WaterHealth International - Winner of the Unilever Global Development Award

The issues

Award Type: 

Winner of the Unilever Global Development Award
  • 50 per cent of the hospital beds at any given time are occupied by people suffering from water-related illnesses, according to the United Nations.
  • Globally, 1.8 billion people struggle to access to safe water to drink and wash with.
  • Most of the people in developing nations are still dependent on untreated surface/ground water due to lack of facilities.
  • The World Bank says that 88 per cent of all waterborne diseases are caused by unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.
  • Waterborne diseases account for 3.4 million deaths every year, contributing hugely to high mortality rates of those under the age of five.
  • Women and children spend 125 million hours collecting fresh water every day.

WaterHealth’s decentralised system can purify contaminated water for rural communities everywhere, supporting the 1.8 billion people without access to safe drinking water.

When new products, services and innovations hit the market promising to address this huge problem, the world takes notice.

WaterHealth International (WHI) is one such company to have developed a solution to provide clean, safe and affordable drinking water to underserved communities across India, Ghana and Nigeria. It does this via its decentralised water purification plants, known as WaterHealth Centres (WHC) through which raw water is treated through a six-stage purification process.

The end result: World Health Organization-quality, safe drinking water that also meets local country specific water standards. And the equipment design can be customised to remediate the contamination in the raw water source and provide safe drinking water at an affordable price. It is a model the company wants to scale up and see used across the world. By 2020, it wants to serve more than 100 million customers.

“The problem of unsafe drinking water is quite grave in developing countries where the available water is rife with physical and microbiological contaminants,” says the company’s chief operating officer, Vikas Shah. “Our decentralised model overcomes the drawbacks of traditional water treatment plants. We also run social marketing programmes to spread awareness on health issues and encourage people to follow hygienic practices to bring about long-term transformation within society.”

A community project

So, how does the business model work? Well, each WHC is established using a public-private community partnership, whereby the company builds a water purification plant which can serve a community ranging from 5,000 to 25,000 people. The infrastructure – the land, the water source and the required electricity – is provided by the community, while WaterHealth sources the funds to set up the plants.

The WHCs are constructed and run on a Build Operate Transfer (BOT) agreement with the local government for a concession term spanning between 15 and 20 years. The business conducts a detailed feasibility study to understand various parameters to determine the need, potential and technical feasibility of the identified location.

The WHCs are then maintained and operated by business associates who are recruited from within communities and given the necessary training to help deliver water from the WHCs to retailer points, as well as to consumer households.

And the model is working. Around 85 per cent of WHC customers are below the poverty line, according to WaterHealth and households are reporting lower incidences of water-borne diseases. Households who do not consume water from WHC have 1.15 times higher risk of suffering from any illness.

Clean energy solutions

So, far the programme established has impacted more than 1.2 million direct beneficiaries in India, Ghana and Nigeria. Right now, the plan is to expand the programme to various underserved communities in developing countries in Africa and Asia such as Kenya, Uganda, Vietnam and Indonesia. The business is also evaluating how it might use clean energy solutions, such as solar panels and variable frequency drives in the WHCs instead of depending on grid power.

But key to the success of the existing programme is WaterHealth’s ability to recruit delivery service providers – local entrepreneurs employed to deliver the water that comes out of the WHCs. Currently, there are 600 of these local entrepreneurs being supported in the three countries, as well as about 2,000 small-scale vendors being supported.