My Return Back to Pakistan, Sukoon Water, and the Limits of Social Entrepreneurship — February 2019
This essay explores my decision to halt operations at an organization I set up to increase access to safe drinking water in Karachi. It documents the process that led to my decision and the questions I was forced to ask throughout my journey. It helps shed light on my own personal shortcomings as well as the limits of social entrepreneurship in tackling systems level issues such as water and sanitation in developing countries such as Pakistan.
After sixteen months of full-time commitment to Sukoon Water, I decided to step down from my responsibilities as director of the organization and halt plant operations. The decision to step down was a deeply challenging one for me and the product of several months of careful introspection. During this time, I often found myself dealing with an endless cacophony of conflicting thoughts. I searched for answers to a quagmire of questions, questions that exhibited stubbornness and an unwillingness to be satiated by simple stories. The struggle of answering these questions constituted a difficult but necessary education of sorts, emotionally debilitating at times, deeply clarifying and liberating at times. It has been a journey I’d like to share with all those who have been part of the Sukoon Water story and to those starting social enterprises, particularly in the safe drinking water space.
Seven months after starting my first post-college job in Denver, Colorado, I walked into my manager’s office and told him I’d be moving back to Pakistan. I had been in America for four and a half years at that point, and throughout my last two years as an undergraduate student, had been intoxicated by the hope Stanford instilled in me, that a different kind of life was possible: original, creative, committed to public service, and radical in its authenticity; a departure from lives whose contours had been demarcated and end-points predictable, lives and ideas largely borrowed from others. However, as I settled into working life in the months following my graduation, I felt relatively irrelevant as an employee. The imagination sparked in me as an undergraduate felt like part of a distant past, hard to grasp or relate to. I had talked at length about running my own project in public health in Pakistan, but had little experience of concerted action to match that high talk. Being able to impress outsiders with knowledge and passion whilst experiencing self-doubt about one’s ability or commitment to translate that into real work creates a feeling of in-authenticity. Sometimes, it can even make one feel like a fraud or imposter. For better or worse, I reminded myself that no problem was insurmountable for the right person with the right idea to attempt to solve it. Stanford instilled in us the importance — and potency — of entrepreneurial action in service of one’s goals — of trying, failing, trying again — but always keeping one’s north star in sight. So I figured the only way to do justice to my experience as an undergraduate — and to quell those feelings of in-authenticity — was to return back to Pakistan and work on a real project, to touch the earth and the soil upon which I imagined myself living a different kind of life.
Sukoon Water’s pilot water treatment plant was conceived as an idea the summer after my junior year of college. The realization that people in informal urban communities were consuming water with high levels of fecal contamination — exposing themselves, particularly their children, to significant health risks — instilled in me the urge to help address this problem. I had limited knowledge about the systemic issues pertaining to water in Karachi — but had read up enough on last-mile initiatives in the water sector globally to have a broad sense of efforts that had failed and the potential reasons why. For instance, I knew at the time that efforts to educate households to treat water at home — through household filters or chlorine tablets — had largely failed to generate the necessary behavior change at scale. I was clear that any workable solution had to make treated, ready-to-consume water available to people, without the need for behavior change at home. I also believed that the model should be financially sustainable, and ideally profitable, so that it could sustain without the need for constant injection of donor capital. Building on the above thoughts, the idea I decided to develop was a community-based water filtration plant that served the community residents through a contextually appropriate distribution system (e.g. community health workers and local shops). The plant would use existing water sources (i.e. tanker water) as feed water, treat the water using off-the-shelf technologies, and make a ready-to-consume water product available to people within walking distance from their homes.
At this point, I had received both grant money from the U.S through a leadership and social innovation fellowship, and financial support from my family to run the project. Therefore, after quitting my job in Denver in March 2017 and coming back home, I immediately hit the ground running trying to build Sukoon Water as a financially viable social enterprise serving the needs of safe drinking water in an informal settlement known as Shireen Jinnah Colony.
