10 Days in La Guajira

Discover the relationship that vulnerable, rural populations have with water

As part of an on-going movement to tackle the water crisis as it relates to vulnerable populations, the Project SWEET team reached a point where research available on the subject matter was not practically sufficient to carry the project forward. At this point, we realized that we needed to collect primary research and exercise empathy with our users in spite of the geographic, political and financial barriers that lied ahead.

We set out to live with our primary demographic in the northern deserts of Colombia where we sought to further understand the problem as it pertains to our target demographic – the indigenous Wayuu tribe. In spending every moment with the Wayuu I was presented with a unique opportunity to formally and informally research the user behaviors of a rural, desert community.

Leading into the trip, the team and I were intentional about identifying the key assumptions surrounding the problem, solution, and implementation we had been working on.

  • Assumption #1: The Wayuu tribe want clean water and value ease of transportation.
  • Assumption #2: The Wayuu dont realize how dirty their water is and how that can negatively impact health.
  • Assumption #3: A "per household" solution would benefit the Wayuu because their communities (called "rancherías") are geographically isolated.

User interview with the Wayuu

Through our user research trip we discovered so much that would have otherwise been hidden to us. Amongst the profound personal and professional learnings the team gleaned, there were three great insights that resulted from interviews and observations which directly validated or invalidated our assumptions.

  • Insight #1: When interviewing the Wayuu mothers (the primary waterbearers of the household) we found that what matters most is better transportation and not clean water. Living in an arid climate, the mothers didn't enjoy walking and carrying water in the hot desert sun. Typically they walk at least a mile to the nearest source of water (which are delapidated wind mills that pump up deep-seated, ground water) and because they didn't see any need for cleaner water they only valued a better transportation method.
  • How we updated our assumptions: Because most people who live in cities would take any measure to avoid drinking contaminated water on a daily basis, it’s logical to assume that people in need of clean water would be even more inclined to take these measures. In fact, it’s often the opposite. Living in poverty is a time-intensive situation where even the most simple things like boiling water require massive inputs of resources, time and energy. We couldn't expect to change behavior if there is no push or pull to create a new behavior. Cleaning water had to be the metaphorical "cherry on top" of our solution and not the sundae itself.
  • Wayuu mothers in front of hammocks and sign

  • Insight #2: We found that the Wayuu know their water isn't clean and they have identified issues in health but they do not correlate between the two. When asked about their current water sources, the Wayuu laughed because they were familiar with the stigma surrounding the uncleaned water they use on a regular basis. Although they knew their water wasn't potable, there was no consesus on whether the water had anything to do with the increase in child mortality and decrease in average lifespans. Often, the ill-effects of water were attributed to political conflicts that the tribe waged against mining companies or scarcity of food (both of which definitely contribute to the issue but are not the root-cause).
  • How we updated our assumptions: This learning led our team to separating our assumptions further. Yes, the Wayuu know their water is not clean, but we found that doesn't necessarily mean they understand the implications associated with drinking dirty water.
  • Young Wayuu boy

  • Insight #3: Having studied the demographics of the average Wayuu community before our trip we understood that their population pyramid was particularly short and squat – meaning they have a large number of people under the age of 30. What we learned was that nearly every single household contains a child of school age. In addition to that, we learned that with only one school in the region nearly all households have at least one family member at school monday through friday.
  • How we updated our assumptions: With households in any one tribe separated by miles of desert, we assumed that a decentralized approach would make addressing individual needs more directly but this closed the realm of possiblities. With this insight we generated many more potential solutions that put the school as a hub for clean water. We began to ask ourselves: "How might we make clean water universally available at the school?" and "How might we create a network of clean water transportation from schools to households?".

Teaching in an outdoor classroom

Leading up to the trip, I practiced my ability to organize and prepare for the execution of a complicated project. While on the ground, I developed my communication and observation skills so that I could "make the ordinary extraordinary" and glean precious insights that contributed to progress in Project SWEET.


Image of Paula Perez

Paula Perez

Paula Perez, co-founder of Project SWEET, is a student in mechanical engineering, now studying at the University of Colorado - Boulder. She moved to the United States from Colombia to study but her heart is close to home when it comes to solving complex social issues.

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Daniela Cadena

Daniela Cadena, co-founder of Project SWEET, has a bachelors in business administration, marketing, and international business from Florida International University as well as a masters in international relations from IE Business School. As an entrepreneur she discovered her commitment to solving social problems through profit-driven models.

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Gianfranco Colombi

Gianfranco Colombi has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University with a focus in Music Technology and Aerodynamics. He is certified in Neo4j Graph Databases, Design Thinking, Cisco Cybersecurity, Machine Learning, Unity for Augmented Reality.