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Tom Schueneman headshot

Safe Water Network: Activating Consumer Demand to Secure Safe Water

Despite much progress, nearly 800 million people still lack access to safe water. It isn’t for lack of trying, and a diversity of those efforts was recently discussed at World Water Week in Stockholm. One argument is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the well-intentioned benefactor and the communities they hope to impact.

Bridging this gap involves more than just charity. It requires building trust, community engagement and individual ownership. Instead of a top-down approach of pushing aid at those in need, why not harness market-based principals to activate consumer demand for access to clean water?

This was the focus of an inspiring session at World Water Week,, highlighting the work done by the Safe Water Network, one of the PepsiCo Foundation’s key water partners, to bring sustainable access to safe water to communities in India and Africa using market-based concepts of consumer demand predicated on the idea that paying for water creates sustainable access.

Market demand for sustainable solutions

At first blush the concept of making people pay for access to safe water may seem counterintuitive. But as Safe Water Network’s Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Amanda Gimble said in her opening remarks, it is the essential ingredient to sustainable impact.
“This is a really big deal, getting consumers to pay for water. Without that we don’t have sustainable systems and without sustainable systems we can’t realize health benefits. Safe Water Network is focused on a model that is sustainable, with systems that are locally owned and operated and provide safe water that is affordable to all.”

Gimble acknowledges that people’s willingness to pay for water is among their key challenges, but says that to become sustainable “we believe that first and foremost the water system must achieve financial viability.”

In order to maintain affordable prices for consumers, Safe Water Network operates at very low margins. In India, for example, people pay four rupees (about seven cents) for a 20-liter can of water. Covering costs requires that each “station” or community of between two and three thousand people, about four to five hundred households, sell ninety containers per day to meet operating costs. Two hundred containers per day generate enough money to cover maintenance and replacements. Safe Water Network targets a 75 percent participation rate within the community to reach these thresholds.

Of the forty-six safe water stations in Ghana and India, Gimble says that all of them are covering operating costs and most of them are building up reserves to cover maintenance and repairs, with a few on the way to capital recovery.

Making the unusual usual

The work is built on models developed with funding and support from Merck Foundation  and the PepsiCo Foundation. These private-sector partners have helped Safe Water Network to bring market principles to bear on some of the core challenges with ensuring safe water access.
“...Safe Water Network is benefiting from collaboration among our different partners and is symbolic of everything we’re doing and how we’re doing it to address some of the greatest challenges facing the delivery of water on an ongoing basis,” Gimble said. “We’re capturing a new modality in terms of corporate partnerships. This is not just about money. This is about really bringing expertise and applying the expertise to everything that we do.”

The local marketing expertise for Safe Water Network in India comes from Dalveer Singh of Dialogue Factory, who summed up his approach to marketing to water consumers “making the unusual usual.” Understanding that the goal is to reach consumers instead of beneficiaries of philanthropy is how Singh has unlocked demand for access to safe water for communities in India.

“That’s innovation,” said hoarse but obviously excited Dan Bena, Senior Director of Sustainable Development at PepsiCo, whose philanthropic arm, the PepsiCo Foundation is a primary partner with Safe Water Network. "Fifteen years ago people thought that those at or near the base of the pyramid either didn’t have the willingness or the ability to pay. We’ve heard a lot about that distinction this week. They’re proving that people at the base of the pyramid, the two to four dollar per day can be consumers, as long as the goods and services themselves are legitimate. That’s exciting to me, and that’s something that can be applied: the idea of bringing business rigor, the idea of transforming people at or near the base of the pyramid from beneficiaries to consumers."

Swapna Purani, Associate Director, Women’s Health at Merck & Co. was another panelist and discussed her role as one of five Richard T. Clark Fellows who worked alongside the team during the initial stages of the project, applying her marketing expertise.

Poonam Sewak, fundraising and partnerships manager for Safe Water Network India, emphasized the role of partnerships in solving the challenge of convincing consumers to purchase treated water when contaminated water is available for free. Describing the specific skills that each partner brought to solve this problem, she concluded with the result: a 50 percent increase in sales.

Also attending the session was Safe Water Network board member and 2010 Stockholm World Water Prize laureate Dr. Rita Colwell. Speaking from the audience, Dr. Colwell emphasized the intelligence of women in these communities and the commitment they have to their families, and how that contributed to the adoption of beneficial behaviors.

Cecilia Scharp, Senior Advisor on Water and Environment at UNICEF, closed the panel by providing perspective on how the initiative fit with the broader sector. Speaking about Safe Water Network she said, "It's promising because it's a partnership and because the partners seem to be really engaged."

Testaments to success

With so much excitement from the panelists and audience, the session ran over. No one seemed to mind, but it was late in the day and time to wrap up with comments from the audience.

Two practitioners working on water and sanitation issues in Africa told of the revolutionary impact the Safe Water Network model has had in the communities they serve.

It was the perfect cap to an inspiring session at World Water Week.

Image credit: Safe Water Network


Thomas Schueneman headshotThomas Schueneman

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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