Shah Rafayat , from Bangladesh

A seasoned change advocate by the age of 20, Shah has received training from former U.S Vice President and Nobel Laureate

Shah Rafayat, Co-Founder and President of Footstep Foundation at one of Project Trishna water units

The AJALA Project presents an unstoppable millennial changing the world.

From the early age of 16, Shah Rafayat Chowdhury has been an ambassador of climate change and sustainable development, and has represented Bangladesh in a number of United Nations summits, which includes the RIO+20 and Bangkok Climate Change Talks. His passion for sustainability and traveling opened his horizon and gave him the chance to gain valuable knowledge from each of his encounters, which included an opportunity to receive training from the former US Vice President and Nobel Peace Laureate Al Gore on Climate Change advocacy in 2013. With the help of his high school friends, Shah started Footsteps Foundation, a volunteer driven social enterprise in Bangladesh that addresses various social problems in targeted communities by implementing social projects and ventures based on the platforms of Corporate Social Responsibility, Youth Empowerment and Innovation. The goal of the social enterprise is to initiate social projects that would help struggling communities grow and become more sustainable.

His latest social venture, Project Trishna, provides free access to clean drinking water for the general public, especially the lower income groups in Dhaka, Bangladesh, by utilizing the platform of Corporate Social Responsibility. Individuals or businesses pay for water filters to be set up on sidewalks or in front of office buildings, providing a source of clean water for all who need it. They become the owners of the water filter, which becomes branded with their logo on it. Rickshaw pullers, street hawkers, or anyone using the water filters becomes aware of the person or organization that was responsible for providing them with potable water. The water units are placed outside homes or office spaces, which are then connected to the main water line. In this way, a purchasing company achieves a long run active CSR platform by addressing one of the biggest social problems in the community.

Project Trishna was inspired by an encounter Shah had while travelling on a rickshaw to Tejgaoh (Dhaka, Bangladesh), the rickshaw puller stopped by a building which had a small water container and asked Shah for a break to drink some water. After witnessing such a scene, Shah realized that he could make scenarios like this more common in the city by engaging companies looking for CSR to set up filtration devices in front of their office areas. By merging different ideas and strategies together, Shah created a business model and with the platform of volunteers and resources that Footsteps Foundation had to offer, Project Trishna was implemented within months of this unique encounter Shah had. He believes that in an urban setting like Dhaka where so many growing business entities are present, the platform of CSR will be able to address the problem of access to clean drinking water effectively by giving purchasing entities the incentive to promote their image in society. Trishna means Thirst in Bengali, and hence this project strives to address the problem of thirst in developing urban societies.

Since the project’s inauguration in Dhaka, Bangladesh, they have over 55 filtration systems active in the city, providing more than 22,000 glasses of free drinking water each day. The filters are mostly used by low income groups; comprised of rickshaw pullers, street vendors, beggars and slum dwellers.

Rickshaw pullers and street hawkers drink from one of several water filtration units provided by Project Trishna and partners (Image Credits: Footstep Foundation)

Users are even known to bring bottles, fill them up and use the water for their daily purposes. The project has created free access to over a million liters of clean drinking water since its inauguration. Footsteps Foundation has proved the notion that it doesn’t require big efforts to initiate real change; the right level of support and a hard working team is what is needed to drive home a cause. Without the support and commitment of the volunteers, Project Trishna might not have grown to the level which it is now. The volunteers are not only responsible for spreading awareness about Trishna, they actively pursue business leads with and are sometimes the ones responsible for delivering presentations that would get bring different partners to purchase the water filters. It goes without saying that the volunteers leave with a stronger sense of self and improved skills.

Shah believes that the younger generation should be given the chance to prove themselves and their worth. “I started Footsteps at a very young age and through my experience, I noticed a lot of people underestimated me and my potential mostly because I was young. This needs to change if communities wants to develop, the youth are the ones who can come up with the most creative and ingenious ideas to address key social problems, affecting the world. Secondly, many projects do not go through because people are pessimistic in their impacts. People should start believing in these projects and give them a chance, for you do not know what impact they might have on society unless they are implemented”.

Though he experienced some difficulties trying to convince his team of the viability of Project Trishna and get different businesses to adopt the initiative as part of their CSR, he persevered. He believes “obstacles are there to challenge your limits, and when you conquer most of your obstacles and make your intentions clear, people start believing in your cause”. His vision is to provide access to clean drinking water to urban communities in the developing world, such as Lagos (Nigeria) and Calcutta (India) and address the United Nations SDG Goal number 6 (Access to Clean Water and Sanitation) by the year 2030 through Project Trishna.

Edited by: Bayo Hassan Bello (Nomad, Writer, Techie)