‘Drinkable, Pure, Safe’: The Business Bringing Affordable Clean Water to Bangladesh

Watersprint purifies contaminated water using technology based on blue LEDs, a development that won the Nobel prize in 2014. A collaboration with local entrepreneurs is bringing the tech to Bangladesh
Jun 12, 2019 12:00 PM ET

Across Bangladesh, water is readily available to 97% of the population, but it is not always fit for human consumption. As such, 4 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. Communities rely on contaminated water from rivers and wells; some may boil it before use, but this does not eliminate the arsenic that occurs naturally in the groundwater across much of the country.

But thanks to a collaboration between Watersprint and Shishir Water, thousands of people in Mymensingh, a city on the Brahmaputra River about 75 miles north of Dhaka, now have access to clean water – and at a reasonable price.

Building on the 2014 Nobel prize-winning development of blue LEDs, Watersprint, a Swedish water purification company, has created technology that uses short-wavelength ultraviolet (UV-C) light to disinfect contaminated water.

“Three of the founders of the company started to experiment with UV-C and saw that it could be applicable on running water,” says Pete Andersen, CEO of Watersprint, which is part of the Business Call to Action initiative.

After developing its first working prototype in 2015, Watersprint has created three water purification products; the BakPak mobile unit, for use in natural disasters or extreme weather events; the YesBox, for flows of two to four litres per minute; and the Purify, which can process 20 litres of water per minute.

“It’s so-called ‘point-of-use’ technology,” says Andersen. “Our units sit as close to the tap as possible ... so as to minimise the risk of contamination in the last half metre.”

Ten of these Purify models were bought by Shishir Water – a joint social business venture between the YY Goshti incubator and the Grameen Telecom Trust – for use in Bangladesh, at around €2,900 (£2,500) each. Two of the units are now running on solar-driven batteries at a plant in Mymensingh, as part of Watersprint’s goal to provide 50,000 people with clean and safe drinking water by 2020.

Shishir Water’s business model is that the plant is run by an entrepreneur, identified through Grameen Telecom Trust’s network, who then hires four or five staff members – usually young people from the local community. Equipped with Watersprint’s purification unit, a water cooling machine, filters, water jars, and a water quality testing unit, as well as a pipeline from the river, a plant costs $20,000 (£15,000) to set up. Of this, $5,000 is invested by the entrepreneur and $15,000 by Shishir Water, so that each party has a sense of ownership.

Shishir Water trains the entrepreneur to run the business and the water purification technology, and the young staff members take charge of marketing and running the delivery network – transporting water to smaller shops where it is sold.

But the partnership was not without its teething problems. “The number one challenge was dealing with different water qualities in Sweden, where the technology is made, and in Bangladesh, where the machine has been used,” says Shazeeb M Khairul Islam, managing director of YY Goshti.

Each time Islam’s team tested the Purify unit, they failed to reach the quality of water they expected. Watersprint sent one of its technical experts, Mathias Lindqvist, to Bangladesh and together he and Shishir Water’s staff tested eight samples of river water from different areas. They found that the source water, in all cases, had much higher levels of contamination than anticipated. Unfortunately, the only way the team has been able to achieve the disinfection grade expected from Watersprint’s technology is by cleaning the water with non-toxic aluminium sulfate before passing it through the unit.

This has also affected the rate at which the water can be purified. “Our understanding was that each minute the machine would produce 12 to 14 litres of water, but since the water quality is really bad, the machine produces five to six litres of water every minute,” says Islam. “That’s how we get the best quality water, which is drinkable, pure and safe.”

In the beginning, people were reluctant to buy water from Shishir Water.

“When we started offering this to households, we thought that people would love the water, but people did not really accept it.” says Islam. “They would say: ‘This is river water, why are you charging us?’”

But by reaching out to other young people who could communicate the benefits of using purified river water, rather than relying on arsenic-laced groundwater, Shishir – a Bengali word meaning “dew drop” – was able to convince people to become customers.

It also developed a tiered pricing model, to cross-subsidise the project and ensure its operational sustainability. Hospitals, schools, banks and other businesses are charged 40 cents per 20 litres, while the poorest in the community or those living in slums pay 10 cents.

Solutions such as Watersprint may not then be a complete game-changer in bringing clean water – sustainably – to disadvantaged communities, but they can “play a useful role, provided they are part of a broader managed water supply service that has adequate arrangements in place for maintenance and a pro-poor tariff regime,” says Vincent Casey, senior water, sanitation and hygiene manager for WaterAid.

Now that the first plant in Mymensingh has reached operational sustainability, Shishir Water hopes to secure more funding to open more plants with the other eight units it has bought, expanding the network initially to Chandpur, south of Dhaka, and to Khulna in south-west Bangladesh. By the time all 10 units are in operation, Islam hopes there will be 60 full-time staff working in this water purification and delivery network, plus another 400 young retailers and resellers, across the country.

And for Watersprint, by developing more contacts across Bangladesh and rolling out the second generation of its purification units, its goal of providing clean water to 50,000 people should be “an easy target,” says Andersen.

“They have the first generation products [in Bangladesh]. Now we have the second generation, with five-fold efficiency, so 50,000 people would not be out of the league at all.”