In parched Rajasthan, farmers in colourful turbans walk into an ATM. A few minutes later, they come out with wide smiles and their bottles filled with clean drinking water. At Hisar railway station, thirsty passengers don’t need to buy expensive packaged drinking water now as they can just fill up their bottles from the ATM at a fraction of the cost.
Water – it sustains life and yet access to it is often a challenge. To address this, social startup Swajal has set up ‘Water ATMs’ where one can get clean drinking water for as low as 50 paise for a litre.
Founded by Dr. Vibha Tripathi in 2014, Swajal serves water that is mineralised, and purified with ultra-filtration and reverse osmosis (RO) technology. What’s more, the water purification system is power by solar energy, making the initiative truly green!
Swajal was among the chosen Tech30 startups this year.
“Our model is to offer drinking water systems outside the home. The water ATMs are large commercial machines that offer clean drinking water at a very cheap price,” says Vibha, who is also the Managing Director of Swajal. The startup, has set up several water ATMs at railway and bus stations in parts of north India.
Finding safe waters
Vibha, a researcher at IIT Kanpur, founded Swajal in 2014 as an extension of her energy tech startup Saurya. Hailing from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, scarcity of water was not unknown to her. Soon after starting Swajal, Vibha quit her job at IIT Kanpur and decided to work in the developmental sector to help people in rural India.
“Data reveals that the water quality in many rural areas is worse than imagined. Many children were suffering without access to clean drinking water. We need to tackle this issue on a war footing. Apart from building adequate infrastructure, we should also concentrate on water harvesting methods to address it in the long run,” she says.
Vibha was joined in her quest by her son Advait Kumar, an engineering graduate from Penn State University. Other members on the Swajal team include Dr Dinesh Agrawal and Dr Rashmi Sanghi from IIT Kanpur, and Danny Kennedy. The co-founders are environmentalists, authors, serial entrepreneurs, social workers and scientists. The RFID-based (Radio-frequency identification) water purification system was developed by the team.
In an earlier conversation with Yourstory, Advait said,
We estimate we are directly affecting around 5,000 families. This number is expected to grow multiple folds in coming months. We sell clean drinking water at Rs 1 per liter, and cold drinking water at Rs 2 per liter.
Most times, the water is sourced from ponds, rivers, and wells using pumps powered by solar energy. It is then purified in a nine-stage cleaning process and dispensed from the fully automatic water ATMs.
Swajal also supplies drinking water to government schools, railway stations, industrial plants, and residential areas in urban and rural areas in 20-litre bottles and over the last four years, claims to have delivered 3.9 million litres of water. The team at Swajal is also in talks with a few state governments to set up water ATMs.
Swajal claims to have among the most advanced solar-powered water purification systems in India, and the startup has operations in New Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. It has offices in Gurugram, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Raipur and is planning to set up new centres in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Karnataka.
Swajal is a franchise-based business model and the company works in partnership with local vendors and shop owners. 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.
Speaking on the purification system, Vibha says,
These machines, operating on the Build-Own-Operate-Transfer model, are regularly serviced and maintained. Since they are IoT enabled, they provide better deployment services with follow-up data that reveals information on the amount of water dispensed, money collected, and even the health of the machine.
The company’s revenue comes from two different channels; one from selling the ATM machines and the other is from selling water through these machines. In the former case, the machines are bought by Corporates for their CSR initiatives and Government. The cost of these machines varies from anything between 2 lakh to 20 lakh. The company also charges a 10% off the machine cost as the annual maintenance cost. In the second case, every rupee inserted in the machine gives away 300 ml of water, every 5 rupee gives away 1 litre of water.
The enterprise, along with Saurya EnerTech, received seed funding from the REEEP (Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership). Other investors include FICCI, UNDP, Goldman Sachs and ISB.
With 63.4 million people in rural lack access to clean drinking water and according to a study conducted by India’s official Ground Water Resources Assessment, over one-sixth of the country’s groundwater supply is either overused or exploited.
With urbanisation and increasing pollution making water unpotable, startups like Swajal which couple cutting-edge technology with solar energy are showing the way in having clean drinking water reach the masses.