Maartje Pronk via web
Back in September, when I was invited by Danone Communities to join a Learning Expedition in Mumbai, I didn't know quite what to expect. Was it going to be a training, a conference, a platform meeting...? It turned out to be all of those, and more - probably one of the best events I've ever participated in.
For the last 4 years, Safe Water Enterprises (SWEs) around the world have been gathering at the invitation of Danone Communities to share learning. How can you set up a company, either for profit or with a social mission, that delivers safe drinking water in countries and contexts where water availability is notoriously difficult and paying for safe water either uncommon or out-of-reach for most? Being together with 70 people from SWEs around the world enables all of us to understand how we can improve our operations and strengthen our business case and impact, whether that is social or financial. SWEs are still an emerging sector: most water supply is either delivered through public utility or NGO models. During many sector events, I spend so much time talking about why a SWE could work and what a SWE is, that I don't get time to ask people to support me with the most important question: HOW do we make a safe water enterprise work - for everyone, including marginalised customers? This week, I finally got to discuss that all important question.
Max Water Social Business is just one model amongst many, so it's great to visit others for inspiration. I got to visit water kiosks and public water supply facilities at three locations near Mumbai. Though Mumbai is not one of the 21 Indian cities running out of groundwater by 2020, with a population of over 22 million people urban water supply is still a big issue. We went to discover how different SWEs are tackling this issue. We first visited a community water kiosk set up by our hosts from Naandi and got to talk to users and non-users about their reasons for buying (or not buying) kiosk water. One woman credited the water with curing her common colds - which seemed to be a bit of stretch, but I'm not arguing when someone decides to use safer water from now on! Next on our route was a train station kiosk. This kiosk proved the old adage: location, location, location! To access the kiosk, we first had to walk all the way to the other side of the station (crossing several rail lines), past a 'normal' kiosk selling sodas and bottled water, past a free, government tap point until we reached the kiosk. Needless to say, it wasn't doing much business.... Finally, we visited a local municipality which had somehow wrangled funds from the central government to set up a water treatment plant and pump water to their constituents. They said that before the plant, fish even used to appear in their water supply! I suppose the treatment plant was an improvement on getting fish in your pipelines, but judging from all the water storage cans in people's homes I got the sense that water supply still wasn't very reliable. They also didn't let us speak to the users. And of course it was unthinkable that so-called 'untouchables' would get a connection to the system - meaning that 20% of the village remained unconnected!
We used the next days to combine our collective intelligence to come up with new solutions for operator engagement, consumer touchpoint improvement and additional revenue building. Lots of practical ideas that I have brought home with me to help strengthen Max Water Social Business.