The most appropriate word I can use to describe my first few months and weeks in Shireen Jinnah Colony is urgency. In my job in the US, I felt that everything could wait till tomorrow — creating a habit of procrastination in me. Coming back to Pakistan however, everything had to be done today, because I felt that children’s lives were at stake, and that I was personally responsible and accountable to the community members I had made the niyat (intention) to serve. Just a few weeks after I came back, I remember that we were not able to procure a water tanker one Friday night because of city-wide water supply breakdowns. In Karachi, owing to government raids on illegal water hydrants (where many of these tankers draw their water from) supply issues are not uncommon. After frantically calling different “tanker walas”, I managed to secure a tanker and informed my plant manager that he would need to be up at 2 am to receive it. Just as I was about to drift off to sleep that night, I got a call from a vociferous tanker wala that the plant manager was unreachable by phone. I desperately tried calling the plant manager only to be met with the nauseating sound of commercial voice recordings. I felt a twitch in my stomach — realizing that not procuring this tanker could mean an entire day of lost sales and disappointed community members. However, going to the community at this odd hour — a place I was only just beginning to make sense of by day — seemed like an unwise and risky move. Eventually, after getting my parents’ blessing, I decided to get into the car and initiate the journey to the water plant. My Friday night was spent chasing my plant manager, apologetically absorbing insults hurled at me by the tanker wala, and taking permission from my parents to venture out into unsafe territory — all because these tasks could not wait till tomorrow. Lives were at stake.
Sukoon’s pilot water plant showed strong growth in sales in the months after I returned, climbing to 5,700 liters per day in the month of June 2017. By hiring a sales manager from the local community, we successfully increased the number of distribution points and helped bring safe water closer to the people we intended to serve. Increasing sales also entailed developing deeper relationships with important stakeholders in the community. For instance, we held a community meeting where we invited all our retailers to the plant and talked to them about the importance of clean drinking water and their pivotal role as a bridge between Sukoon Water and the community. The work felt involved and participatory, and I projected strong growth in the coming months, with a sales target of 10,000 liters for the following summer. At the projected level of sales, the plant would be financially sustainable and impact the lives of nearly 5,000 people daily. Thoughts of sales growth and scale to other parts of the city were exciting, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was on the cusp of developing a financially sustainable business model for safe drinking water in Karachi.
Over the months that followed however, the system that I had built began to demonstrate signs of fragility, and we failed to make progress towards the lofty targets that I had set. Demand for safe drinking water stagnated after reaching an average of 5,000 liters a day, and that too only when I was placing enormous pressure on the plant staff. As I began to survey and observe my customer base more closely, I found that households belonging to “chota Punjab”, the sliver of the predominantly Pathan community where the minority Punjabi and Seraiki community lived — were my main customers. These households had higher levels of literacy and often, a female income earner. The majority Pathan community, where the above conditions did not hold, largely seemed unwilling to invest time or financial resources in shifting away from existing drinking water sources. This lack of demand in the community not only raised questions about financial sustainability, but also forced me to ask what value I was bringing to the community through my model. If the majority of the population saw little value in the safe water I was providing and were resistant to changing their behavior, what was my value addition beyond convenience to a small number of Punjabi families (who were not representative of the larger population)? Studies consistently demonstrate that demand for preventive goods such as safe drinking water is essentially limited and the benefits to society can only be realized if offered for free or highly subsidized. Was I ignoring the evidence because of the sunk cost of time and emotional energy I had invested in Sukoon Water? Did I want my project to succeed so badly that I was operating on unrealistic assumptions regarding behavior change?
A second challenge I experienced was the intense local competition I faced just a few months after I began to develop my supply chain in the community. Local entrepreneurs entered the market with seemingly few barriers and started to compete with Sukoon Water. If viewed from the perspective of the development of the broader market, this may be seen as a positive trend that Sukoon Water helped start. However, from the perspective of our fledgling operation, it meant that most of my time was spent competing with local entrepreneurs for a slice of a limited market and begging shop keepers to keep my water over the other competitors’ water. Every supply break down was an opportunity for the shop-keepers to remind me that they could shift over to the other competitors at a whim, and neither they nor the customers saw any difference in the water that I was supplying compared to other options. The fact that the barrier to entry in such markets is so low — and that water is ultimately just a commodity in the eyes of the consumer — raised important questions about whether the model had potential as a financially sustainable venture. Was it possible to create a “brand” for water in this market? And if it was, was I interested in spending most of my time in building a consumer goods brand? Did this align with the reasons for which I entered this work in the first place, or was it distracting and potentially taking me down routes I was not particularly inclined towards nor suited for?
