Expanding access to clean water: the quest of a Swiss water entrepreneur
By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division
Renaud de Watteville is a Swiss water entrepreneur with a vision – to provide the world’s poorest communities with clean drinking water at an affordable price and, at the same time, create jobs and support community development. This is in fact the shared goal of the two entities he established.
The first, Swiss Fresh Water, is a private company based in Switzerland. It focuses on developing Internet-connected, high-quality, low-cost water treatment systems that produce clean water to WHO standards. And the second, Access to Water, is a non-profit foundation that supports the deployment of water treatment solutions and job creation in communities in Senegal and other developing countries.
Today, one in 10 people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. The consequences for the health and livelihoods of those living in affected communities are far reaching.
WIPO Magazine recently met with Mr. de Watteville to find out more about how Swiss Fresh Water and the Access to Water Foundation are tackling this global challenge and how innovation and intellectual property are supporting their work.
How did you get into the water business?
In the course of my travels I came across many poor communities in developing countries where people had no choice but to drink dirty or brackish water. I saw the negative impact this was having on their lives. So when the opportunity arose, I began working on a water treatment system that provides people in these communities with access to a clean and safe water supply. That’s how I came to set up Swiss Fresh Water and Access to Water.
What is the relationship between Swiss Fresh Water and the Access to Water Foundation?
Swiss Fresh Water is a social enterprise that develops and produces low-cost water treatment units supported by an online service platform. We believe that a technology without maintenance has no future. Access to Water is a non-profit organization that was created with a grant from Swiss Fresh Water in 2012. It runs programs that set up water kiosks that use Swiss Fresh Water machines so communities get access to clean water. In this way, we create opportunities for employment and community development. Today, Swiss Fresh Water and Access to Water are strictly independent of each other.
Swiss Fresh Water and Access to Water believe everyone should have access to safe water at an affordable and acceptable price. Our aim is to improve living conditions on site, generate income opportunities, enable children to go to school (they no longer have to spend time fetching water for their families), and support social cohesion, local economic development thanks to job creation, safeguard the environment and slow rural-urban migration. That is why we focus on producing water on site.
Swiss Fresh Water’s mission is to make low-cost, high-quality machines that are easy to install, efficient, user-friendly, affordable, and supported with good service via the Internet.
Six years ago we launched our first pilot project in Senegal. We quickly realized we had to separate our for-profit and our non-profit activities. Swiss Fresh Water had to remain for-profit to secure investors and attract the finance needed for the business to expand. So we brought our non-profit activities under the Access to Water umbrella, to enable us to secure development funds and donations to fund programs to install water kiosks in communities that lacked access to safe water. By the end of 2016, Swiss Fresh Water had sold 210 water treatment units, of which 120 were deployed in Senegal through Access to Water’s programs.
How does the Access to Water business model work?
Access to Water targets poor communities with no access to clean water. We offer a simple and economically sustainable business model. Access to Water purchases water treatment machines, solar panels, water tanks and a motorbike for water delivery and installs the equipment in kiosks which are run by local entrepreneurs. They sell the purified water from the machine to local customers and the proceeds of these sales finance the maintenance of the machine. It’s a model where everyone across the value chain wins.
Anyone interested in setting up a kiosk applies to SENOP, the operational arm of Access to Water in Senegal, which employs six local technicians. Access to Water owns the machines and deploys them for a small fee to kiosk owners. Kiosks vary in size. We have small, medium, large and extra-large ones.
All our machines are controlled and monitored remotely. We operate a pre-paid system whereby kiosk owners buy 20,000 liters of water up front. The water is treated by reverse osmosis and is certified to meet WHO standards. Once we receive proof of payment via SMS, we start the machine and the kiosk starts selling water to customers at around EUR 0.014 per liter. This is much cheaper than other bottled water. We advertise the price widely to ensure kiosks don’t overcharge. If they do, we simply stop the machine remotely. The kiosks bottle and deliver water, recycle containers, and often serve as a local store.
Fifty percent of sales proceeds go to the kiosk owner so they can employ people and pay them good salaries, and the other 50 percent goes to the Foundation to amortize machine and maintenance costs and repay loans. Any surplus goes toward purchasing and deploying new machines.
