Hyderabad-based Waterlife India is providing safe water sustainably and at an affordable price to millions of people in rural India.
Sudesh Menon had a successful career, working with the American company General Electric. But, he returned to India in 2006 to address a pressing social need that he realized he could turn into a major business opportunity.
India has the world’s highest number of people without access to clean water, according to the international charity WaterAid. According to a report it released in 2016, 75.8 million Indians, or 5 percent of the country’s 1.25 billion population, lacked safe water supplies. Annually, 1.5 million children die of diarrhea in the country, states a 2017 report on Drinking Water Quality in India by WaterAid.
A number of Indian state governments have tried to establish safe water systems in rural areas but encountered problems along the way. However, Menon and his two partners—Mohan Ranbore and Indranil Das—have succeeded in creating a business that now supplies safe water to several million people in 3,000 rural communities across the country. Waterlife India Private Limited is an example of a new type of business, known as a social enterprise, which uses a disciplined commercial approach to provide essential services to poor communities while making a profit.
The Hyderabad-based company participated in the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), staged in the city and co-sponsored by the governments of the United States and India.
Waterlife installs a relatively small water purification system in the center of villages. The set-ups use a combination of simple and sophisticated technologies to transform water polluted with bacterial or chemical impurities into safe drinking water. But the real innovation is the business model the company has pioneered, under the name of “Community water systems.” The approach is based on three pillars. First, a long-term commitment to maintaining and operating each village water system; second, keeping the price for the purified water very low; and third, ongoing campaigns to educate and persuade villagers about the health benefits of safe drinking water.
According to Menon, who also acts as the chief executive officer of Waterlife, the efforts of Indian state governments, in recent decades, to bring clean water to rural areas ran into problems due to one reason: There was no revenue stream for operation and maintenance of purification plants, even the ones using simple technology. “Typically, after about half a year, sand filters get clogged and people stop using them and go back to their traditional sources, like wells and storage ponds, which are often polluted.”
Waterlife, on the other hand, has hired and trained several hundred people from rural areas to maintain its systems. The company provides materials and a reliable electricity supply to ensure uninterrupted operations. It does regular quality control and continuous monitoring of its village systems. About a third of these are already hooked up to the Internet. This allows monitoring from the company headquarters.
The company charges Rs. 7 for a 19-liter can of purified water. It’s not free, but many policymakers are coming around to the idea that charging small fees for even essential human needs, like clean water, can be a good policy, especially if the alternative is no clean water at all.
“Slowly, state governments are adopting this approach. It has become a standard model,” says Menon.
He says the business is making strong profits. It continues to expand in India, with plans to cater to urban slums, where there is an acute need for safe drinking water as well. The company has also begun installing systems in several East African countries, a region where it sees great potential for growth.
In an effort to prompt communities to feel invested in its purification systems, Waterlife decided to devote money and attention to also the aesthetics of the installations, sometimes placing them in a glass structure for no other reason than to show off the collection of tanks and pumps. “We want to give the villagers a system they can be proud of,” says Menon.
Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.
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