LEEP (Lead Exposure Elimination Project) is an impact-driven nonprofit founded in 2020 through Charity Entrepreneurship’s incubation program. Our mission is to eliminate childhood lead poisoning and improve the health, wellbeing and potential of children worldwide. Our primary focus so far has been to work with policy-makers and industry to ban lead paints. (You can find out more in our launch post or our blog.) 

In this post we share some updates and lessons learnt during LEEP’s second year, following on from last year’s post. As background, by the end of LEEP’s first year, we had started programs in three countries and had received one government commitment to lead paint regulation. In LEEP’s second year (this year), we started working in six more countries, bringing the total to nine. We received another government commitment and paint manufacturers in two countries started switching to lead-free. You can see most of our current projects here

We hope the lessons in this post will be useful to potential nonprofit entrepreneurs and those working in policy change or advocacy. 

In other news, we are hiring! You can find out more later in this post. 

1. By running programs in parallel, policy advocacy organisations can avoid time bottlenecks and expand their impact faster

There are often waiting times in advocacy. We’ve found that governments or industry partners need time to independently move forward with the next steps in the process, such as organising a multi-stakeholder meeting, reviewing a new law, or when new paint ingredients are in transit. These waiting periods would slow down overall progress, but that can be avoided by running programs in multiple countries in parallel – when progress is bottlenecked by waiting times in one country, we can be moving activities ahead in others. 

We expect this could be a useful approach for other new policy organisations after their pilot stage, as it allows impact to be scaled to multiple countries without sacrificing speed in any individual country. 

2. A hybrid approach of remote and in-person is another factor that allows a small team to increase their speed 

In our first year we found that it was possible to make progress with remote advocacy. We’ve found this is still the case, even after countries opened up and in-person meetings were possible again. Remote advocacy can reduce time spent travelling and arranging formal visits with government partners. This speeds up our work and makes it easier for one team member to manage government and partner relationships in multiple countires. WhatsApp or Zoom meetings, in combination with WhatsApp messages and emails, have led to more progress than we previously expected. We experimented with having Zoom calls with policy-makers using an interpreter (French-English in Niger and Portuguese-English in Angola), which were more successful than we expected and we will include in our standard toolbox if no LEEP team member is fluent. Overall we find remote engagement to be an efficient complement to in-person advocacy. 

3. In-person conversations have outsized value

It’s important to dig into a theory of change to gain better information about which levers matter most and why. We would like to start eight new projects by the end of 2023 and be working in at least 40 countries in a few years; this makes it important to gain information quickly in order to rapidly scale with an efficient playbook.

When seeking this information, we have found that a number of very valuable lessons have come from in-person time in our focus-countries, which could be because:

  • It’s easier to build trust and have warmer relationships, which makes it easier to ask (potentially more sensitive) questions
  • In-person meetings often also leverage unstructured time with the relevant stakeholders (such as mealtimes or travel time) which is lost with online meetings. This time allows for more wide-ranging conversations.

An example of a lesson learned from in-person time on the policy side is that even when regulation has already been drafted, supporting the regulator to conduct a paint testing study can still be a critical step to allow the regulation to be promulgated. On the industry side, we’ve found that sometimes, the manager of a paint manufacturing company may not be aware that a lead-based ingredient is being used in their paint - the chemist (who designs the paint formula) is very likely to know. 

We think that other nonprofit entrepreneurs should make sure to spend time with key stakeholders early on, when testing their theory of change. As we mentioned earlier, remote advocacy may mean you can speed up parts of your work, but in-person time can unlock high-value lessons which crystallise your theory of change. This is why we plan to continue with a hybrid approach going forward. This will involve a mixture of working with local partners, recruiting local advocates, hiring Programs Managers who will coordinate the advocacy and visit themselves, as well as coordinating and managing programs remotely. 

