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Crowdfunding for Social Good
Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Drinkwell Named a Finalist in Gratitude Awards Competition; Winners to Be Chosen at SOCAP

Drinkwell, led by Minhaj Chowdhury, has been named as one of nine finalists in the 2014 Gratitude Awards from the Gratitude Network to be awarded at SOCAP this coming week in San Francisco. The finalists were chosen from among 32 semi-finalists, who were chosen from among nearly 150 applicants. To learn more about the awards and SOCAP, see our story in Forbes. You can read all our coverage of the Gratitude Awards, including profiles of all nine finalists here.

Four winners will be announced on Thursday, September 4, 2014. We obtained a copy of the application from Drinkwell so we could share it with you below:

Please describe your venture:

Drinkwell transforms the arsenic and fluoride water crisis affecting over 200 million people across rural India and Bangladesh into entrepreneurial opportunity by blending proprietary filtration technology with a franchise business model.

What is the problem are you solving and why is this important?

Drinkwell is tackling the largest mass poisoning in human history – the arsenic and fluoride water crisis – affecting over 200 million people in India and Bangladesh alone. 77 million people across Bangladesh are at-risk of arsenic poisoning in what the World Health Organization calls the “largest mass poisoning in human history.” Studies from Yale and Columbia find 1 in 5 deaths occurring due to arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh, resulting in 230,000 annual deaths. The crisis impacts the economy as studies found affected-households losing 20% of income due to arsenic. UNICEF anticipates a $13.1 billion loss in GDP due to the arsenic crisis over the next 20 years.

What is your solution and business model?

Drinkwell provides clean water through a “Select, Build, Sell, Collect” model. In the Select stage, a Drinkwell Committee comprised of local government officials, NGOs, business partners, and school and religious officials is formed. The Committee selects an entrepreneur who owns a contaminated tubewell. In the Build stage, an $8,000 system is installed over one month using local materials and workers. The system has been refined through over 200 successful deployments across India, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal. The franchisee also hires 2 drivers and 1 caretaker to run the plant. Franchisees then Sell clean drinking water for $3 a month and earn 40% of monthly gross profits. Households can purchase a “Drinkwell Card” in local shops that have 30 punch holes for redeeming 20L jugs of water daily. Each system can, at a minimum, serve 600 households on a daily basis (capacity can be easily increased). Finally, Drinkwell “collects” customer data through Drinkwell water card and liter output data through a hard-wired meter to guard against false reporting. This output data fuels customer growth.

What is unique patentable, or otherwise not seen elsewhere about your venture?

Despite a collective spend of $800 million by NGOs (UNICEF, BRAC) and the government (Department of Public Health Engineering, Ministry of Health) over the past 20 years, 35 million Bengalis still drink arsenic-laced water. The UN cites three reasons for why 60% of all water systems fail within 2 years. First is the lack of locally-sourced solutions. While UNICEF’s systems require expensive import media to ensure maintenance, Drinkwell uses novel, patented filtration technology that is 100% locally-sourced, delivers 40% more water, is 66% cheaper than reverse osmosis, requires 17x less electricity, and reduces waste by a 6x order of magnitude. This technology has seen 200 deployments across 4 countries and been published in academic journals. Second is the lack of community buy-in. While BRAC uses a committee structure for buy-in, members rarely attend meetings due to a lack of incentives. Drinkwell uses profit-sharing to ensure buy-in. Third, government-installed wells are known to provide “poor people water” as they exist in crisis areas. Drinkwell uses celebrity endorsements under the “Drinkwell, Livewell, Bewell” motto to show how even the privileged enjoy our water. This approach is revolutionary in how it truly engages locals as co-creators of a development intervention.

Please describe who your customers are and how you know they want your product?

Drinkwell’s target market is the 12 million households in Bangladesh (5.5M) and India (6.5M) that demand arsenic-free water. Villagers have demonstrated a strong demand for clean water by showing their willingness to pay for arsenic-free water through the 200 pilot systems installed between 2008-2013. As the median monthly income is $62/month in rural Bangladesh, and $41/month in rural India, preliminary market testing in the Manikganj District of Bangladesh and West Bengal region of India show that villagers are willing to pay 10-14% of their monthly income for safe water. Aside from long-term health benefits, customers pay for our water not only because of its superior taste, but also because when used for laundry, Drinkwell water yields whiter whites (iron-laced water stains clothes red); provides tastier fish and rice when used for cooking due to less briny water; and gives smoother hair for women who currently use iron-laced water during showers.

In which country does the target population your company serves reside?

Bangladesh

Please comment on the strength of the venture’s leadership:

The Drinkwell team has over 30 years of execution experience deploying water systems in India and Bangladesh. CEO Minhaj Chowdhury has 5 years experience managing multi-stakeholder water projects in Bangladesh with BRAC, the largest NGO in the world, and Johns Hopkins. CTO Mike German, who has concluded a Fulbright operationalizing systems in India, Cambodia, as well as DZ development testing in Kenya. will ensure proper deployment of Drinkwell Systems across India and Bangladesh. R&D Director Dr. Arup SenGupta is the inventor of the system and will help in stakeholder engagement, commercialization efforts, and future product development.

Please describe the impact your company will have or is having, the way that you measure your impact, and the scale you plan to reach?

Drinkwell will create social, economic, and health impact for 100 million people in 10 years by converting 3% of the 1.4 million arsenic-laced tubewells in Bangladesh into enterprises. Socially, Drinkwell empowers women by delivering water to households, eliminating the need to spend 5 hours a day sourcing water and allowing girls to attend school and mothers to take part in income-generating activities. Arsenicosis victims are unable to attain jobs due to the presence of skin lesions on their bodies. Children are ostracized at school and daughters are unable to marry. Drinkwell removes iron (stomach aches/loss of appetite) and fluoride (joint pain and fluorosis). Economically, each plant creates 3 jobs. When used for laundry, Drinkwell yields whiter whites (iron-laced water stains clothes red); provides tastier fish and rice when used for cooking due to less briny water; and gives smoother hair for women who currently use iron-laced water during showers.

How is your organization innovative? Have collaborations with others enabled that innovation?

Drinkwell is innovative in how it has already attracted joint venture interest with large local for-profit partners such as Ananta Group, a $200M Bangladesh-based conglomerate who has the infrastructure to scale-up operations, and investor interest from a Principal at KKR thereby ushering in new partners into impact investing. Drinkwell uses arsenic removal technology that has been certified by the West Bengal Public Health Engineering Department. In 1999, Dr. Arup SenGupta installed the first arsenic removal system in West Bengal. Today, over 200,000 rural villagers across West Bengal (India), Laos, and Cambodia drink safe water from this technology through 200 installations. All 200 systems are still run by the community. Many have generated enough revenue to purchase a truck to grow coverage areas. Through this experience, we have learned how people are more willing to pay for water when their neighbor is selling the water, as opposed to a large NGO.

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