The third challenge I faced over time was my inability to control the price of raw water, which had consequences not only for the short term sustainability of Sukoon Water’s operations but raised some important questions about our ability to scale as an organization. In the summer months, tanker walas increased the price of water by as much as 30%. Already facing low demand and a population with limited purchasing power, I couldn’t pass on that additional cost onto the consumers, like most businesses do when they experience a rise in costs. I told myself that the supply and price risks I faced were a short term phenomenon, and I would eventually move towards more reliable sources of water. But what were these reliable sources? An assumption I harbored was that Karachi had abundant ground water reserves I could tap into through reverse osmosis water plants. However, after talking to a drilling expert in the city, I learnt about the precarious state of Karachi’s ground water situation. The city’s ground water table was declining rapidly, and there was little-to-no recharge in many areas given the paucity of rain in the city. Furthermore, the heavy contamination of ground water with chemical waste disposed from large factories and sewage water from leaked pipes meant that reverse osmosis plants would not be sufficient in treating the water, and that more intensive, expensive processes may be needed. I further learnt that the current tools we had in the city to predict the level of ground water in any area were often inaccurate. This meant that if I invested money in setting up a reverse osmosis plant, I would have little idea about how long that bore hole would last. This had debilitating consequences for Sukoon Water’s ability to scale in Karachi.
A fourth challenge was the realization that I may not be having an impact on the households that I was serving. I always professed that Sukoon Water was not just trying to increase access to safe water, but rather usage of safe water. Our objective was to ensure that safe water was consistently running down the throats of the people that we served, in particular children who were most at risk of diarrheal disease. However, I came to realize that we had very little control over the usage of safe water at home. Many people in Shireen Jinnah Colony didn’t have fridges, and therefore used ice purchased at local shops to cool the water. This ice was made from the very same water that I took such pains to treat, and its effect was to negate our efforts to nothing. For many months, I chose to ignore this fact, to avoid being distracted from day-to-day operations. However, whenever I explained my model to friends, potential donors, and well-wishers, this thorny fact remained at the back of my mind. Finally, one day, this thorny fact pierced me in the most horrific manner. I remember walking into an ice shop to see how ice was being sold. Brought in from factories in another part of town, the ice looked like it had been rolled over in muck. What made this worse was that the ice shop that I was visiting also served as a local butcher. With one swoosh of a bloody knife he had used to cut a chicken, the shop keeper gave me a piece of ice. While not all ice shops doubled as butcher shops, the incident served as a reminder of my intellectual dishonesty in ignoring the ice issue. Over time I attempted to find solutions — give people plastic bags in which to keep their ice, design a new cooler where the ice could be separated from the water, or start an ice factory! But I realized each new intervention meant more behavior change. And every marginal change in behavior was a mountain to climb.
The challenges associated with running Sukoon water and questions related to its impact began to occupy my thoughts and became a source of distress and personal doubt. However, even beyond the above challenges, a deeper form of doubt began to brew in my mind. It related to a fundamental set of questions: What do I care about? What am I motivated by? What is my
Sukoon Water started off as a public health project, not a project to address the larger water supply and management problems that the city of Karachi faced. Whenever people referred to me as the person “tackling the water crisis”, it felt deeply uncomfortable because it was untrue. I made it a point to mention that I was simply trying to increase usage of safe water and was not making any attempts towards solving the larger water issues in the city. Repeating the above lines time and time again, however, got me asking myself, whether I was comfortable with ignoring the larger issues. There is no harm in defining a small piece of the pie that you seek to tackle, and organizations all over the world do this. But in water, it felt different. My core input, raw water, was beyond my control. The ground water in the city was dwindling. Attending the Supreme Court hearings on water, I realized the urgency of our larger water crisis in the city — the leaking pipes, the stalled K-4 pipeline, the water mafia siphoning water away from people’s pipes into tankers. My work began to not only feel small, it began to almost feel irresponsible and irrelevant. A well-intentioned effort that was unrelated to the larger issue.