4. Progress on the policy side is driving progress on the industry side and vice versa

Last year, we announced that Malawi’s Bureau of Standards had committed to implementing their lead paint standard. Since then, they have held a Technical Committee and are planning to make an updated (more enforceable) standard active by 30 November 2022

As well as supporting regulation design and enforcement, we have been offering assistance to manufacturers to ‘reformulate’ their paints (replace lead ingredients). This includes offering meetings with our paint technologist and providing lists of possible suppliers of lead-free ingredients. Three out of four manufacturers in Malawi have engaged with our support and are working on reformulation. 

We are finding that progress on the policy side furthers progress on the industry side, and vice versa:

  • Policy → industry. There are often some costs to business in replacing lead-based ingredients in a paint, most notably, lead-free yellow or red pigments for high-performance paints are generally more expensive than lead pigments. This means that a manufacturer may be worried about being outcompeted if they use lead-free pigments and they may not want to ‘go first’. If regulation is brought in and effectively enforced, it creates a level playing field and makes it easier for individual manufacturers to switch. In Malawi, manufacturer engagement with LEEP ramped up when the phaseout date was set, and some manufacturers have highlighted the importance of enforcement - so that other manufacturers also comply.
  • Industry → policy. Understandably, a government will want to limit any negative effects on a productive industry. We have found that a regulatory authority often already monitors paint companies and therefore has a pre-existing relationship with them. In some cases, regulatory authorities seem to be largely funded by licences from industry, which muddies the authority’s incentives. In general, we are finding that policy-makers seem pleased if LEEP can offer support to manufacturers during the process of bringing in regulation.

This highlights how understanding stakeholders’ incentives and their relationships with each other is important for anyone working on policy-change. 

5. It's worth getting creative to work out how to connect with partners and governments in new countries

In our first year, the government of Malawi committed to implementing their lead paint regulation in less than three months after we started advocacy, despite us not having a pre-existing network there. In many of the countries we have expanded to this year, no-one was working on lead paint and we have been engaging with stakeholders and building coalitions from scratch. 

To provide a couple of examples of how we got started:

  • A connection put us in touch with the Global Shapers network, and through this we recruited Dr Guillermo Olmedo who has just completed a paint study with us in Bolivia.
  • We asked a friend with a large online following to tweet about possible new LEEP projects and, after following up with several replies, we have been working with an environmental NGO, who have helped us connect with the government in Angola and who we expect to partner with for ongoing advocacy. We also met Dr Nasser Hassane, a Chevening scholar, who is working on a paint study with us in Niger.

We think other nonprofit entrepreneurs should be encouraged by these results - it all starts with reaching out!

6. Improving testing capacity is often an important priority for governments

Ongoing testing of paints for lead content by a regulatory authority is an important deterrence mechanism. In several countries we’re working in, the government does not have the equipment to test paint for lead and policy-makers have highlighted the importance of strengthening testing capacity. However, samples of dry paint can be sent to international laboratories and one government we work with has already used this approach.

One policy-maker at a regulatory authority explained that sending money out of the country (by testing samples abroad) would be a drawback for them. We also get the impression that some policy-makers want a sustainable[1] solution that doesn’t require dependence on other countries. The best option from their perspective would be obtaining testing equipment, but these range in price from about $30,000-50,000, and usually require glassware, a supply of gases and trained technicians to use.  Meanwhile, the costs of international testing are much lower - at the lab we use in the US it costs only $27 for each sample tested. 

We are offering to pay for international testing for enforcement for a period of time – this should reduce the financial burden to a regulatory authority and demonstrate the ease and feasibility of international testing. We are also exploring leveraging other funders to invest in testing capacity. One step we have taken is to raise the issue in wider circles, for example in this memo for the US Federal Government.

