Amrutdhara: A social enterprise working on technology and systems for access to quality assured drinking water in urban India.
Amrutdhara is a social enterprise that I co-founded along with Minhaj Ameen, in Auroville, an international township in southern India, close to the popular tourist destination Pondicherry.
The work on this started from discussions about an activist campaign in late 2012, and turned into a social enterprise idea. While my partner, Min, continues to work on the idea, and I play an advisory role, I quit my roles as COO and Director of the company in 2015.
Safe drinking water is a fundamental human need, but in India access to drinking water is a massive issue. What we see is that across both urban and rural India, the needs of the populace are largely unmet. In cities people who do have access to water, have to access it through taps that supply water that is unfit for drinking. And thus those who can rely on expensive methods of filtration and storage, leaving the others to fend with disease. When one is traveling though, even those methods aren’t available and thus people rely on expensive and unreliable packaged water.
The goal of our company was to tackle a niche in the overall drinking water market, targeting those instances when people are out of their homes, either in transit on trains or buses, or at work, school or in hospitals amongst others. At the moment, after the water that one might carry from home is over there is usually no option to refill one’s bottle with reliably clean water and thus people rely on buying expensive bottled water or take risks with water from filters that may or may not be clean. The problem with bottled water is two-fold though: packaged water gives an implicit sense of quality and cleanliness, whereas repeated tests have shown that packaged water in India is often not up to standards and might actually contain harmful substances. Additionally, bottled water comes with the growing menace of plastic waste which clogs the drains in our burgeoning cities besides adding to the growing issue of landfills.
There are a number of reasons for the rise of social entrepreneurship as a popular form of tackling social issues. Firstly, in the late 1980s, going into the 1990s, participation in development was recast within the framework of the then popular neoliberal policy takeover of global economics. Within this frame, even in development, the ‘beneficiaries’ role was recast from citizen to ‘consumer’. With books such as Prahlad’s, ‘Fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’, the focus shifted from looking at poverty as a problem, but as an opportunity to create enterprises where the poor were given choices to alleviate their own poverty, while creating profit and thus creating self-sustaining enterprises. This early work saw some success through various approaches in a variety of sectors from livelihoods, to energy and agriculture. The other big reason is that over the last decade, as the deadline for the millennium development goals crept closer, the international development community began reflecting on the lack of success with more traditional NGO and government led development which had been the norm for decades past.
In this scenario, the social enterprise was seen as a panacea for solving social developmental and environmental issues leading to the rise of ecosystem individuals and organisations that support the mentoring and funding of enterprises tackling a wide range of issues. As discussed later on, we made a decision to run as a social enterprise and not an NGO for some of the reasons stated above.
As a response to the problem stated above we realised that the best way to tackle the whole issue of both access and waste was to provide quality assured, safe loose drinking water. We realised that even if do have loose water, it can’t be trusted unless the consumer is assured of the quality. Thus the underlying idea was to create water dispensing points that are available to consumers through dense network in urban and peri-urban areas across India. For quality assurance, we would use the latest in sensor technology along with algorithms to create a cloud based real-time quality monitoring system such that the quality of water at ever dispensing point would be monitored. Lastly, the design of the dispensing points needs to both implicitly and explicitly communicate the quality of the water to the consumer, thus building a sense of trust and urging them to consume the water from our dispensing points.
It is important to note that while the product is a kind of water ATM, there is a system of distribution and profit-sharing that we were still testing at the time that I quit the company. Our intention though was that a shopkeeper might either buy or lease the machine from us, or a registered distributor, and then share profits with us on every glass or litre of water sold. The profit-share would come with services around maintenance of the machine and subscription to the quality assurance process.
The product itself was designed to be modular such that it can be used in different configurations in a number of scenarios. Some expansive scenarios are discussed later on, while here we look at the first configuration of the product which was to be used in small shops in markets, bus stands and railway stations.
Essentially the product has two major parts, the front end and the back end:
- The front end of the machine is where most of the technology and innovation in the product lies. This is where the water is dispensed from, payment taken and most importantly the sensors and circuits that allow for quality monitoring and communications with our servers. The quality monitoring of course, also allows us to shut the machine down in case the water doesn’t meet our quality parameters. - The back end on the other hand is the first step in modularity wherein the front end can either be mounted on a bubble top water dispenser (as in the photographs) or simply mounted on a wall and get water from an RO filtration system. This aspect would come into play in shops where the preferred method might be an onsite filtration system, but might not be possible in all shops as they might not have access to round the clock running water or electricity, and thus have to rely on the bubble tops. Scenarios for usage Having created a modular product, we started thinking about scenarios other than ‘public spaces’ in which the product might be useful and came up with three that seemed quite interesting to pursue when we started distribution.
1// In slums where water is a key issue, we could set up the front end and change the method of payment from coins and tokens to a smart card that residents in the slum buy and use to purchase larger amounts of water. Thus this would require us to change the design of the output tap as well. But since the eventual front-end would be modularly designed as well, this would not pose a challenge. In this case the backend would be a large capacity filtration system with some storage.
2// In many schools, students carry some water from home, but don’t have clean water available. In a school we could set up various front end devices on walls on every floor or strategic points within the school, without payment and supplied through a central filtration and storage system.
3// In hospitals, where also patients and their families buy a lot of packaged water, it would be useful to set up the front end systems on every floor of the hospital in a number of locations where consumers use coins or tokens to pay for the water, but the supply would be from a centralised filtration and storage unit.
Takeaways and Conclusion
To say that my skills and abilities have evolved thanks to this experience is an understatement. Working on my own social enterprise galvanised me and made me bring on certain tools and methods that were hitherto not part of my repertoire.
Thinking systems through: Unfortunately a lot of ‘sustainable’ design or efforts at the moment are little more than attempts to greenwash. What this means is that we rarely think about the fact that the culprit for a lot of the environmental issues today is the act of consumption, not just what we consume, but more importantly how much. The first ‘R’ in the famous trifecta, is ‘reduce’ after all. The key is that in often trying to solve one problem, we end up creating several others. Through the work on Amrutdhara, and more importantly, by working with Min, I became far more sensitive to thinking about systems in the form of life cycles and interconnectedness. Does a decision I make for the design of my system in one aspect, create problems in other spaces or down the line?
Test, Learn, Iterate, Repeat: One of my biggest tangible takeaways from working on Amrutdhara was the method of lean experimentation. Every time at Amrutdhara when we disagreed about something, or felt like we didn’t know enough, we created lean experiments to better understand it. When we wanted to understand if users would buy loose water, we set up a table at bus stands, and the beach and started selling water to consumers. The interactions that we had through those experiments were extremely critical in helping us better understand the consumer (leading to our pivot in phase 1) and gave us the confidence that we were on the right track. In the last two years, I’ve conducted workshops on the method, one for entrepreneurs at a festival and soon after for senior employees of an international NGO. Since then I have taken a couple of workshops about applying lean experimentations, and you can read more about it here
What’s the model?: As designers of systems and services, far too often we’re taught only to think of the user and how to design for that, leaving the intricacies of cost, manufacturing and realising the system up to others. Building on my previous experiences working on sanitation systems for slums in India, Amrutdhara strengthened my resolve to get more involved in thinking about the models, financial and operational especially, which define how well the idea gets executed on the ground. It’s important for designers to be involved on these aspects as well, and insights from understanding this must be applied in the design of the system, else that work is futile.