How Swajal intends to bring clean drinking water at Re 1 per litre to millions of Indians
Let’s start with some startling facts
- 103.8 million Indians do not have access to safe water.
- Only a quarter of the total population in India has drinking water on their premises. Women, who have to collect drinking water, are vulnerable to a number of unsafe practices and only 13 per cent of adult males share the responsibility to collect water.
- 67 per cent of Indian households do not treat their drinking water, even though it could be chemically or bacterially contaminated.
The reality of water scarcity and water pollution in India is not hidden anymore. We have all come to accept the fact that water supply will be there only during morning and evenings and have learnt to adjust to this scarcity. As the water purification system became a household essential, like the refrigerator, we also accepted the fact that our tap water will never be clean for drinking. While we continue to adjust to these circumstances, the less fortunate have no option but to live with this clean water scarcity.
The concept of Swajal came to Advait Kumar when he noticed the queue of house helps standing in the backyard of his house, waiting for their turn to collect clean drinking water from his residential water purification system. He explains,
We had asked our house help to take drinking water homefrom our kitchen ever since her child had developed diarrhea - a water borne disease - that is easily cured and prevented by drinking safe water, and yet every minute an Indian is lost to it. Soon after she started taking water, others in the community also started coming to our house to fill drinking water for their homes as their employers weren't willing to let them take water from their purification systems. We then decided to keep our water purification system outside and soon the lines started growing. I often spoke to the women and began to understand their situation - they lived in a colony that was termed as "illegal" by municipal authorities, they didn’t have to pay property taxes and municipal authorities were under no compulsion to provide them with electricity or water. Their problem demanded a solution that was affordable, accessible and reliable. This also meant that it had to be independent of the unreliable grid infrastructure. That was how the idea of combining purification systems and solar energy came into fruition.
Swajal is one of the most advanced solar powered water purification systems of India. With a focus on green chemistry and engineering, Swajal systems are made to last longer. Some of the interesting features about the systems are:
- When compared to any other efficient water purification systems, Swajal can achieve a staggering 80 per cent reduction in cost.
- Swajal’s systems are 60 per cent more efficient than the standard RO (reverse osmosis) systems.
- Swajal systems can clean water from 2400 TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) to 300 TDS level, which is an internationally acceptable standard for pure drinking water.
Swajal was founded in 2011 by Advait Kumar, an engineering graduate from Penn State University, along withDr Vibha Tripathi, Dr Dinesh Agrawal and Dr Rashmi Sanghi from IIT Kanpur and Danny Kennedy. The co-founding team members are environmentalists, authors, serial entrepreneurs, social workers and scientists.
Mapping clean water across geographies
Swajal centers are operating in New Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh with four regional offices in Gurgaon, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Raipur. The new centres are coming up in Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Telangana and Karnataka.
At present, the company offers franchisee of the Swajal Water Hut system - a solar powered water purification system vending machine. They are in the process of scaling their franchising and exploring different business models.
We are expanding our regional presence slowly as we want to get a feel of local challenges before providing a solution. Since in essence we are a product centered company we are planning to form strategic partnerships outside India by the end of next year.
By the end of the next quarter, the company also plans to introduce programs to engage college students and social entrepreneurs in reaching this common goal.
The business sense and the ‘pay-as-you-go’ model for clean drinking model
Swajal is a franchisee based business model. The company works in partnership with local vendors and shop owners to promote local entrepreneurship and to allow locallygenerated revenue to be absorbed by the local economy. Advait says, “We are a strictly horizontal organization focusing on engineering and educationalactivities in the region.”
Swajal has introduced the ‘pay-as-you-go’ model for clean drinking water. Each Swajal system can accept coins or RFID enabled smart cards that can be recharged. The revenue comes from the franchisee fees and service agreements.
We estimate that we are directly affecting around 5,000 families at the moment. This number is expected to grow multiple folds in the coming months. We are selling clean drinking water at Rs1 per liter and cold drinking water at Rs 2 per liter.
A good indicator of Swajal’s impact is the fact that their systems are kept outside in the open 24x7 in slums and villages - yet they haven’t had a single act of vandalism.
Sourcing money and support
Swajal has received funding from the REEEP (Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership) along with Saurya EnerTech as seed investment. FICCI, UNDP, Goldman Sachs and ISB have also supported the organization in various ways. The company is looking to raise series A round now and is in talks with a few institutions for the same. Advait is hopeful that they would be able to close the deal by the next quarter.
Challenges and learning along the way
One of the biggest challenges that Swajal faces is educating the target audience. Most people from this segment do not even know that diarrhea is a water borne disease and they often think that the patient should not be given any water. For them, water is either meetha (sweet) or khara (hard) and their biggest concerns are empty stomachs.Swajal’s outreach strategy attempts to educate people about the importance of clean water. Advait says, “We do not market Swajal, we aggressively market clean water and health. As social entrepreneurs, we face different sets of challenges and our goals are measured by theimpact we have on society.”
When we started Swajal we never expected it to reach this stage. As I sat in the basement of my house crunching survey numbers and outlining a business plan to raise funding I had a very humble goal; if I could save even one person by providing clean water, I would consider my efforts a success.
He has achieved that and much more.