Conversation with Karunakara Reddy, founder of Smaat Aqua, winner of the 2012 NABARD Award For Rural InnovationWill Sloan
In 2011, the National Bank For Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) began an initiative to award individuals and organizations whose work generates a significant impact in rural India. This year, the NABARD Award For Rural Innovation went to Smaat Aqua, a water treatment company that has provided safe drinking water at affordable prices to around 2,000 villages throughout India.
The need for clean drinking water throughout the world is high and growing. The World Economic Forum recently published the Global Risks 2012 report, which placed the possibility of a water crisis as one of the biggest risks facing the world today. Out of the 50 major risks they identified, water supply crises placed fifth in terms of likelihood and second in terms of potential impact.
India is about as vulnerable to this pending water crisis as any other country. According to the Yale University Environmental Performance Index (EPI) India ranks 88 out of 130 ranked countries in terms of access to drinking water, 122 out of 130 in terms of effects of water resoucres on the ecosystem, and 104 out of 130 in terms of the effects of water resources on human health. The problems are likely to only get worse. With global temperatures continuing to rise, scientists have begun to watch with nervous eyes as glaciers in the Himalayas, the source of a significant amount of the country’s fresh water, begin to recede. In this changing world, companies like Smaat Aqua are going to play an increasingly significant role in ensuring the health and livelihood of individuals and communities around the world.
Since 2006, Smaat Aqua has combined in house research and development with existing products to provide end-to-end solutions in water and air purification, solar energy solutions, sewage treatment, solid waste management, desalination, pre-filtration systems, mobile treatment plants, and packaging systems.
“A lot of the technologies we use are available in the market,” explained Mr. Karunakara M. Reddy, founder and CEO of Smaat Aqua. “What we do is we figure out how we can use these products for our purposes, how we can direct the technology to a particular application. This is the key, for instance, with our mobile treatment plant.”
These mobile water treatment plants, developed by Smaat Aqua, are the first of their kind. Essentially trucks equipped with advanced water treatment technology, the plants enable fast and direct access to treatment facilities and clean water to areas most in need. The innovation has proven especially useful in flood-affected areas where clean drinking water is inaccessible. Smaat Aqua is currently involved in developing mobile treatment plants for the government of West Bengal.
According to Mr. Reddy, one of the most important things to note about his company is that they are far safer than many other existing water treatment companies. Their treatment techniques do not involve the use chemicals, such as chlorine, that can end up doing more harm then good.
“The chlorine that is used for disinfectant purposes has a dangerous byproduct called trihalomethanes (THMs) which are a cause of cancer,” explained Mr. Reddy. “So if you consume a lot of chlorine, you are at risk of getting cancer. Our products do not create any kind of harmful byproduct.”
Applications of Smaat Aqua’s water services stretch far and wide. A visit to their website will bring you to a list of applications extending across power plants, chemical manufacturing, petroleum refineries, brewing and distillery, electronics and semiconductors, food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, sugar, textiles and tanneries. But of course, it was their work in rural India, providing drinking water to those most in need, that won them this year’s NABARD award.
“Every day there are 1,600 people who lose their lives because of the poor quality of water and sanitation,” Mr. Reddy explained. “70% of people are living in rural areas but they don’t have basic water facilities, and they can’t afford to buy water. We designed a concept that provides safe drinking water at any given time at an affordable price. We have applied this concept in 2,000 villages as of now.”
As part of the initiative that Mr. Reddy was referring to, Smaat Aqua has been working to set up Community Water Centers, a flagship program using cutting edge technology that combines reverse osmosis, ultra filtration, nano filtration, and UV purification to bring clean and affordable drinking water to villages around the country. In addition to housing treatment plants, the Community Water Centers contain clean water storage facilities, serve as the meeting pace for health and hygiene awareness programs and provide free water to government schools, hospitals, and pregnant women. They also promote cultural and environmental awareness, encourage exercise through athletic involvement, empower women, and generate employment through their various programs.
In the future, Mr. Reddy hopes to reach 100,000 villages throughout India while turning Smaat Aqua into a $100 million company. Though this valuation figure might make some development purists cringe, expansion of this magnitude would mean great things for a country plagued with a lingering water crisis and the millions of people in rural communities who are threatened most. With such high ambitions, Smaat Aqua will surely be a social enterprise to watch out for in the future, and, if Mr. Reddy’s goals are met, one for other social entrepreneurs to learn from.