Friday, April 7, 2017

A Scalable Solution to Contaminated Water

Interview with EcoFiltro CEO Philip Wilson

CEO and founder of EcoFiltro, Philip Wilson, sharing
filtered water with schoolchildren in Guatemala 
Last week, as part of our continuing series to learn and highlight the work the tech innovators and startups are carrying out in many of the same communities that Partners of the Americas strives to empower, our AFS intern Mitchell Opatowsky interviewed Benjamin Bunker, CEO and Founder of Global BrightLight Foundation. After learning more about the foundation’s efforts to bring solar-powered electricity to marginalized rural localities in Guatemala, Ben mentioned that there other innovative businesses trying to address other challenges afflicting the farming localities where we carry out our work. He recommended that we reach out to EcoFiltro, a socially-minded company that sells ceramic pot water filters in Guatemala and recently expanded to Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica. This week, Mitchell had the opportunity to speak with EcoFliltro’s CEO and founder, Philip Wilson and learn about their work.

EcoFiltro connects its efforts to many of the communities in Guatemala that USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers work with. Their determination at bringing clean drinking water to rural localities aligns perfectly with Partners of the Americas’ own commitment to fostering sustainable development through horticulture and rural enterprise projects. Through these methods, our organizations provide under-served communities with the tools and opportunity they need to lift themselves out of their circumstances and improve their overall well-being.

Philip Wilson: A significant problem that impoverished people face is the lack of access to potable water. About 80% of global illnesses stems from lack of access to clean drinking water. Many times, people have wells and drink from streams and rivers in their own country. Of course, without isopropyl or some filtration agent, all you’re really drinking is water contaminated by bacteria of fecal origin. Water scarcity is particularly chronic in Africa; however, in Latin America, access to water is not much of a problem. What is a problem is when 1 in 20 Latin American children die from intestinal infections due to lack of clean drinking water.

As of now, there four basic methods for rural families to get the water they need: 1) bottled waters; 2) fetching water from river, lake or stream; 3) rain water; or 4) local wells. Unfortunately, 97% of the water in Guatemala is contaminated, eliminating ground water and local wells as safe alternatives. Furthermore, half the rural population, which is equivalent to more than 7 million people, does not have access to quality potable water. Many rural families try to overcome their lack of access to potable water by boiling cooking water. However, this means that families are burning an average of 21 pounds of wood per day to have clean water. These is a huge problem, not only are these families spending time to find wood to burn, but these open pit fires are not controlled, and consistent presence of these fires causes respiratory diseases.

So what can you do if you have plenty of water to drink, but it is all contaminated? How do you afford a water filtration system if you’re spending money to pay phone bills, for TV service, and for candles and kerosene lamps?

According to Philip, There are 3 actors who should be involved in this area:

1) Government – Access to clean water is the government’s responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s all too commonplace for other public expenses to get in the way of rural investment into water filtration. Even though many governments are pushed by the medical community, they have made minimal investment into water treatment plants or sanitation for the general population.

2) NGOs – Because the government can’t provide for the needy, NGOs step into help. The problem with this is that they are limited by the donations they can raise.

3) Corporations – Because governments lack the money and because NGOs are limited by donations, the problem remains unsolved. It takes a social business to create a hybrid return on investment activity that finds a way to empower these people to become financial actors.

Philip’s sister and mother worked with NGOs focused in water. They had failing business models that were not having the intended impact on their recipients. In our interview, he stated, “I could have provided for 14,000 families if I was an NGO. Sure, that’s fine. But with a scalable social business model, EcoFiltro can provide for over 240,000 rural families and 100,000 urban families. And some of these families are saving $120 to $200 per year because of it.”

The reason this model failed is that the NGO donated chlorine to rural consumers. The intention was for the chlorine to be used as a water purifier; however, Philip stated that only 3% of consumers used it as a water purifier, and the other 97% used it to wash clothes. When he turned 40, he went to Guatemala. He observed that many rural citizens were spending about $13 to 16 dollars per month for water. His goal was to create a portable water filter that could pay for itself within 3 months.

He started by creating an urban water filter. This business model became sustainable by saving the average urban consumer nearly $200 on bottled water. Currently, he serves over 98,000 urban customers in Guatemala, and the EcoFiltro brand is the number one water filter brand in Guatemala. He then used these profits to fund the real intent of his venture: rural water consumers. He used what he made from urban consumers to subsidize the cost of the filter for rural poor.

In Guatemala, even the poorest households have TVs and cellphones. However, their houses have dirt floors and many homes, despite rural electrification efforts, still rely on kerosene lamps and candles, and cooking food in open pit fires results in pollution of air and respiratory diseases. EcoFiltro had an idea that perhaps through donations; demand from consumers could be created. The organization donated their filters to schools. The strategies was to have over 400,000 kids drinking better-tasting, healthier water, and educate their parents on why the filters mattered, almost as brand ambassadors for the EcoFiltro brand. It is essentially what the big software companies like Microsoft and Apple do already with schools by providing cheaper software and encouraging purchasing the software later. EcoFiltro is spreading at about 90 – 100 schools per month, and it strives to reach 1,000,000 families by 2020.

EcoFiltro’s ceramic water filters are sourced from local materials. The secret is ancient. Clay makes water fresher. This ceramic pot filter technology was invented in Guatemala, but is spreading worldwide to 59 factories in 39 countries. Even in Uganda, there are 33 employees making 1500 filters a month for communities there.

Although our interview with Philip was short, it really helped us learn more about innovative and scalable models for addressing common rural challenges. After all, EcoFiltro like Partners of the Americas, strives to empower under-served communities through an equal and mutual exchange of ideas and lessons, providing them the tools they need to be self-sustaining for the long-term.

Want to learn more about EcoFiltro’s work? Then make sure to watch Philip Wilson’s recent presentation for the Wharton Global Forum in Miami:



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