World Water Day: Wello on developing solutions in the water crisis
Over one billion people around the globe don’t have access to clean running water. There are no faucets; water must be carried into the home in arms, and on heads, typically by women. Getting water requires hours of walking, waiting in line, and heavy lifting. And the water collected isn’t always safe to drink. Girls are pulled out of school to help; and the family is vulnerable to water-bourne illness. The United Nations designated March 22 World Water Day to raise awareness about the global water crisis and the resulting systemic health and social problems. The recent cholera crisis in Haiti is only one example of a water-borne disease spreading like wildfire due to the absence of a safe, public water infrastructure.
Cynthia Koenig, a MBA student at the University of Michigan, founded Wello Water after learning firsthand of the severity of the water crisis around the world. Wello is developing a product called the WaterWheel, which allows users to transport 4-5 times more water than traditional methods allow, in a jug with wheels that can be pushed like a shopping cart.
Dowser: How did Wello come about?
Koenig: I developed the idea for Wello when I was living in water-scarce regions of South Africa and Guatemala. I started looking into water purification products and thinking about how to distribute them to people. As I started doing more research about water, the idea grew into what it is now.
When we went to India, our first step was to learn about the market. So we did research to learn whether the Water Wheel would be culturally appropriate. Would there be any concerns about water being pulled in a container on the ground? Were end users interested in purchasing it? Would it hold up to our field-testing? We got such a positive reaction that we’re returning to India to launch our first pilot this fall.
What have been some of the challenges to making your idea come to life?
Since I’m a full-time student, a huge challenge is balancing the time I spend on Wello with keeping up with coursework. Sometimes being a student has its benefits – I’ve been offered opportunities that I might not have otherwise had. But it can also have its drawbacks – my travel time is limited to 10 days at a time, whenever I’m on break.
Once I finish graduate school in May, I’ll head to India to launch Wello’s operations.
Where is the product manufactured and how is it distributed?
Our customers can purchase the WaterWheel for personal use, or use it as a tool to provide water delivery services at affordable prices, increasing their income while improving the health of their communities. Through this Business in Barrel model, Wello offers a bottom-up entrepreneurial approach that frees up valuable time, creates jobs and paves the way for families to lift themselves out of poverty. Wello micro-entrepreneurs will use the WaterWheel to generate a sustainable income through a clean water delivery service.
The WaterWheel will be manufactured in India. We have a couple of different ideas for distribution that we’ll be testing over the course of our pilot. One idea is to work closely with partner organizations, another idea is a voucher system where we sell the voucher and then distribute the product (this is useful because transportation is a challenge); we’ll also look into distributing through shops or large agricultural co-ops.
How will you identify candidates for these delivery roles?
We’re focusing on developing partnerships with a diverse group of organizations who work on the ground, and not just ones that focus on water issues. They can help us identify the candidates.
How will you make the product affordable?
Initially, we’re aiming for a price point between $20 and $30. We’re still working on getting manufacturing costs down and examining the product design. Some people will be able to purchase this product outright, but we also might look into some other model, potentially microfinancing, to the lower the cost. Ultimately, we’re aiming for higher volume and low prices.
What can social entrepreneurs do to help with water issues; what is needed?
Creating awareness is really important. The scope of the water crisis is huge, but it’s something we don’t think about on a day-to-day basis, especially here in the U.S, where clean water comes with the twist of a faucet.
Also, efforts to improve water supply often focus on water quality while actually, increasing the amount and convenience of water can reduce the disease burden the most.
Do you have any words of advice to social entrepreneurs with an idea?
Testing is important. Test your concept with friends and family. Bounce the idea off other people and get their reactions. Spend time with the people whose lives you are trying to impact. Do a project in your neighborhood, someplace you’re familiar with. Or go spend a week living with a family in the community you want your product to be sold in. If you don’t act on an idea, it’s always just an idea.
For example, everywhere that Wello goes, we do a homestay so that we can understand what the challenges facing that particular community are – in terms of water access, as well as other issues. There’s no substitute for first-hand experience. Asking questions is also important – don’t assume that you know all the answers!
Interview has been edited and condensed.