How a returned Peace Corps volunteer and a Marine Corps combat veteran joined forces in their mission of bringing clean drinking water to people in need.

Cesar Murillo first witnessed the devastation of water scarcity during his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Ambohitrambo community of Madagascar, an island-country located in the Indian Ocean near the coast of Southeast Africa.

Every morning at sunrise, all the women and children of the Ambohitrambo village would carry whatever they could – buckets, pails, jugs – and walk to the local water well. While the community was fortunate to have a functioning well, the structure itself was outdated and poorly maintained. As a result, water could only be pumped for about 4 hours a day. Sometimes the water ran dry. If you weren’t at the front of the line, you and your family were unable to have water for the day.

Making water
Drinkable for

No water for drinking, no water for washing, no water for cooking

Often, the water was contaminated. Water-borne illnesses were prevalent among the community and new infections occurred almost every week. When children became ill, their parents took out loans to pay for medicine. But as contaminated water continued to be used, the children became ill again soon after. The parents struggled to pay the accruing loan debts, putting a significant strain on family incomes.

Ambohitrambo received relief when a non-profit British NGO funded a public health project in the village. A new water well was built that greatly improved both water access and quality. The community could finally consume clean water and practice improved sanitation practices, and these practices instilled a new sense of vitality into the small, close-knit community.

The near-by Mahajoarivo village where Cesar worked, however, continued to suffer from water shortage and completely lacked access to a working well during the dry season. As a result, the community was forced to use water from a watering hole where animals grazed, which resulted in further illness and exacerbated the cycle of poverty.

The community needed change. And Cesar knew that he needed to take action.

Cesar met with the community leaders to form a plan. Witnessing first-hand the success of the project in Ambohitrambo, Cesar proposed to build a new well in Mahajoarivo. He knew that the well would need to be sustainable, operable throughout the year, and able to support the entire community. To ensure the effectiveness of the model, Cesar worked with an engineer from a water construction firm and his friend and work partner, Dera Rakotonarivo. In April 2015, Cesar wrote a letter to Water Charity. Water Charity is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is dedicated to bringing clean drinking water and improved sanitation to people in developing countries. Water Charity has completed more than 3,600 public health projects in 72 countries, benefiting nearly 4 million individuals. The organization approved the Mahajoarivo project within two weeks, and construction began in November 2015.

With assistance from all involved, the well was completed just one month later.

Finally, the Mahajoarivo village had access to safe, clean water. The constant cycles of sickness were broken and the overall health of the community improved. And as health improved, so did morale. The villagers could now focus on improving their livelihoods, growing their businesses, and providing for their families. They developed a newfound dignity and took great pride in their work. Despite the many difficulties Mahajoarivo still faced, the water well became a symbol of hope.

Today, Cesar regularly receives news through Dera, who lives near Mahajoarivo. While the community has grown and is embracing new economic opportunities, an unprecedented drought in the 2017 dry season has caused the well to function improperly. Cesar is currently working to ensure that the Mahajoarivo community is provided with the necessary supplies to repair the well.

Given the overall success of the projects in both Ambohitrambo and Mahajoarivo, Cesar further researched the international water scarcity issue when he returned home from Madagascar. He learned that the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that nearly one-fifth of the world’s current population lives in areas of water scarcity, and 780 million people presently live without clean drinking water. The United Nation’s Human Development Report also states that each year, more than 2.2 million children die from diarrhea and water-borne illnesses.


Cesar had seen how just one water well could have a transformational impact on a community, and he wanted to keep spreading awareness of the water scarcity issue.

That’s when Cesar met Lance.

Lance Zaal, a Marine Corps combat veteran, completed his MBA at the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary in 2012. As a lifelong entrepreneur, in 2016 he founded Ignition, a non-profit organization aimed at creating profitable and sustainable businesses while simultaneously igniting a passion for entrepreneurship.

When Lance heard Cesar’s vision of founding a premium coffee company to help create a world where everyone has access to safe, clean drinking water, Lance realized that he shared the same vision.

Lance arrived in Iraq for his first tour of duty in March 2004. Lance led and conducted countless patrol and counter-insurgency operations at the Forward Operating Base Hit. Because of the work accomplished by Lance and his team, attacks on and around the base were reduced by 93%.

During his time at the base, Lance observed the dangerous pressure that insurgent regimes placed upon local Iraqis. Threats were constantly made to innocent citizens: association with the American soldiers would put both them and their families at risk of harsh punishment and even death.

The majority of these Iraqi citizens lived in poverty, and few had modern conveniences. Access to water was limited to makeshift wells. One day, however, insurgent forces blew up the only well at a village located close to the base. The Marines had already been delivering water to Iraqis in need. But now, the closest well was destroyed.

With no municipal infrastructure and no running water, the Iraqis were completely dependent on the Marine Expeditionary Unit for clean water.

Lance completed two more tours during his service and traveled extensively, including trips to Iraq, Cuba, and Chile. While in Chile, Lance trained with Chilean Commandos and British Marines. His unit was involved extensively in local outreach, and Lance witnessed first-hand how the Chilean communities, often living in impoverished conditions, welcomed the foreign soldiers’ aid with immense gratitude.

So when Lance listened to Cesar’s vision, he understood. Both Lance and Cesar had seen, heard, and felt the pain of communities who did not have access to clean water.


And both Lance and Cesar harbored the ambition to give back to these communities, and communities in need throughout the world, in a unique and effective way.

Mandela Coffee was founded in 2017. The mission is simple. By producing the highest quality, Fair Trade blends, grown on sustainable farms, Mandela Coffee funds water well construction projects around the globe through Water Charity. The company is seeking to spark a revolution in coffee-drinking habits that will bring awareness to the issue of water scarcity and help to create a world where everyone has access to safe, clean drinking water.