Nonprofit WHOlives empowers 12 million people with clean water, health and opportunity

June 12, 2023

John Renouard, WHOlives founder

Founder John Renouard was shocked to see African girls walking long distances to fetch nasty water in 2010. His dream of a human-powered drill that could access clean water hundreds of feet deep quickly came to fruition within a year, with the help of engineering students. Now, 13 years later, the Village Drill is providing a lifetime of clean water and more for millions of people all over the world.

A Utah man’s obsession with meeting a very basic need has now helped more than 12 million people in dozens of countries. John Renouard of South Jordan invented the Village Drill to provide easy access to clean water in the developing world.

The journey began in 2010 when Renouard was in Africa with his family after his son had been doing missionary work there. He was surprised to see how much time Africans spent collecting water – in fact, dirty water that you wouldn’t let your dog drink from swamps and other areas.

He asked his driver: “Are you telling me that these girls are carrying water in those buckets, yet the boys don’t have to? And on top of that, they have to bring the water to the school because the school doesn’t have any water even though we’re in the middle of the second-largest city in Tanzania?”

It really bothered Renouard that this was still a problem in today’s world. Children miss a lot of school while they’re fetching contaminated water, plus they often get sick from drinking it.

“I just couldn’t believe everybody was still carrying water on their heads,” he said. “It just didn’t make any sense to me.”

Even today, at least 2 billion people worldwide use a drinking water source contaminated with feces, according to the World Health Organization

Renouard became focused on brainstorming solutions.

“Who was I to try to solve the world’s water crisis?” he said. “I have no engineering background or advanced degrees. I just really wanted to help, so I started thinking about simple solutions that others either hadn’t considered or had quickly dismissed. Many said my ideas would never work.”

Renouard eventually came up with a rough sketch of a possible solution: a human-powered drill that could create water wells. He called it the Village Drill. 

A team of engineering students from Brigham Young University – Renouard’s alma mater – spent months helping him design it as part of their capstone project.

They traveled to Tanzania to test the drill, and the first version was ready to be deployed in 2011.

“Many people think there’s no water in Africa,” Renouard said. “There is. It’s just 120 to 150 feet underground. There’s really nothing out there like the Village Drill. It works because it’s so simple, and it actually gets easier to drill the deeper that you go.”

So far, the Village Drill has created an estimated 12,500 wells. The drill can fit in the back of a pickup truck (or even a canoe!) and takes less than an hour to assemble, making it much more cost-effective than a typical drilling rig, plus the Village Drill can reach remote areas that aren’t accessible by the big drilling trucks.

Renouard’s nonprofit, WHOlives, trains entrepreneurs in the developing world to start their own drill teams using the technology. The organization offers zero-interest loans to those businesses to make the drill affordable. 

Drill teams generally reach water within a couple of days or weeks at a depth of about 150 feet (45 meters). The Village Drill’s maximum depth is 270 feet (80 meters).

In addition, the nonprofit’s Community-Funded Loan Program has helped many villages afford a well. Villagers make a down payment and then make small monthly payments to cover the cost of the well, which averages between $3,500 and $5,000. 

A lifetime of clean water costs about $5 per person, and for context, a day laborer in an African village makes an average of $6 per day.

“One day’s work for a lifetime of clean water is a bargain,” Renouard said. “It’s very, very affordable. This is a win-win for the drill teams and the communities.”

WHOlives subsidizes the cost through the generosity of its donors. People can become monthly donors at

“I’m really good at the ‘nonprofit’ part of WHOlives,” Renouard often jokes. “Helping people costs money, but I’d challenge you to find another charity that gives you a greater impact per dollar. Collectively, we can give someone water for life for less than $5! Last year, 92% of donations went directly to projects.”

Most charities simply give away wells. However, WHOlives takes a unique approach by partnering with the villages. Their investment is crucial, promoting self-reliance and ending the cycle of dependency. The wells last longer because communities are motivated to take better care of them.

They often sell water to nearby villages, creating a source of income. Their health improves because they’re drinking clean water for the first time, and they can grow more food for themselves. WHOlives is offering garden towers to villages as well to help them maximize their food production. Excess crops can be sold, too.

The Village Drill has won noteworthy international recognition, such as taking the top prize in the World Water Challenge 2021.

About 140 of the drills are now in about 40 countries spread across four continents. Most are in Africa; additional drills have been deployed to the Texas-Mexico border, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga and other areas.

WHOlives trains and supports drill crews as they go around to different communities and offer to drill wells. The Red Cross as well as other nonprofits, NGOs and religious groups also buy the Village Drill to run their own programs. (Read about a team in Liberia that recently drilled their 100th well.) Private individuals occasionally purchase one as well, usually to drill wells on their property.

WHOlives relies on about 15 suppliers – mostly Utah companies – to manufacture the parts needed for the Village Drill, which is priced at $29,900 plus shipping and taxes.

Each drill crew typically consists of five people, so all these efforts have created hundreds of jobs around the world.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve done,” Renouard said. “I never anticipated this would become my life’s work. We want to get clean water to everyone all over the world. That solves half of their health issues. Then, we really want to stick around and help the villages develop sustainable businesses so they can become self-sufficient. We’re doing more of that as we’re getting more donations, but fundraising has always been tough. Our approach is really the best way to lift people out of poverty.”

While working on the water projects, Renouard was shocked to learn about some of the women’s rights issues in Africa. He couldn’t believe that the horrible practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) was still happening today. Learn how fuel donations for police cars have already led to a wave of arrests and convictions in southwest Kenya, putting a stop to FGM.


WHOlives is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on empowering people with clean water in the developing world and protecting girls from female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriages. The organization’s goal is in the acronym WHO – providing clean Water, better Health and economic Opportunities to all people – while prioritizing sustainability and self-reliance. WHOlives has drilled more than 12,500 wells in 37+ countries using its revolutionary human-powered Village Drill, securing clean water for more than 12 million people. In the effort to end FGM, common-sense solutions and leadership have already resulted in a wave of arrests and convictions since fall 2022. Connect with on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


John Renouard, founder and executive director of the nonprofit WHOlives, is known affectionately in Africa as “Bwana Maji,” or Mr. Water. After visiting in 2010, he knew he had to do something about the lack of clean water in many African villages. John worked with engineering students to bring to life his dream of a human-powered drill that could access clean water hundreds of feet deep. The Village Drill has since created more than 12,500 wells in 37+ countries, empowering more than 12 million people with clean water, health and opportunity. John is also currently working to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya. The American Red Cross presented him an International Hero Award in 2015. Connect with John at or on LinkedIn.