Thorsten Kiefer harnesses the role model status of sport superstars, the power of fun, interactive gaming experiences and cutting edge communication to tackle persisting taboos and charge the “ugly” issues of sanitation and hygiene with positive emotion—in order to make improved solutions a shared aspiration and to facilitate life-saving behavior change around these issues amongst all target groups.
Thorsten promotes sanitation and hygiene in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the two world regions most affected by preventable diseases caused by poor sanitation and hygiene conditions. Using the role model status of sport superstars, a unique set of interactive sanitation and hygiene games, and strictly positive cutting edge communication, he has created a new framework that changes water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues and facilitates behavior change mind sets around sanitation and hygiene issues. The key element of Thorsten’s work is that instead of working with the typical top-down health-based messaging traditionally used in the WASH sector, Thorsten consistently links sanitation to so-called higher level human needs and desires to make toilets and good hygiene aspirational behavior, cool and sexy. Using simple, fun, easy to implement, and effective messaging combined with buy-in from stars as role models, Thorsten creates a broad movement under the roof of his WASH United Club, allowing children and other key stakeholders to become members when proving knowledge and committing to its mission of behavior change and improved sanitation and hygiene solutions. His approach starts with young people in schools and strategically involves all other target groups important for the advancement of effective sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and practice.
Through attractive storytelling and opportunities for co-branding as an incentive for further spread and active stakeholder involvement, Thorsten effectively tackles taboos, fosters commitment among politicians, and generates sustained interest of mainstream media and citizen organizations (COs) for WASH issues. His goal is to effectively train one million children and reach about one billion people with clear and positive messaging on WASH by 2016, thereby creating large-scale bottom-up demand for effective sanitation and hygiene solutions. Within two and a half years, Thorsten and his partners have trained close to 60,000 children and adolescents in nine sub-Saharan countries and India and reached approximately 250 million people through innovative campaigns and media collaborations.
Thorsten’s father traveled regularly for work, which sparked Thorsten’s interest in other cultures at an early age. After completing his high school degree and motivated by an ambition to promote justice and human rights at international level, he studied law. His interests in human rights and the environment, increased after studying in Venezuela for a year, where he met both inspiring teachers and also witnessed serious human rights violations. Thorsten completed his studies in Amsterdam with his thesis on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation and became drawn to sanitation as an issue in urgent need of attention.
Thorsten realized that to really influence the sector he had to be an expert on the topic, so he worked for the Center on Housing Rights and Evitions, then a leading international CO in the area, and later for the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Despite his passion for the topic, he craved a new kind of impact in the field, yet he also understood the hurdles that traditional WASH activities faced in achieving impact. Thorsten knew he needed a different approach based on exciting communication and strong role model integration to really address the neglect of sanitation and hygiene. Inspired by Ashoka Fellow Jack Sim and his creative approaches to the field, he came up with the idea of WASH United. Thorsten initially worked on WASH United in 2009 under the umbrella of another CO, Bread for the World. In the fall of 2011 he launched his own CO with the aim of independently bringing more creative and entrepreneurial approaches to the field of WASH. Within the first half year, he created a strong team of eight working from Berlin and another eight country coordinators working from African countries, as well as six staff in India.
Thorsten envisions WASH United becoming an innovation generator for the WASH sector, with a focus on WASH in Schools, large-scale public awareness raising campaigns, and behavior change communication. Using franchise models and open source, he aims to scale his approach to a broad range of organizations. Within only two years, WASH United has rapidly expanded its network, working with almost 100 national and international partners. The numerous requests by partners to cooperate with WASH United and to adopt its approach exhibit the great need for Thorsten’s innovative WASH software. Thorsten is known in the field for his creativity and ability to think outside of the box, as well as for his passion and persistence. He does not easily take “no” for an answer. Propelled by his entrepreneurial spirit, Thorsten can have impact that is difficult for established organizations that may be more risk averse or restrained by bureaucratic systems.