China is getting ready to invest over $600 billion in the next 10 years in water conservation, as announced in its latest five-year plan. Why? Because water inefficiency and drought plague the nation. And that's exactly why a small, but growing, for-profit social enterprise, Driptech, is aggressively expanding in China.
Driptech was started back in 2008 by Peter Frykman, and the idea grew out of Stanford's popular Design for Extreme Affordability class. The idea was to give smallholder farmers an alternative to the more expensive, large-scale pressurized irrigation systems that lead to excessive water waste. Frykman came up with the idea to line rows of crops with a simple polyethylene plastic punched with holes so that water could go directly to the roots of crops, rather than flood an entire plot of land. Named Driptech and now in operation across China and India, the $100 technology reduces water usage by 30%, making it a highly attractive option to small-scale farmers who want to save costs.
"In India, it's the farmer that's responsible for paying for water and diesel pumps," Driptech's Director of Business Operations Jean Shia tells Fast Company. "In China, the government benefits more, because they're responsible for providing water. So we have different channels set up in each country to benefit multiple stakeholders."
Driptech is expanding through a variety of partnerships with NGOs, government, and the private sector that help retail or distribute the product in rural India and China. The company is in the midst of a number of deals still in discussion. Large multinational retail partners are in the picture as potential partners, indicating the sense of scale the company aspires to.
"As for our partners, one common thread is that they all have access to and knowledge of smallholder farmers—whether through a commercial relationship like agricultural companies, contract farming organizations or technical assistance and development relationships. We learn something different from each one but at the end of the day our goal is to find partners who can help us scale sustainably so that we can impact the greatest number of farmers," says Shia.
And as for those expansion plans in China: "We're trying to do as much as we can through our network of advisors. We need to identify the right people within regional governments that can help finance projects," says Shia. Driptech launched a pilot initiative with the government of Shanxi province last year and is currently collecting data and doing followup monitoring to assess the success of that pilot.
"In China's there's been recurring droughts, usually in the North, but increasingly in the South, with no rain for a long time. One of the challenges for us is that we have a product that directly addresses the problem and the government is keen and eager to take action and create dramatic impact, but the nature of the environment we're dealing with in China is that our projects are not going to be huge, large-scale infrastructure dam projects," says Shia. However, "This is a solution that at scale makes a lot of sense. People know this saves water—that's why it was invented."
Shia says it's the company's origins that make it especially innovative and promising for emerging markets like India and China. "We constantly do product upgrades and improvements, customized to the end user, based on an understanding of the farmer. This is an area where, especially in China, there has been really no innovation because the market is extremely fragmented. A lot of the agricultural companies are state-owned. They're not doing much innovating in manufacturing or product development and design. And we have a strong understanding of our users and that drives our product development and offerings."
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