7. Sources of lead exposure other than paint offer potential room to scale 

One way we can further increase LEEP’s impact is to address additional sources of lead exposure beyond paint. The total addressable burden is huge - lead exposure is estimated to cause around 1% of the global burden of disease and lost earnings of almost $1 trillion in low- and middle-income countries. It’s plausible that there are other cost-effective, scalable interventions that LEEP would be well-placed to implement. Other significant sources potentially worth targeting include spices, lead acid batteries, and lead pigments. To find out more, you can read this report from Rethink Priorities, this page from GiveWell, or our blog post on other sources of lead exposure. 

The evidence base for working on sources of lead other than paint is generally weaker; often there are large uncertainties around:

  • the prevalence of a source in a given location
  • how much a source raises blood lead levels when it is present
  • which interventions are effective.

There is an explore-exploit trade-off: to what extent do we continue with the intervention we are more certain is impactful vs investigate other interventions, that may be even better? We plan to spend roughly 10% of LEEP’s resources researching other sources of lead exposure until the end of 2023; we will start by conducting desk research, leading to field research on the prevalence of different sources, with the aim of piloting a new program.

Get involved

If you are excited about LEEP's work, there are various things you can do to help us grow our impact.

Work with us and share our job ads

As as we strengthen our model and scale to new locations, we are currently hiring:

  • a Head of Operations - a dynamic and organised operations specialist who will build our operational capacity as we strengthen our model and scale to new locations
  • multiple Programs Managers - dynamic generalists with excellent communication skills who will be responsible for running LEEP’s programs in up to three countries each

We would really appreciate you sharing our job ads with your network - here is a link to our post on LinkedIn. Contact jack@leadelimination.org for any questions about the roles. 

We may also have capacity for research and communications interns, if you are interested, please send a copy of your CV and explain what you are looking for to lucia@leadleimination.org 

Stay informed

You can sign up to our newsletter, or follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

Provide funding - later!

We were recently awarded an $800,000 grant over two years from Schmidt Futures and $400,000 from the FTX Future Fund, which fill our funding gap for our paint program work until roughly the end of 2023. Depending on how our research into sources other than paint goes over the next several months, we may decide to fundraise for new programs later in 2022. If you may be interested in providing funding, please reach out to jack@leadelimination.org or you can donate here.   

Thank you!

Huge thanks to LEEP’s amazing interns:  James Hu, Ben Stewart, Kirsten Angeles, and Rika Gabriel. Thank you to all our partners and advisors. Thank you to Schmidt Futures for being the first foundation to fund LEEP’s work, and to everyone in the EA community who has donated to LEEP - individual donors filled half our budget for our second year and we are immensely grateful for this. 

  1. ^

    We enjoyed Karen Levy’s comments on the concept of ‘sustainability’ on the 80,000 Hours podcast; some of her points seem pertinent to this issue of testing capacity. 


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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:14 AM

“In LEEP’s second year (this year), we started working in six more countries, bringing the total to nine. We received another government commitment and paint manufacturers in two countries started switching to lead-free.”

I would just like to point out that this is incredible. Policy advocacy seems very hard. To have two commitments from two countries in two years seems very unusual for any domain of policy or regulation. Keep in mind that this domain involves one of the most potent poisons we managed to spread everywhere. Even if these countries drag their feet, they would have to drag very hard for the value of these two years, and the expected value of LEEP to not be very high. 

The cost-effectiveness looks strong with this one. 

Great work. I think point 4 is really interesting:

4. Progress on the policy side is driving progress on the industry side and vice versa

I think this is perhaps applicable to other cause areas where a combination of industry and policy action might be helpful (e.g. corporate campaigns on cage-free chickens and policy change on the same, e.g. incentivising pandemic prevention investment). 

  1. How  easy/hard was it for you to understand the incentives of different stakeholders and map their relationships?
  2. Do you have any advice for others on how to approach this?

Yes, I think this probably is applicable!

1. At first it took a fair bit of time to build up an accurate picture of the different stakeholders, their relationships and incentives. And I'm sure there's still a lot more to learn. But with each new country we work in we can apply what we've learn in previous countires, as there are often a lot of similarities. For example, paint manufacturers in different countires might have similar perspectives, incentives, or relationships with regulators. 