In July 2018, I attended a global water conference in Singapore, and I learnt about all the work going on in other countries. It dawned on me that some cities with very few water resources were managing them very well. In Singapore, water from the sea and sewage was converted to drinking water and supplied to people at a price lower than what people pay for untreated tanker water in Karachi. Karachi was not Singapore, but it seemed that even in certain developing country cities, from Manila to Johannesburg, it was the reform of utilities and careful planning of water policy that created the ability to first supply water, and then over time, clean water to people. Clean water can only be a reality once we have a system in place for water. And the only way to supply clean water to people at scale, the only way it can ever be affordable, is to optimize the whole water system. This was something only that a utility or government agency can do. In other fields such as health and education, there seemed to be a case for decentralized, last-mile solutions, since the major input was human resource. But water depended entirely on political, structural and environmental factors that had to be tackled holistically. Water had to be conceived as a system, or, in the words of a visionary water leader I met in Singapore, a system of systems. Attempts to slice up that system and develop last mile solutions were likely to result in inefficient and unworkable models.
September 7th 2018 was the last day of operations at Sukoon Water. With a heavy heart but a clear mind, I sold my last bottle of water to the residents of Shireen Jinnah Colony. After months of internal struggle, I finally reached the intellectual clarity to take action, to change course. This journey was an extraordinary form of education, or to put in differently, a necessary re-socialization, after my undergraduate experience at Stanford. I came back to Pakistan interested in blazing a path as a social entrepreneur, but eventually came to realize that I was far more interested in systems change than I had initially imagined. I also came to learn that the social entrepreneurship mentality doesn’t always align well with the skillset, patience, and approaches necessary to affect systems level change. Along the way, I also realized other things that I didn’t appreciate at the beginning of the journey: I never could have imagined the loneliness and self-doubt faced by an entrepreneur until I experienced these feelings on so many occasions. And I didn’t realize the importance of having a little bit of money in the bank for my own self-confidence and sense of self-worth. Going back, I don’t think I would have traded this journey for any other experience, but in hindsight, I would have done a few things differently. I would have asked harder questions about my model and been more intellectually honest about its potential failings earlier on. As an entrepreneur, I realized, one is too often seeking confirmation to validate the career risk that one has taken, and critique is perceived as a threat. In addition to asking more questions about my model, I would have faced the question of impact head on far earlier, particularly the challenge of contaminated ice. I have realized that nothing matters more than intellectual honesty, even if it means risking that which you have built and so dearly want to protect.
This journey was often very lonely, but along the way, I received support from mentors and met angels who constantly gave me motivation to keep working, and helped keep Sukoon alive. I would like to give thanks to Naseer Uncle, who encouraged me to take a leap of faith and run a water plant in Shireen Jinnah to develop the operational skills necessary to be useful in Pakistan; to Shoaib Zaidi, who tirelessly spent hours thinking out loud with me, and constantly reminding me why my struggles were meaningful and not in vain; to Ayesha, who reached out to me one fine evening to volunteer her time to my work, and who was a thought partner, a friend, and endless ray of optimism against my creeping cynicism; to Usaid, for being an invaluable analytical resource and helping bring rigor and structure to my work; to Wesam, who spent an entire summer with me and was the most dedicated, thoughtful intern I could have asked for; to Azzah, whose optimism and faith in me kept my declining sense of self-worth alive. To Hamza, who reminded me time and time again that moving on doesn’t constitute failure, but is sometimes a necessary part of one’s growth, a necessary part of the unfolding journey of life. To Anis Bhai and Saira apa who made me realize the need to be open-minded and to question my assumptions early on. To my parents, Mona apa, and Salman Bhai, who let me organically come to my own conclusions without being prescriptive, and reinforced the importance of patience in reaching a place of moral clarity. When I shut down the plant, I was most afraid of disappointing the people who invested so much time and energy in keeping this project alive. If I have disappointed you, I am sorry. Please know the role you played in this extraordinary period of personal growth. Thank you for motivating me to pick myself up again and not forget why I came back to Pakistan in the first place.