During the last several decades, Bangladesh has suffered through one of the largest mass-poisonings in human history.
People began to recognize there was a problem when many Bangladeshis experienced breakouts of dark spots on their skin. It was initially thought to be an outbreak of leprosy until further examination revealed it was actually the result of poisoning. Over the course of several decades, experts had encouraged people to shift away from using water from rivers and lakes, which was often contaminated with bacteria, and instead dig wells to tap into supposedly purer groundwater. Unfortunately, the resulting aquifers were also contaminated—this time with arsenic.
The disaster was exacerbated by the fact that Bangladesh is among the most densely populated countries in the world with 1,265 people for each square kilometer of land, more than 10 times the average for Europe and 35 times that of the United States. That means the country’s contaminated water reaches more people, and all told, somewhere between 35 and 77 million people—or 26% to 58% of the population—have been exposed to high levels of arsenic.
Finding hope in a filter
Drinkwell co-founder Minhaj Chowdhury grew up in the United States but became aware of the contamination during his annual summer trips to visit his grandparents, who lived in Bangladesh. He returned to the country as a Fulbright scholar in 2011 to study the problem, and came across Dr. Arup K. SenGupta, who had just developed an innovative, reusable arsenic filtration system. Together, they went on to co-found Drinkwell in hopes of providing a viable solution to the crisis.
For Chowdhury, however, developing the breakthrough technology to filter arsenic was only half the battle. To create a new market for pure water that would serve Bangladeshis living in low-income communities, Drinkwell needed its solution to be simple, affordable, and accessible. Making that happen would require just as much, if not more, creativity than was needed to design the filter.
How Drinkwell did it
Like any market-creating organization, Drinkwell needed more than just a good product; it needed to create a system that would make that solution accessible to people who previously went without. Chowdhury and his team reimagined their business model from the ground up and developed an elegant system that allowed everyone involved to profit.
It works like this: Drinkwell designs and manufactures the water filters, then it sells them to local entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs then build small businesses by setting up kiosks, called “water ATMs,” and leverage their networks to sell purified water at affordable rates to their communities. As part of the deal, Drinkwell takes care of all the routine inspections and maintenance on the filtration systems and charges the entrepreneurs a small monthly fee.
Recognizing that complexity can be just as much of a deterrent for customers as cost, Chowdhury did all he could to simplify the process, making the filters easy to use and integrating a digital payment system where customers deposit money onto reloadable cards which they swipe to dispense water. “If an uneducated, illiterate but ambitious person wanted to make a living by operating our system,” Chowdhury said in an interview, “how could we make their life easiest?”
Drinkwell’s impact on prosperity
Drinkwell’s innovative business design not only creates many new jobs, but makes the entire system self-sustaining, allowing the organization to scale and freeing it from reliance on charitable donations. Drinkwell’s success has led it across the border into India, where it has earned government contacts to begin operations.
Since launching in 2013, Drinkwell has opened more than 230 water ATMs in Bangladesh and India, creating 340 local jobs and providing clean water to as many as 2,000 households. It aims to scale up to 500 water ATMs by 2022, then to 1,500 by 2024, enabling it to reach a million customers.
Unfortunately the problem of arsenic-contaminated water is not unique to Bangladesh; the WHO estimates that 200 million people around the globe drink water with dangerously high arsenic concentrations. Innovative approaches like that of Drinkwell not only provide hope, but also opportunity.
For more stories of innovators that are creating prosperity through new markets, see:
A market-creation story: Vivenda