For non-profit programs, a machine costs around EUR 8,000 and annual maintenance costs come in at around EUR 2,000. All machines are cleaned and serviced every four to six weeks. So far, Access to Water has installed 133 machines in Senegal and they are all fully operational. We are very proud of that.
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An extra-large kiosk can produce up to 4,000 liters of clean water per day and will amortize machine and maintenance costs in around four years. But a small kiosk producing 300 liters a day will never manage to break even. That is why Access to Water’s non-profit governance structure is so important. It allows us to spread maintenance costs across kiosks of all sizes, and in particular to support small kiosks – which make up around 30 percent of all kiosks – in small rural villages, which are most affected by rural migration.
We constantly adapt and tweak our business model. We believe a bottom-up approach is essential. If it isn’t bottom-up it won’t work. It is really important that people take ownership of a project. And that is what we are seeing with the kiosks in Senegal today.
What sort of impact is your work having?
Since we began operating around six years ago, we have provided more than 280,000 people with access to safe drinking water and created more than 480 sustainable jobs. We are very proud of that. The impact on people’s lives is immediate. As soon as they start drinking water from our machines, their ailments clear up. They no longer have diarrhea, headaches, hypertension, or skin problems. Every day we are improving people’s lives.
How exactly does the machine work?
Our machines treat all types of water very efficiently. Brackish, dirty water goes through a series of filtration processes and is drinkable as soon as it leaves the machine. First, leaves and other large matter are removed. Then bacteria, viruses and parasites are filtered out. After that, the water passes through activated charcoal and undergoes a process of reverse osmosis to remove any chemicals and heavy metals (fluorine, mercury, arsenic, etc.). Forty percent of the processed liquid becomes safe drinking water and the remainder returns to the ground. We simply extract potable water from ground water to prevent people from getting ill.
Our machines are compact, easy to transport and work on or off-grid (they are solar-power adaptable). The water they produce meets World Health Organization standards and is filtered to 0.0001 microns by reverse osmosis. That’s very clean!
The machine has various sensors and an in-built computer and SIM card which tell us exactly how it is performing and give us a detailed operating history. We simply go online and zoom into see what is happening with any one of them.
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We are already working on our next machine which will be even more efficient and user-friendly. All our machines are fully tested and calibrated at our workshop near Lausanne, Switzerland, before shipping.
What role does innovation and intellectual property play in your work?
Swiss Fresh Water and Access to Water both have a strong innovation mindset. We are constantly looking for new ways to improve our business model. For example, we are developing a card payment system for kiosk owners and have recently started working with the IKEA Foundation to facilitate the setting-up of water kiosks in Better Shelters.
And on the technology side, we are always fine-tuning our machines and looking for ways to make them more robust and efficient so they operate effectively in the harshest environments and to reduce maintenance costs. Whenever we have a good idea we file a patent application. WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty offers an inexpensive way to secure protection for up to 30 months and to assess the patentability of our technology in different countries. It gives us time to decide what we want to do with the technology. It also stops others from filing a claim for the same thing and gives us the freedom to use it as we like. And it shows our investors we are capable of developing patentable solutions. It strengthens our credibility.
We also own various trademarks, for example for Swiss Fresh Water and Diam’O, the brand name used by kiosk owners in Senegal. As Swiss Fresh Water expands into wealthier markets, I think intellectual property will be an increasingly important part of our business strategy.
How did you come up with the Diam’O brand name?
The first machine we installed was in the village of Diamniadio, which means “doors of peace” in the local language. So when we were looking for a brand name, we thought of Diam’o, which sounds like “water of peace”. People thought it was a good idea. It’s neutral and evokes something positive.
Why did you join WIPO GREEN?
Participation in WIPO GREEN plugs us into a very large network of potential business partners and is another way for us to boost our credibility. Many people think that solutions for developing countries are bound to fail. But that is not necessarily the case. Our success in Senegal is living proof of that.
What are some of the main challenges Access to Water is facing?
We face multiple challenges. It is not always easy to find the right people for the job; people who share our vision and have the energy to make things happen. This is a big challenge. Finance is another big hurdle. Our projects are funded by donations and loans but securing these takes a lot of work. We also have to ensure we have in place a solid structure that enables us to scale up our operations. And of course, we always need to keep an eye on the future. Thankfully, there is a lot of interest in what we are doing, so the prospects for the future are looking bright.
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