An estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, mostly in underdeveloped countries. In India, the Ripple Effect project — a collaborative effort between Acumen Fund, Gates Foundation and IDEO — aims to help existing social enterprises in the water sector increase their ability to distribute potable water. Social enterprises were chosen not only because of Acumen’s involvement, but also because many such organizations in India have already implemented water programs, including water purifications plants. However, many of these plants are underutilized or not running at capacity, due to infrastructure or delivery issues. The goal, says Sally Madsen, IDEO’s project leader, was to “help these organizations scale up to reach more people in their communities without much incremental cost.”
Water delivery in countries like India often involves a complex journey from retrieval to consumption, with people spending considerable time and effort moving water around. For example, Indians are unlikely to travel more than a kilometer to fetch water for their families (whose daily requirement is 20 to 40 liters per day). The farther the water is from the home, the more likely the bearer will settle for a potable that is less than pure. The location and opening hours of water-purification plants, as well as delivery services, are also critical to increasing access.
Ten organizations — for-profits and nonprofits, as well as hybrids — applied for grants, and five were selected from different regions of India, based on the strength of their project ideas and existing skills and experience in the field. Each organization received $15,000 to develop an eight-week pilot project with the mandate to increase its customer base for water distribution.
One organization, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), undertook to deliver water more efficiently in the crowded slums in and around Bangalore. Their proposal was to create women-led micro-enterprises in the water-delivery business. (As a rule in India, women collect water from local sources, but are less involved in large-scale water distribution because it requires riding bikes or motorcycles, activities largely confined to men.) WSUP created a prototype of a three-wheeled delivery cart that is produced and reparable) by local craftsmen and can be easily maneuvered over narrow, bumpy streets. The cart is designed to hold 8 ten-liter containers; these would be exchanged at homes for empty vessels. Women were trained to prepare a business model, and pricing structures, as part of the project mandate.
Another project, by the Naandi Foundation, focused in part on a water vessel that would be easy to carry. Unlike the usual plastic jerry can or jug with a handle, the redesigned, 20-liter plastic container has no corners so it more easily contours to the body. The vessel can also be attached to wheels. Users, including children or the elderly, would fill the vessel at an automated vending machines located at convenient points in a village and then carry — or roll — their water home.
A second phase of Ripple Effect is set to begin in Kenya, based on the same mandate as in India, and with a possible crossover of some design ideas already developed in the first phase.