Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Surrounded by a 4-foot wall of water, the taxi driver struggled to steer the cab. Liquid seeped into the vehicle. The car’s solo passenger—Allison Hill, Managing Director of LifeStraw—sat idle on the flooded road for 27 consecutive hours. Despite the unexpected cyclone and severe 72-hour floods that greeted Hill in India in January 2016, she was completely calm.
Her first thought was to dive into emergency response—a core part of her international health care work. “That intimate community experience is critical and doesn’t scare me,” she said. “I had nowhere to go—I was in the middle of the flood for 27 hours—and then afterwards, I was able to help and understand what needed to be coordinated.”
“One of my favorite things to do is to be in dicey situations,” said Hill.
“I love experiencing new things whether I’m sleeping in a tent in South Sudan or stuck in a flood in China.”
Hill first got her feet wet in international health care and development 16 years ago—when she did clinical work during the HIV/Aids epidemic, in Zambia. She knew her life focus immediately: To improve the quality of life and the efficiencies of health care in developing worlds. Seven years ago, she joined Vestergaard, a global health company that works to support vulnerable populations in developing countries through solutions that fight malaria, HIV/AIDS, diarrheal diseases and neglected tropical diseases.
“I came to work at Vestergaard and the LifeStraw brands to work to bring water to millions of people at a time rather than a community by community approach,” Hill said. She oversees Vestergaard’s water program, which helps to provide safe drinking water to communities around the globe through LifeStraw water filtration devices. From handheld pipes to high-volume 50-litre storage tanks, LifeStraw’s various filters range in capacity for community, household and individual use. And Hill stirs all the pots. She works directly with product designers to develop efficient appliances, helps to direct sustainable and recyclable material resourcing, and meets with government officials to implement community-wide programs.
“My work changes on a day-to-day basis, which makes it fun,” Hill said. “You may find me presenting in front of the United Nations, and the next day getting my hands dirty in remote Western Kenya while working with teachers on how to build hand washing into their school curriculum and playing with the kids.”
On average, she travels internationally 250 days a year to 64 countries around the globe where the company’s teams are based. Most frequently, she is on the ground in Rwanda, South Sudan, Kenya and a dozen other countries in Africa, as well as India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Myanmar and Nepal. With her home base outside of Baltimore, where she lives with her husband, Hill commutes to the company office in Washington D.C.—occasionally.
Most recently, Hill built a bridge between the world of outdoor enthusiasts and LifeStraw humanitarian mission.
“Outdoor consumers are very much engaged to environmental conservation and also on social impacts,” Hill said about the adventurers that continually reached out to ask about LifeStraw’s work in developing countries and to request product samples. “This is a special consumer base that has the power to, and wants to, get engaged in bigger, global problems. They want to buy product that has impact on the mountain range that they love or other individuals that need the same thing they do.”
If LifeStraw designed a hand-held water filter for outdoor recreationalists, it could fill a need and also connect consumers’ buying power with the company cause. Hill saw the epiphany through: LifeStraw launched the Follow The Liters program in 2013, based on two key components. Each sale needed to drive impact and reach for school-based safe-water programs in developing countries. Second, the company needed to create a new consumer-designed product (also called LifeStraw) to get the attention of adventurers, for activities such as backpacking and hiking, she said.
For each LifeStraw product sold, a portion of the sale goes directly toward the installation of a 50-liter water purifier in a children’s school in western Africa. Hill works hand-in-hand with local governments to implement the program and spends time in the field scouting schools with teams. In two years of sales, Follow the Liters has helped to provide 361,000 students with safe drinking water in close to 631 schools. Financially broken down, each purchase helps to support safe drinking water for one student for an entire school year (each purifier lasts at least five years).
Hill sees the impact that Follow The Liter’s program has on schools first hand—but an integral piece to changing the world is to invite others to stand beside her.
“We brought seven consumers with us to Kenya,” said Hill about a social media campaign that LifeStraw ran in November 2015. “I’ve been working here for 16 years, and to see them seeing the impact that their buying decision made across the world was as eye opening for me as it was for them.”
Next up? Follow The Liters heads to its second region: India, where Hill has extended the program, which is set to launch this month. Hill isn’t slowing down. She’s devoted to saving the world, one drop at a time.