Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Headquarters Day 2: Lessons Learned

After two days at headquarters, here’s what we learned:

The need for clean water
Clean water isn’t convenient. In a large municipal system, such as the one in Delhi, only about 40% of water piped from the source actually reaches consumers due to cracks in the piping. Cross contamination with sewage is also a significant problem- making water quality unpredictable. It is also costly to pipe water long distances- a particular challenge in rural areas.
Sarvajal realized that a community-based model is more suited to remote areas. As such, Sarvajal operates a “cluster” model with concentrated areas and hubs which allow for central territory offices to provide the needed support and maintenance in a specified geographic area while reaching out concentrically to more and more remote areas. Franchises are currently organized in clusters (which are part of these larger territories) and Sarvajal is expanding around their current hubs in both Rajisthan and Gujarat.

From Sarvajal-Ahmedabad

One of the main challenges Sarvajal faces in its mission to provide safe and affordable drinking water is educating people about the risks associated with consumption of municipal water. The mineral content in the water makes it unsafe to drink- Fluoride being the worst offender as it causes something called Flourosis which leads to joint pain, water accumulation in the legs and other painful health issues. (Sarvajal has not detected any issues with other common water contamination problems such as arsenic, lead, iron or silica.)

In Rajisthan and Gujarat- both arid desert regions that experience a massive increase in rainfall during the monsoon season, seasonal variability (both in terms of weather and fluctuating demand for water) presents a challenge in North India.

In a town like Bagar (where we will be conducting the majority of our experiments) most people have access to municipal water and bore wells. Domestic water use is anything from bathing and laundry to cooking and straight consumption. Sarvajal is attempting to replace municipal and well water intended for consumption with clean, purified water. (Some people in Bagar have domestic RO units however they are incredibly inefficient producing only 1 liter of clean water for every 9 liters of brine.)

In India drinking water makes up about .8% of all water use is drinking water- so while we’re not dealing with a significant volume (whereas agriculture for example constitutes 80% of water use) the responsible management of this water is crucial in this arid region.

Water for all

In India there is a culture that water, particularly well water, is free. It is a right not a privilege that everyone have access to that water. As the water has become contaminated, however, it has to be cleaned for obvious health reasons and that costs money. There is a challenge in convincing people that the water their family has been drinking for centuries is not safe to drink. The real challenge is then convincing people to pay for something they think they expect to get for free.

The reason our team from the U-M is here is to find creative solutions for waste water- and there are clear economic and environmental reasons why this matters.

Sarvajal employs Reverse Osmosis (RO) combined with basic filtering and UV technology to purify groundwater for drinking. Their technology is 4 times as efficient as domestic RO plants .

The Sarvajal model
Government and many non-profit water assistance programs have proved unsustainable in efforts to provide consistently clean, affordable drinking water- it requires a lot of time to build partnerships and costs a lot of money to keep programs in operation. That’s why the Sarvajal model employs market-based solutions, partnering with local entrepreneurs to market, produce and distribute Sarvajal water. The model certainly provides incentive to get clean water in the hands of people who need it but it also means they are susceptible to market fluctuations and other vulnerabilities.

Reverse Osmosis
Sarvajal employs Reverse Osmosis (RO) combined with basic filtering and UV technology to purify groundwater for drinking. Machines run at 40% efficiency (at a 5 to 8 ratio meaning for every 5 liters of ‘product’ they are producing 8 liters of waste). The purpose for this to keep the brine diluted enough so that it can be disposed of. The RO membranes are rated for up to 65% efficiency.

From Sarvajal-Ahmedabad

The very first COCO (Company Owned, Company Operated) RO machine was installed in Bagar. This RO machine (1000 LPH- Liters per hour) is much bigger than the model they currently use in other franchise locations (but the brine is the same).

From Sarvajal-Ahmedabad

Water at franchisee locations is pumped from ground wells. Most RO franchises have a well and a pump owned by the franchisee. This pipes to a 500 liter raw water storage tank on top of the RO machine. From there it passes through a charcoal filter, two RO membranes, UV and into a clean water storage tank where it can be dispensed to customers.

The RO machines have been designed to be as compact and simple as possible. They can be installed within 4 hours and have wheels and handles so they can even be moved by a single person. For easy transport to remote areas, they also fit on the back of a Tempo (a commonly used miniature pick-up truck.) Installation requires access to water and electricity (for running the pumps and data tracking equipment).

Getting water
Customers either pick up water for 30 paise (.007 cents) per liter or have it delivered for 50 paise per liter. Water is usually delivered in 20 liter drums.

Franchise owners prepay Sarvajal for the water and then collect payment from customers. Before prepay Sarvajal was only getting about 70% of revenues. Now, with prepay they get about 107%.

Savajal gets a 40% cut of profits which pays for maintenance, running the headquarters office and other business expenses. The franchisee’s 60% cut breaks down into approximately 20% in operation costs and 40% earnings. The initial investment to become a franchise is about 50,000 Rs.

Headquarters communicates with franchisees through a number of avenues- FRM (Franchisee Relationship Management) staff conduct site visits 1-2 times per month in addition to weekly phone calls. They also host quarterly franchisee meets where franchisees from a particular cluster get together to share ideas and learn about new initiatives or technologies being employed by Sarvajal. There are about 2-3 administrative staff people in each territory.

Data tracking
Sarvajal maintains a sophisticated data tracking system. The remote data tracking “Soochak” (which means indicator or information provider”) has improved not only consistency regarding the safety of the water dispensed but ensures that franchisees report actual sales. Twelve data collection sensors on each RO machine report almost real-time data where staff at Headquarters can monitor flows, TDS levels (Total Dissolved Solids) and maintenance issues. The machine transmits data through cellular technology meaning each machine sends about 1000 texts per month.

From Sarvajal-Ahmedabad

Water is tested regularly by Sarvajal (both inputs and outputs) as well as local governments who control the source of municipal water (which in many villages fluctuates depending on which well is cleanest at any given time.)


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