and it doesn't move from its stipulated place. You just take the lid off and keep putting the water in.

How much does a Flow Filter cost?
The actual filter itself is US$6, but the whole unit with the bucket and the tap, and the brush and the instructions and everything is US$18.

Which groups in Zimbabwean society are you planning to target this product towards?
Everybody really. Everybody in Zimbabwe but at the moment where there's high-risk cholera, and that's in the high-density suburbs mostly; and the rural communities.

In this economy, the people who desperately need the filter are often unable to purchase it; do you feel that it is your responsibility to ensure that it is available to them somehow?
Sure. Basically we're working with the NGOs in the country. They're going to be the people who will distribute the filters, and who will educate people about them; and follow up on the use of them. So NGOs will purchase the filters and give them to the communities. But we have stipulated that we'd like people to pay something for the filter, whether it's one dollar or two dollars, so that the communities have a sense of ownership of their filter. Listen

In what ways will you ensure that the filters are distributed? And how will you ensure that communities pay a nominal fee for them?
We'll follow up ourselves. But even NGOs are now realizing that just giving aid and giving things, that this approach is not really beneficial to communities in the long run. We don't want to work like that. We really want the sense of ownership, so they will look after this resource and use it for its proper purpose. For example we've actually taken the handles off the buckets, so that the buckets don't get used for carting stuff around. Listen

In general what has been the response to the Flow Filter?
The NGOs are all very excited. We had an open day to launch it and they were all very excited. We've had big numbers mentioned when it comes to orders, like 40 000, 18 000, and so on, so we're just starting production and hoping to meet these orders.

Would you call yourself a social entrepreneur?
I'd like to think of myself like that. I've had a good education and a wonderful life in this country and I think its payback time now, and this is one way of trying to give something back to the country. That's why I particularly wanted to do this filter. To get it out to the communities who are not as fortunate as the rest of us. Listen

You said you started a cooperative to manufacture the filter. How does the profit sharing work?
The guys who work in the cooperative are given a percentage of the retail price. I think we're working on 20% at the moment. They get 20% of the item that they've made.

Do you think that business people in Zimbabwe are doing everything they can to facilitate social change?
I think there's more of awareness now and that businesses are starting to. I don't think there's enough emphasis on it. But I hope that with all the hardships we've been through lately, that there'll be a new vibe towards working in that direction.

Do you believe that our current socio-economic environment fosters thinking towards social entrepreneurship?
I think so, particularly because of our unemployment rate as it is. People have had to go out and do things for themselves, which makes them more aware of how a business works. And what businesses are taking from them when they work for a business. I think individuals are more aware of what they want when they're applying for a job now and I hope that will make businesses more aware that the workers know what they're expecting. And that they don't just rail road them.

In your view, since you're a businesswoman, do you believe that things will improve in this country?
Yes I do, definitely. People are more aware of how hard it is to earn a dollar, a lot of them had to do it on their own. And to learn to go without. I think businesses will have to take better care of their employees and if they don't, they're not going to get any employees.

What more do you believe can be done to improve things in this country?
I think we need more training facilities. I don't think there are enough of them. And I think a bit more input from government as to how businesses operate in terms of labour laws and such like. I think its been quite lacking. But definitely more skills training, basic stuff. There are a lot of academics around, people out of universities but the good old plumber and those sorts of people, they're few and far between. And now you just get self-taught guys.

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