Minhaj Chowdhury, Drinkwell CEO and Co-Founder, shares his journey deploying and scaling his water access solution across Chittagong, Bangladesh. Discover how he is expanding Drinkwell’s impact by collaborating with the World Bank and the Imagine H2O Urban Water Challenge.
Can smart philanthropy catalyze public-private partnerships that balance long-term financial sustainability with the holy grail of “leaving no one behind”? Do partnerships spawned by subsidies only prolong schemes that ultimately benefit the middle class and limit the space for new models to emerge? How can such partnerships address the gender gap in water-related employment? These were just three of the many important questions raised at the recent 2019 SIWI World Water Week with its theme of ‘Water for Society: Including All.’
The Imagine H2O Urban Water Challenge, founded by Bluewater and 11th Hour Racing, is a global innovation competition that galvanizes fresh approaches into such areas. It does this by operating in the space between startups with innovative solutions to urban water, and the stakeholders with the convening power and resources to scale such solutions. The program rewards innovative water technologies in new markets with deployment-focused funding which can create the proof points to incentivize wider adoption — and, in doing so, help transform the sector.
Last year, Imagine H2O connected inaugural Urban Water Challenge Winner Drinkwell with the World Bank’s Global Water Practice. Drinkwell is a social enterprise I co-founded that deploys and maintains water kiosks consisting of novel filtration technology and prepaid water meters “as a service.”
Our pitch was simple — private operators focused on ensuring safe water supply in urban communities can only achieve the scale they want and that the SDGs demand of us if they work with utilities, not against them. By working in concert with the government, we avoid overlapping infrastructure investments in the same communities. We align on a co-financed strategy jointly owned by the utility and ourselves in deploying community-scale water filtration systems to provide safe water for those who live beyond the pipe — that is to say, those underserved communities who live outside of the utility’s piped water networks who can be so hard to reach.
Drinkwell provides the filtration technology and prepaid water meters (“Water ATM Booths”) to utilities at no cost, which we then operate and maintain “as a service”. Utilities in turn provide system housing, land, water and electricity to ensure proper operation and maintenance of the Water ATM Booths by us. We create jobs by employing local members of the community who guide end users through the process of registering for and topping up Water ATM cards that enable the purchase of water in a metered, pay-as-you go manner. We prefer to hire women for such roles as women are typically the key decision makers when it comes to sourcing and using water for household purposes. The price per liter is set by the utility as a control against commercially-biased pricing, with a follow-on revenue share or offtake agreement based on end user willingness to pay, the utility’s balance sheet, and project financing sources.
This model has been deployed over 100 times with the Dhaka Water Supply & Sewerage Authority — this means there are more than 100 Water ATM Booths across the capital city of Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, where citizens access clean water at an affordable price. Thanks to the Urban Water Challenge, this model is now expanding to Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city and home to four million people.
The traction of this model has attracted private sector investment from Danone Communities, the social investment arm of Danone, as well as Global Innovation Fund in partnership with Unilever — all of whom are providing marketing, branding and business building support as we work with utilities to provide safe water to those who live beyond the pipe.
The World Bank’s ability to convene and connect us with both clients such as Chittagong WASA as well as the Bank’s in country operational teams across Bangladesh and India have shown a commitment to do what others rarely do — walk the talk when it comes to spurring innovation and prioritize the risky work in experimenting new business models on top of existing priorities and commitments. We were delighted with the speed at which the Water Practice moved to advocate the adoption of our model to its client in Chittagong WASA, as well as how engaged the in-country teams were across all levels. We had rich discussions with the Bank’s country teams across all levels, from the India Country Director to Bangladesh Water & Sanitation specialists, each of whom provided critical inputs around the need to structure incentives around subsidies in a way that avoids the middle-class from mostly benefitting from our work ensuring we reach low-income communities, and provided insights on how to build an operating model capable of being scaled across the Bank’s portfolio globally.
Moving forward, such context-setting by the Bank’s in-country teams are augmenting seminal reports recently published by the Bank around the importance of having Women in Utilities as well as the Invisible Water Crisis and the impact water quality has on the health and economic growth of communities and ultimately serve as additions to the toolkit we use to drive utility and government partnerships.
In July, the World Bank provided a $100 million loan to 30 municipalities across Bangladesh for improving water and sanitation services to 600,000 people. We couldn’t be more excited for the potential of our model and the synergies that are to be explored as such initiatives move forward.
As we now “graduate” from philanthropy to scaling this model via investment, we wish this year’s Urban Water Challenge winners the best of luck as they embark on their own scaling journeys. All of us at Drinkwell will always remember the role smart philanthropy had in this journey, and look forward to both strengthening our existing partnerships and forging new ones as we must unite as a sector to ensure how when it comes to safe water, no one is left behind.
This post was written by Minhaj Chowdhury, Drinkwell CEO and Co-Founder, in collaboration with Imagine H2O and the World Bank Global Water Practice.
About Imagine H2O
Imagine H2O (IH2O) is a nonprofit organization that empowers people to develop and deploy innovation to solve water challenges globally. Since 2009, the organization’s water innovation accelerator has helped over 100 startups with the resources, insight and visibility to launch and scale their businesses. In 2017 and 2018, IH2O portfolio companies received 30% of early-stage investment in the water sector. In 2019, IH2O will launch its first hub outside the United States. IH2O Asia will be a Singapore-based, regional accelerator program that bridges global innovation to cities and communities across Southeast Asia. https://www.imagineh2o.org/urban-water-challenge
About the Challenge’s Founding Partners
11th Hour Racing establishes strategic partnerships within the sailing and maritime communities to promote collaborative, systemic change benefitting the health of our ocean. Since 2010, 11th Hour Racing has been harnessing the power of sport with an innovative and comprehensive approach through three primary areas of engagement: sponsorships, grantees, and ambassadors. Please visit us at www.11thhourracing.org.
Bluewater is a world leader in innovating, manufacturing, and commercializing water purification technologies and solutions for residential, business and public use that harness the company’s patented second-generation reverse osmosis technology to remove virtually all pollutants from water, including micro plastic fibers, lead, bacteria, pesticides, medical residues, chlorine, and lime-scale. Bluewater is wholly owned by Blue, a Stockholm-based global investment company that serves as a catalyst for innovations that can solve some of the major challenges facing our planet and all living on it. Please visit us at http://www.bluewatergroup.com or www.blueab.se
About the World Bank
World Bank Group’s Water Global Practice is the world’s largest multilateral source of financing for water in developing countries. The World Bank is working closely with partners to achieve “A Water-Secure World for All,” by sustaining water resources, delivering services and building resilience. The World Bank is playing a key role in driving delivery when it comes to the SDGs. Water Global Practice implements programs and projects across the world, convenes a wide range of actors to achieve cross-sectoral solutions, and shares the data, knowledge and know-how with others in service of a water-secure world for all. With a portfolio of water investments of almost US$30 billion and a staff of hundreds of water experts across the world, the Water GP is uniquely positioned to address these themes, developing and sharing global knowledge while amplifying the impact of lending through technical assistance on the ground.