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Building smarter water partnerships

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Can smart philanthropy catalyze public-private partnerships that balance long-term financial sustainability with the holy grail of “leaving no one behind”? Do partnerships spawned by subsidies only prolong schemes that ultimately benefit the middle class and limit the space for new models to emerge? How can such partnerships address the gender gap in water-related employment? These were just three of the many important questions raised at the recent 2019 Stockholm World Water Week with its theme of ‘Water for Society: Including All.’

The Imagine H2O Urban Water Challenge, founded by Bluewater and 11th Hour Racing, is a global innovation competition that galvanizes fresh approaches into such areas. It does this by operating in the space between startups with innovative solutions to urban water, and the stakeholders with the convening power and resources to scale such solutions. The program rewards innovative water technologies in new markets with deployment-focused funding that can create the proof points to incentivize wider adoption and, in doing so, help transform the sector.

Last year, Imagine H2O connected inaugural Urban Water Challenge Winner Drinkwell with the World Bank’s Water Global Practice. Drinkwell is a social enterprise I co-founded that deploys and maintains water kiosks consisting of novel filtration technology and prepaid water meters as a service.

Our pitch was simple – private operators focused on ensuring safe water supply in urban communities can only achieve the scale they want, and that the SDGs demand of us, if they work with utilities, not against them. By working in concert with the government, we avoid overlapping infrastructure investments in the same communities. We align on a co-financed strategy jointly owned by the utility and ourselves in deploying community-scale water filtration systems to provide safe water for those who live beyond the pipe – that is to say, those underserved communities who can be so hard to reach.

Drinkwell provides the filtration technology and prepaid water meters  (“Water ATM Booths”) to utilities at no cost, which we then operate and maintain as a service. Utilities in turn provide system housing, land, water and electricity to ensure proper operation and maintenance of the Water ATM Booths by us. We create jobs by employing local members of the community who guide end users through the process of registering for and topping up Water ATM cards that enable the purchase of water in a metered, pay-as-you go manner. We prefer to hire women for such roles as women are typically the key decision makers when it comes to sourcing and using water for household purposes. The price per liter is set by the utility as a control against commercially-biased pricing, with a follow-on revenue share or offtake agreement based on end user willingness to pay, the utility’s balance sheet, and project financing sources.

This model has been deployed over 100 times with the Dhaka Water Supply & Sewerage Authority. This means there are more than 100 Water ATM Booths across the capital city of Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, where citizens access clean water at an affordable price. Thanks to the Urban Water Challenge, this model is now expanding to Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city and home to four million people.

This model has attracted private sector investment from Danone Communities, the social investment arm of Danone, as well as the Global Innovation Fund in partnership with Unilever, all of whom are providing marketing, branding and business building support as we work with utilities to provide safe water to those who live beyond the pipe.

The World Bank’s ability to convene and connect us with both clients such as Chittagong Water Supply and Sewerage Authority as well as the Bank’s in country operational teams across Bangladesh and India have shown a commitment to do what others rarely do – walk the talk when it comes to spurring innovation and prioritizing the risky work of experimenting in new business models on top of existing priorities and commitments. We were delighted with the speed at which the Water Practice moved to advocate for the adoption of our model to its client in Chittagong Water Supply and Sewerage Authority, as well as how engaged the in-country teams were across all levels. From the India Country Director to Bangladesh Water & Sanitation Specialist, the rich discussions we had with the Bank’s country teams provided important inputs to critical questions. For example, these discussions highlighted the need to structure incentives around subsidies to avoid the problem of privileging the middle-class and to ensure the model serves the needs of low-income communities. The discussions also helped us develop strategies for building an operating model capable of being scaled across the Bank’s global portfolio.

On-going discussions with the Bank’s in-country teams are highlighting findings from groundbreaking reports recently published by the Bank around the importance of having Women in Water Utilities as well as the Invisible Water Crisis and the impact water quality has on the health and economic growth of communities.

In July, the World Bank provided a $100 million loan to 30 municipalities across Bangladesh for improving water and sanitation services to 600,000 people. We couldn’t be more excited about the potential for our model to contribute to this important work.

As we now “graduate” from philanthropy to scaling this model via investment, we wish this year’s Urban Water Challenge winners the best of luck as they embark on their own scaling journeys. All of us at Drinkwell will always remember the role smart philanthropy had in this journey. We look forward to both strengthening our existing partnerships and forging new ones as we unite as a sector to ensure that when it comes to safe water, no one is left behind.


This post was written by Minhaj Chowdhury (Drinkwell CEO and Co-Founder). 


Minhaj Chowdhury

CEO/Co-Founder of Drinkwell

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