Driving home from the airport, it sank in what we'd seen in Bangladesh

In November last year, Max Foundation organised its yearly inspirational trip for several donors. Mieke van Engelen and Emma Holthuis from Marie-Stella-Maris, an Amsterdam-based lifestyle brand that sells mineral water products, joined us. With their foundation* they have been supporting our Max-WASH programme since 2013.

You could say Mieke and Emma are typical millennials. It should never just be about financial gain for yourself;  positive social impact should be part of your core business. With that value they are completely at home at Marie-Stella-Maris, which they affectionately refer to as "Marie". We interviewed them about their experiences during the trip to some of Max Foundation’s projects in Bangladesh.

  The 'before and after effect' 

Mieke: To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about visiting an urban slum. But when we arrived, that changed. I noticed how neat and well-organised it was! The toilets were clean and people had simple basins and taps in their shacks. Even a little mirror on the wall. I felt kind of relieved. But the relief didn’t really last (she laughs). Riad, the Country Director of Max Foundation Bangladesh, spontaneously organised a visit to a slum where Max Foundation hadn’t been active yet. I guess to give an example of a ‘baseline’ situation. 

Well. That was a different story. The toilets were so incredibly dirty and unhygienic. The children in the village were clearly smaller and thinner, and their hair was dirty. We also witnessed people there still washing themselves in contaminated rivers. I found all of that quite shocking to see. But it demonstrates the difference before and after Max Foundation’s work really well.

"Bengals prefer not to receive aid; they want to do it themselves. That is why I think Max Foundation goes about it the right way..."

Why didn't I pay more attention in school?
Mieke: During our whole journey I was especially impressed by the women in the villages. It became very clear to me that for a succesful, lasting implementation of MaxWASH, their active role is essential. 

        

(Photo on the Left: Sarah, sanitation entrepreneur. Right: Mieke in an village meeting to analyse the households for WASH)

Emma: Yes, the women impressed me too. Especially that sanitation entrepreneur, Sarah (photo above). Trained by Max Foundation, she now produces and sells sanitation products, such as latrines. And she is successful! But she has had to do almost everything alone and works incredibly hard to achieve what she does. Back in Amsterdam I was walking in the park with my boyfriend, looking at our surroundings. It suddenly hit me: everything is so tidy and clean here. And look at all the facilities we have! I have been raised with everything I needed handed to me. I got alittle emotional. I've had all these privileges. Have I really gotten most out of life?!

Mieke: Yes, I had the same feeling. I mean, at secondary school for example, I took French lessons three times a week. Now I can hardly string a sentence together. Why didn't I pay more attention?

People there don't want help
Emma: What really stood out for me was the entrepreneurial mindset of Bangladeshis. During a presentation in one of the project villages we visited, people were constantly ‘doing business’ on the phone. One man even had four phones on him (laughs). During our visit to the Dutch Embassy, the ambassador told us that people prefer not to receive aid; they want to do it themselves.

That is why I think Max Foundation goes about it the right way; you guys help to kick-start the project, but achieve sustainable results by letting the community take ownership. A result of this approach is that people can be proud of their own community. Just like Sarah. She was visibly proud of what she had achieved.

"Neither of us believes in feeling sorry for people; we believe in being optimistic and sharing positive stories"

Better stories for our clients
Mieke: On a journey like this you just get overwhelmed by impressions. These remote villages, where you would normally never end up. The capital city, Dhaka, so buzzing and crowded. On our way back home we drove home from Schiphol on the A10. Only then did I start to understand what we had seen. I really look forward to sharing all these stories with our clients. I feel I can now tell them much more vividly and personally, now that I've seen the impact of our contribution with my own eyes.

Emma: Totally! And before, we mainly talked about the 'water aspects' of the projects, which makes sense in light of our core business. But I hadn’t realised how crucial hygiene is. Washing your hands for example. is learned in the West from a very early age and therefore common practice. But over there it is not.

Part of the strategy to bring about change in hygienic behaviour, is monitoring the wieght and height of children in open meeting places (see other Max Foundation on this). We had the privilege to attend such a session. The parents see with their own eyes the result simply washing hands regularly; their child's health really improves.

It was great to see how Max foundation is a good match for Marie, and even for me and Mieke by the way. We both have an entrepreneurial mindset, but the link with lasing social impact is essential. Neither of us believes in feeling sorry for people; we prefer optimism and sharing positive stories. The trip really brought our impact to life, for us as well as for the whole Marie team here in Amsterdam.

Watch Emma and Mieke’s vlog 

*Marie-Stella-Maris’ You buy & contribute principle: For every product that you buy, a fixed amount contributes to clean drinking water projects. For their natural mineral water this means 5 cents per liter and for their beauty products a contribution of €1 per product.

(Interview by Ania Sharwood)

To learn more about the Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation, please visit their website

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