This woman entrepreneur is improving access to clean and safe drinking water using water ATMs
India is one of the 17 countries in the world with extremely high ‘water stress’, according to the World Resources Institute, a US-based think-tank.
A 2018 report by NITI Aayog also predicted similar results, with a total of 21 major cities poised to run out of groundwater by the following year. And, in 2019, Chennai city did. India’s groundwater, which makes up for 40 percent of the country’s water supply, has been depleting for years.
In June 2019, the Central Water Commission noted that two-thirds of India’s reservoirs were running below normal levels.
In Karnataka, the drinking water crisis is acute with reserves drying out and people crippled by the shortage of water and unsafe drinking water.
In 2010, homemaker-turned-social entrepreneur Chinnmaye Praveen, aware of difficulties in accessing clean water, started a social initiative to provide free drinking water to underprivileged people.
Chinnmaye Praveen, founder of GeWinn Wachstum.
Later, she converted the initiative to a social enterprise GeWinn Wachstum (meaning ‘grow exponentially’ in German). Her venture has installed over 900 drinking water dispensing ATMs in over 14 districts of Karnataka to date. The ATMs provide safe mineral drinking water at affordable prices — Rs 5 for 25 litres of water.
"Business is not my cup of tea, I was always interested in social activity and social service. Seeing that people were not getting drinking water, which is a basic human right, we decided to pool in our resources with my husband also helping with financial requirements, and we started the social enterprise,” says 40-year-old Chinnmaye.
The water ATMs deploy a seven-stage filtration system, which also includes UV filtration. GeWinn Wachstum’s machines are manufactured at a plant in Pune with whom Chinnmaye has a joint venture. She imports the filtration membrane from Germany, which is why the venture has a German name.
Providing employment to the needy
The Bengaluru-based startup also converts littered and dumped areas to resourceful places by converting them into water points. Chinnmaye has been actively providing employment to women to help them secure financial independence, integrity to uneducated youth, and dignity of work to physically challenged individuals – who comprise three percent of the company’s employees.
Women make up more than 33 percent of the enterprise’s workforce. In Harihar and Rayavellore district, the ATMs are run, operated, and maintained by all-women teams. The startup provides employment to nearly 160 people, who have become breadwinners for their families.
Helping improve health
The World Bank estimates that 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are linked to unsafe water and the lack of hygiene practices. Further, more than 500 children under the age of five die each day from diarrhoea in India alone.
Chinnmaye says that the water ATMs have led to a gradual improvement in health in the communities. She claims that there has at least been a 10 percent increase in health levels in these districts.
“They were badly hit by ill-health. They cannot afford Rs 60-70 per can of water every day. In the last four to five years, people have transitioned to using this water, not just for drinking, but cooking purposes also,” she adds.
Earlier, the water from the ATMs was just given to children. Now, it is used by every member of the family and has improved hygienic practices in all of the household, says Chinnmaye.
To make people respect the water and understand its importance, Chinnmaye has conducted water conservation campaigns with kids and in rural communities through her NGO Vistara Foundation, which helps bring back dropped students to schools.
Through CSR initiatives, the startup has also donated water ATMs to government schools, religious places of worship, and places severely affected by the water crisis.
COVID-19 relief work
Aware of the impact of the scarcity of drinking water on people’s lives, Chinnmaye decided to keep all water ATMs running 24x7 during the lockdown. Water at the ATMs is dispensed for free every Wednesday during the lockdown period.
She has taken up the responsibility of providing safe measures — gloves, masks, and sanitation kits — for all her employees and their families. These supplies are replenished every fortnight.
Through the foundation, Chinnmaye has also been providing food packets and food kits to needy families.
Facing crises head on
Chinnmaye has been tackling more than just the water crisis. Initially, it was difficult for her to gain the trust of the government to provide her tenders.
“My first rejection was my lowest low. I had approached MLAs and MPs in a forum, and I was not given an opportunity. The government did not readily accept the initiative with me being a single founder and a woman,” she recalls.
But, Chinnmaye is testament to the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” She set out to prove her model and deployed it in various communities. After a successful demonstration, her work was accepted.
She believes that hard work, work efficiency, and proficiency were instrumental to her success. Her work has been recognised by many and she has received over 25 awards and accolades.
Speaking about her journey, Chinnmaye says, “More than others believing in me, I should believe in me — this is the greatest lesson I have learnt. Don't lend your ears to rejection, follow your gut feeling, and you will get the results. Don’t let gender parity stop you; you can prove yourself with your work.”
Every summer, the water crisis deepens and the foundation installs at least 10-12 new plants. But this year, the lockdown has stalled the installation of new water ATMs.
Now, the startup is working to bring to the market an alkaline water purification system. It is also planning to start mobile water ATMs to tackle space crunch and provide water to slums and areas that face water scarcity. It also hopes to upgrade all of its ATMs to AI systems in the near future.