As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Minhaj Chowdhury visited his family’s village north of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and distributed a promising new water treatment technology known as the “two bucket.” Chowdhury felt proud to do something for his family’s people, and, on his return to the U.S., he wrote enthusiastically about the promise of cheap, simple solutions to developing world problems.
Two years later, he revisited as a Fulbright scholar to see how the project was going, only to discover the whole thing had not been as successful as hoped. Out of 100 units, only three were still working.
The reason wasn’t really that the two-bucket method is ineffective. The problem was that it needed to be serviced regularly and nobody in the village was doing it. The person Chowdhury and his friend had entrusted with the work had become something of a celebrity due to her work with international aid groups, and had long since moved on from servicing buckets. In fact, all the attention had allowed her rise up several social levels and marry into a rich steel magnate’s family.
The lesson for Chowdhury was technology only gets you so far. To be effective, it needs love and attention, and–crucially–local “buy-in.” You can’t just leave equipment in one person’s hands and hope to be successful consistently.
That’s why Chowdhury’s water treatment company, Drinkwell, has the model it does. Instead of giving filters away, it franchises technology to local entrepreneurs, who make money from distributing clean water. They have a motive to look after the system and to sell more water. Drinkwell’s role is to ensure the unit is always maintained by its service staff.
“If you really want scale and have stickiness, you need to have them keep all the upside,” Chowdhury says. “We just have a static service charge that ensures quality. Our core skill-set is technology that we service. Their skill is sales and marketing, and they get all the upside from their hard work.”
Drinkwell’s focus is heavy metals. An estimated 200 million people in India and Bangladesh have water that’s contaminated with arsenic at small but dangerous levels. The insidious pollution is the inadvertent result of a misguided national policy in the 1970s to sink wells in every village. They didn’t know the aquifers had naturally occurring arsenic back then.
“It was hailed as a public health success, but then people started getting skin lesions in the early 1990s,” says Chowdhury. “Initially, they thought it was leprosy.”
Drinkwell, based in Kolkata, India, sells a filter system for $8,000. Entrepreneurs sell on the cleaner water locally, keeping most of the profits (aside from a small service charge for an engineer to come on-site each month).
“What really helped us become viable is a market-based approach with the franchisees. But we were also filling the servicing gap by having laborers do regeneration of our filters,” Chowdhury says. The workmen refresh the filter’s materials every six months or so (an hour-long process at a servicing center). It lasts 10 cycles, or ten years, before needing to be changed.
The Drinkwell filter operates without electricity, so it’s more suitable in many places than “reverse osmosis” filtration which needs lots of power. Villages can add extra filters for bacteria (like E.coli) but these kinds of filters are more dime a dozen.
Drinkwell has installed 207 units so far, and hopes to break even in 2016. At the moment, it spends most of its profit extending the service network, with 50 engineers set to be added this year.
“There’s the servicing piece and there’s the distribution piece,” Chowdhury says. “If we do the service, it allows them to focus on the distribution element, which is always difficult. We’re using the locals’ social capital to make deliveries in rural areas.”