We know that clean drinking water is a big problem in India. Not many can afford water filters and mineral water bottles. In this context, the work of two social enterprises – Water Health International (WHI) and Sarvajal – are providing insights into how to sustainably deliver cheap clean drinking water to rural areas. Both have reached impressive scale in serving rural populations using similar strategies of building small-scale filtration plants that service whole villages.
WHI charges R 2 for its “Dr. Water”-branded 20-liter jerry can. WHI has already scaled up to 500 plants – the bulk of them in Andhra Pradesh – servicing approximately 1 million people. It is seeking to double its coverage over the next year. WHI developed “WaterHealth Centres” where water is treated centrally for a small community using a variety of approaches.
Sarvajal, which follows a franchisee model, currently supports 127 franchisees in Rajasthan and Gujarat serving 70,000 people. Sarvajal’s water is priced at 6 rupees for a 20-liter can with an additional 4 rupees for doorstep delivery. Customers get 24×7 access to clean water from Water ATMs using their pre-pay cards (or coins), and can recharge their cards using their mobile phones – just like buying minutes. They are now seeking to expand into an additional 1,000 villages in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh over the next two years.
Both WHI and Sarvajal forge strong links with local communities as an integral part of their business model. WHI raises funds from third-party donors to build the plant and then operates it for a 10- to 15-year period. But ownership of the plant vests with the local panchayat, which provides land and access to a water source. Sarvajal identifies and trains local entrepreneurs in villages to run filtration plants. Both companies carry out social marketing campaigns to raise awareness of the benefits of clean drinking water before they expand to a new location.
Despite their pay-per-use models and emphasis on commercial viability, social enterprises like WHI and Sarvajal depend on a mix of donor and commercial financing. WHI – an Indian subsidiary of a U.S. company of the same name – initiated operations in 2006 through an investment of $600,000 from the Acumen Fund, a social investment fund, and a $900,000 loan from ICICI Bank. Sarvajal, though registered as a for-profit entity, was set up by the non-profit arm of the Piramal Group of companies.
The work of social enterprises like WHI and Sarvajal demonstrates that ensuring clean drinking water to every Indian over the next five-year period may well be a feasible goal.