Africa’s water champion
Kim Smith, a Master’s student who’s going on an expedition to Antarctica to raise awareness of the global water crisis, is also starting a social enterprise in female sanitation.
I grew up in Bishop Lavis. I lived with my grandmother and used to go with her to soup kitchens and community outreach projects. That’s where I first experienced death, and seeing people hungry. I’ve always internalised other people’s pain, and a lot of what I’m passionate about now comes from back then.
High school was the worst years of my life. I didn’t fit in. I was a “straight-A” student, but being smart wasn’t accepted. I downplayed my abilities because of the environment I was in. This was in Uitsig, where I often used to get robbed on my way to school.
My father eventually persuaded me to enrol for a BA degree at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). It was at university that I finally became at ease with who I was. I was allowed to be, and got involved in an academic society, Golden Key, as well as more community work.
Growing up in Bishop Lavis, there were always planes flying overhead and I used to tell people that one day I was going to get in one of those. Everybody used to laugh at me, because they knew that our family didn’t have much. To them, it seemed impossible. I worked so hard at UWC that I won a scholarship to the US. I made a vow then to travel every year. I believe that if you have a dream, you can make it happen.
I applied for all sorts of things: I’ve been awarded an Abe Bailey travel bursary and I’m a Mandela Rhodes scholar. I did a course in human rights and democracy in Sweden for six months, and that was the turning point in my life where I decided that the corporate thing that I was working towards was not me. I wanted to tackle hard life, and everyday challenges so I did my Master’s in social development as a BAAD scholar – a German academic exchange student. Since then I’ve been trying to navigate my way through social entrepreneurship – solving social problems while making money. I mean, why not? What’s so wrong with doing both? Moving away from the socialist versus capitalist way of thinking has been filled with ‘aha moments’ for me.
I’m not very sporty, but I am a chancer. I applied to Norway to be part of an expedition to Antarctica to raise awareness of the global water crisis. I was selected as one of the eight women from around the world, and I will be representing Africa.
We will be leaving in November and our journey on the ice will be for 80 days.
For 10 days the focus will be on Africa, and I’ll hopefully be getting our youth to realise that we do have a problem with water. When we talk about sustainability, we need to be talking to the youth, for their minds are still open. So I’ve been working with the Department of Water Affairs to develop an action plan that is relevant and meaningful to them.
I don’t want to be on the ice for 80 days as a gimmick. I want to do something that resonates.
To prepare for the endurance side of the expedition, I cycle, run, hike, and go to gym three times a week.
Temperatures can get to minus 60ºC, and you feel that cold as a pain in your bones. There’s a lot that could go wrong – from hypothermia to frostbite – but if we lived our lives by the “what ifs”, then nothing would ever happen.
Government, with all their politics, are neglecting a basic human right. I want to make a noise about that, and champion the right of access to water. Also, for those that do have water, I want them to preserve it.
What we have is what we have – we need to use it wisely, and value it.
As a woman I menstruate, but you’re not allowed to leave any waste on the ice, so I was worried about what I was going to do about that. I came across a menstrual cup that works like a tampon, but it is made from medical grade silicon, it’s environmentally friendly, and it is reusable. The product has been on the market for years, but there’s just no awareness around it.
Sixty percent of women in South Africa don’t have access to sanitary protection, which leads to all sorts of health problems. I’m trying to help solve this by making the cup accessible to the indigent market. It’s an empowering product as you can just put it in and carry on with your day. And usually in townships there aren’t clean toilets to change in.
I started off raising money to give the cups away, but then realised that this just perpetuates a dependency and isn’t sustainable either. So I’m now working on a hybrid model that uses the best of business practice and social needs so that I can make it as accessible as possible, while working with doctors and other investment partners to make it happen on a global level.
I very proudly say that I’m a coloured person, and that’s more of a cultural thing than a racial thing. So I’m proudly coloured, proudly South African, proudly African, proudly woman, and proudly part of a team that is taking on the challenges around water, the one thing that connects us all – human, plant and animal.
To me, leadership isn’t one of those things where you stand up and say “I am a leader”. People need to acknowledge you as one. I’m also not scared to be led, especially as I will be working with a team of eight strong-willed women.
I want to take advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given, and be a change agent for the betterment of society. So in that way I’d hope that in my eulogy people will say that they looked up to me.
People are frustrated with the current state of affairs, but there are a lot of ambitious, aspiring young citizens out there. What makes me hopeful is when I’m on the ground, and I see the work that’s being done by passionate people.
To find out more about the Antarctica expedition visit: www.yourexpedition.com
l Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.