The Pulse

Bringing Safe Water to South Asia

One company is vying to use a community based micro-franchise model to bring safe water to millions.

By Zareen Muzaffar for
Bringing Safe Water to South Asia
Credit: Drinkwell Systems

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes Arsenicosis as water rich in arsenic which leads to long term health issues. The effects build over a long period of time—5 to 20 years—but the consequences can be dire, including cancer of bladder, skin, kidney and lungs, diabetes and reproductive disorders to external ailments such as skin problems (color changes, hard patches on palms and feet).

According to a report by WHO, Bangladesh and India are two regions (among others) that have a high level of arsenic contamination in their water. There are certain precautions that can be taken to avoid long term diseases such as taking water from deeper wells that are less likely to be contaminated, or using arsenic removal systems in households or testing of water for levels of arsenic and spreading information to people of that particular region. All this requires a level of commitment and mass education, and there are certain areas in Bangladesh and India that are still suffering from this detrimental issue due to a lack of knowledge and proper care.

To learn more about these issues, The Diplomat spoke to Minhaj Chowdhury, CEO and co-founder of Drinkwell Systems, a company that aims to revolutionize the global water industry by transforming the world’s water crisis into entrepreneurial opportunity by using a community based micro-franchise model to establish local water businesses in arsenic-affected areas.

Can you tell us about the Drinkwell Systems?

What we use is a method of ion exchange resins to purify the water. Drinkwell is transforming the arsenic and fluoride water crisis affecting over 200 million in rural India and Bangladesh into entrepreneurial opportunity by blending proprietary filtration technology with a franchise business model.

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How does this method of purification work?

We use ion exchange resins to purify contaminated water. Reverse osmosis is the most commonly used method for water filtration, but about 30 to 50 percent of water is wasted through reverse osmosis and the process removes not just the harmful elements but it was also removes calcium. After filtering the water they remineralize the water that is injected to put the calcium back into the water. We found the whole process to be very energy intensive and started thinking how can we design a solution that is energy and cost efficient. Dr. Arup SenGupta (R & D Director & Co-Founder) and Mike German (CTO & Co-Founder) specialize in water culture technology and they have created these little beads that selectively remove the bad chemicals, arsenic and nitrates. We require no electricity and after our ion exchange resin process is completed we add a UV filter to remove bacterial contaminants if the particular village has an issue with bacteria for example.

What regions are you working in currently? 

India, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, and Bangladesh all have installations using HAIX technology.

Have you visited the areas personally? If so, how bad is the water condition in areas around India and Bangladesh?

I have and it’s very jarring at the way some of these households have dealt with the issues. As a Bangladeshi-American with fluency in Bengali, I have been immersed in rural village water habits since I was five when annual summer trips to visit extended family meant walking 1.5 km with my aunt who would procure water from a distant bacteria-laced pond. In 2012, I expanded my scope as a “Fulbrighter” and spent 4 months in Tara Nagar, a village in northwest Bangladesh where 100 percent of the tubewells were arsenic-affected. It was in these remote areas that I learned how locals aren’t willing to part with their hard-earned money for just water in the hopes of long-term improvements in health and wellness; there are too many short-term competing priorities such as, episodic healthcare disasters or care for elders. Locals are however willing to pay for water that creates immediate benefits to their livelihood such as by making their hair smoother, rice tastier, fish less briny, and clothes whiter – key properties that current filtration options are unable to deliver.  Furthermore, I learned these lessons applied to not just Tara Nagar, but across the “arsenic belt” of Bangladesh during my Fulbright – thereby creating a compelling, scalable value proposition. This insight serves as the rationale behind the aspirational brand of ‘Drinkwell, Livewell, Bewell.” Pairing this experience with Dr. Arup SenGupta’s technology that has seen 200 sustainable deployments across India, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal is what set the stage for the Drinkwell vision to truly take shape.

I read 20 percent of the business owners are women? Is the number increasing? 

We were experimenting with different operational models in West Bengal, and what we learned was that females were the untapped entrepreneurial resource in villages. Bias in rural West Bengal is that women should stick to household chores and what we found was that water is very much a woman’s issue.

We are always looking for new women entrepreneurs because money in the hands of women is much more efficiently and effectively spent in developing countries. We want to have as many women to run  many of these systems the whole goal is to get to the ideally 100 percent as soon as possible. But knowing we are operating in regions in Bangladesh where you have very Islamic cultural undertones, it’s difficult not just to tackle the water issue but to tackle women’s empowerment issue as well. In Bangladesh we will be much further along in having female entrepreneurs if we work in areas where the religious undertone isn’t widespread. In Cambodia we have females working independently. One female entrepreneur working there has one arm and she is one of the most inspiring and passionate entrepreneurs; she sets an example for other local villages in Cambodia.

You mentioned $1.6 billion was spent by governments, foreign donors and charities every year on cleaning up water but few had found an efficient, affordable and sustainable solution. Why have previous attempts failed?

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Despite a collective spend of $800 million by NGOs (UNICEF, BRAC) and the government (Department of Public Health Engineering, Ministry of Health) over the past 20 years, 35 million Bengalis still drink arsenic-laced water. The UN cites three reasons for why 60 percent of all water systems fail within 2 years. First is the lack of locally-sourced solutions. While UNICEF’s systems require expensive import media to ensure maintenance, Drinkwell uses novel, patented filtration technology that is 100 percent locally-sourced, delivers 40 percent more water, is 66 percent cheaper than reverse osmosis, requires 17-times less electricity, and reduces waste by 6 orders of magnitude. This technology has seen 200 deployments across four countries and been published in academic journals. Second is the lack of community buy-in. While BRAC uses a committee structure for buy-in, members rarely attend meetings due to a lack of incentives. Drinkwell uses profit-sharing to ensure buy-in. Third, government-installed wells are known to provide “poor people water” as they exist in crisis areas. Drinkwell uses celebrity endorsements under the “Drinkwell, Livewell, Bewell” motto to show how even the privileged enjoy our water. This approach is revolutionary in how it truly engages locals as co-creators of a development intervention.

What challenges are you facing at the moment, when it comes to scaling the business or creating an impact. Any solutions, in your opinion?

According a UN report, about 60 percent of water projects fail after 3 years. There are many reasons for that including shifting priorities of the donors. That means one day they will care about clean water and next day they will care about climate, education or healthcare. There is a real need to focus on after sales servicing and on delivery of water to the households. I think a lot of people love to donate for setting up a new well but how do you make sure that the family that’s living 6 km away from that well will get access to safe water? We want to disrupt the cost economics of the sector; we create a secondary market where the franchisee also hires 2 drivers and 1 caretaker to run the plant. Franchisees then sell clean drinking water for $3 a month and earn 40 percent of monthly gross profits. Donors should be attuned to delivery mechanism and the most important matter is quality assurance. It would be great if donors look to turn financing focus away from Capex and more to efficient service engineering.