2.  I'd advise starting by asking people with understanding of the space who aren't the key people you'll need to influence or work directly with  (e.g. before speaking to a key policy-maker, find out the lay of the land from NGOs or individuals who work with the same government agencies or policy-makers on different issues). 

Then when it comes to speaking to the key  stakeholders it seems helpful to have an initial conversation that is very exploratory, asking lots of questions to understand their perspectives, relationships, incentives, etc. The aim of that first conversation is usually information gathering, information sharing, relationship building, and agreeing on a second conversation to discuss/confirm concrete next steps. 

A lot of the time, an important incentive/relationship won't become clear until we've developed a closer relationships with the stakeholder. In person time helps massively with this. 

This is awesome — thank you for your work and for sharing the journey :)

Indeed, this is so exciting to read!

So happy to see all of this, there’s definitely a lot LEEP has learned and I’m very excited for your work! :)

So cool.

My random thoughts are, perhaps you use them for inspiration:

1) Are there any paint chemists' WhatsApp groups? You could offer assistance in reformulating paints with little to no cost premium for health reasons? It should be easy for them to talk to the managers (in a way which would make them cool or gain a salary bonus), such as forwarding an image that highlights possible health marketing and thus profit. This could cause a 'race' toward eliminating lead, since competitors could point out other paints' harmfulness.

2) How many labs for $30-50k are needed per country or region? Can the lab make profit in other ways too, using the same equipment? Would some regulators be interested in getting the equipment, testing samples from around, and making profit?

for example in this memo for the US Federal Government

Do you know about regulations.gov? These documents that mention 'lead' are open for comments. The EU Commission's initiatives also are open for feedback and evidence. Maybe something related to import? As a sidenote, affluent market regulations should prohibit lead paint. Selling at these markets is a forgone opportunity for manufacturers of unsafe paint. Also, are there any MNCs that would have subsidiaries in different nations of different safety levels? That would be a bad rep.

Thanks for these thoughts!

1) We don't know of paint chemists' WhatsApp groups, but there could some out there, or some other kind of association that we could offer assistance to directly. There are definitely paint manufacturer associations in some countries, and this seems like a good approach. 

2) It'd depend on the size of the country, but probably only one analysis machine would be needed in most of the African countries we work in, and it would have a lot of spare capacity for analysing other things or samples from other countries. Yes, the labs can be profitable and can test for multiple things using the same equipment (other sources of lead, other heavy metals), but there would need to be a demand for analysis. It could be that the demand will be created by regulation, and labs will start opening up once there's a market for it. But if governments are reluctant to put in regulation until there is local testing capacity, it could be hard to make a start. 

Thanks for the reply! ... Well, that seems like a unique profit opportunity for the government that first invests into a testing facility: when countries pass regulation, then they would test in the lab which has been built first.

It's my understanding that in places like Malawi, the paints are oil based and can be manufactured without advanced equipment, whereas in developed countries the paints are latex based and require more complicated equipment to produce the proper emulsion. I'm curious if the manufacturers that you are working with are simply replacing the pigments and continuing with oil-based manufacturing?

Thanks Ruth! It's true that oil-based paints are much more common in Malawi relative to water-based paints (aka latex or emulsion) compared to more industrialised countries. Our  best guess is that 60% of decorative paints sold are oil-based in Malawi. And yes, so far the manufacturers we've been speaking to are planning on replacing the lead pigments in their oil-based paints. As far as I know, it's also possible to make water-based paints without complicated/expensive equipment. Some reasons we've heard for why oil-based paints are popular are they're easier to clean, cheaper, longer-lasting, and people having aesthetic preferences for the gloss. 

Water-based paint is much less likely to contain lead so it would probably be good if it was used more, but I think it would be harder to change the buying habits of large numbers of people than for manufacturers to replace lead ingredients.