On the face of it, Jibu and Healing Waters might seem like an odd team. Jibu is a young, for-profit company founded by father and son Colorado entrepreneurs with a vision of building a franchise business network in urban centers across East Africa. Healing Waters is a Christian non-profit organization that works in poor rural areas and slums all over the world; it relies heavily on donors and volunteers to carry out its mission.
But that mission—bringing safe drinking water to those who need it—is the same for both organizations, and through their work together, both Jibu and Healing Waters have been able to carry their individual versions of it a little bit further.
More than 780 million people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, according to UNICEF. That is roughly 10 per- cent of the world’s population. Drinking contaminated water leads to a host of diseases, including diarrhea, which is one of the leading causes of death worldwide for children under five years old.
UNICEF’s statistic represents progress over the last 25 years, when only 77 percent of people were connected to an “improved” water source, whether that was clean water piped directly into the home, or to a public tap, well or borehole. But that progress has not been equitable: across most of sub-Saharan Africa, water infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth, and of the continent’s nearly one billion people, only 61 percent can readily get the clean water they need every day.
This is what prompted Randy and Galen Welsch to start Jibu, which means “answer” or “solution” in Swahili. Their goal was to provide safe and tasty drinking water to the majority of Africans who cannot afford premium bottled water from companies like Nestlé and Coca-Cola. They also sought to
make another kind of impact: the Welsches wanted to enable enterprising locals to build their own businesses and create jobs. Since Jibu launched four years ago, the company has supported the launch of more than 17 franchises in Rwanda and Uganda, and it recently made its first foray into Kenya. All of its franchises are run by local entrepreneurs.
However, the Welsches are businessmen—albeit social impact-minded ones—and not engineers. They quickly realized that a key part of helping Jibu take off in Africa would be finding the right water treatment equipment to support their franchise model. When Randy Welsch began investigating how to outsource the design of that technology, he found Healing Waters—a very different kind of organization that had been building and installing water purification units in Latin America for more than a decade.
An Accidental Charity
Healing Waters got its start in the Dominican Republic in 2002, almost by accident. A local church was in need of safe drinking water for its congregation and, through a mutual connection, reached out to the Colorado- based Lookout Mountain Community Church for help. Two of its members—Tom and Dana Larson, who eventually founded Healing Waters—agreed to help the church in the Dominican Republic install the water treatment equipment they needed. Then another nearby church heard about the work and asked to have a system built for its community. And so Healing Waters began.
“It pretty much organically grew from there,” says Marc Malone, Healing Waters’ lead water engineer. Malone was hired by Healing Waters in 2011 to work on projects in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti. The organization has since installed treatment facilities in El Salvador, Colombia, Honduras, Sierra Leone, Swaziland and Somalia, in addition to its projects with Jibu.
Much like Jibu, Healing Waters’ approach is partnership-centered. Though unlike its collaboration with Jibu, Healing Waters most often works with local churches on one-off clean water installations, which are financed by donors supporting the charity’s mission and work.
Over 780 million people—10 percent of the world’s population—lack access to clean water.
“Our job is to equip, educate and empower our projects’ site leaders with different strategies, then advise them about what will work and guide them through the steps of executing on it,” Malone explains. The process of identifying new partners, vetting the site, determining the scope of work and setting up their equipment can take up to a year.
“That means we’re always working on 10 to 20 projects at a time,” Malone says. “We do water testing, we do a community needs assessment, and then we do a site-planning survey, where we capture information about the community. And from there, we design or select what equipment makes the most sense.”
The Optimal Technology
For a number of years, Healing Waters sourced outside technology for its projects. But over time, as the number of installations they were asked to do increased, the team realized this approach was too costly: roughly US$40,000 per project. So in 2011, the organization hired Malone and other engineering staff to build Healing Waters’ own water-treatment system.
The first system Healing Waters built was an electricity-dependent system they called the PowerPure, which uses a process called ultrafiltration to treat the water. The ultra- filtration filters are composed of membranes that look like several hundred long, skinny drinking straws packed inside a pressure vessel. Each straw is made of polyethersulfone and is punctured with seven holes running end to end. Dirty water flows through these holes into the center of the straw and is then squeezed through the side walls, through pores that are approximately 20 nanometers in diameter. The pores trap large particles like viruses, bacteria, and other debris; any- thing that is dissolved in the water, like salt, passes through the membranes.
Ultrafiltration is ideal for removing biological contaminants from water, which are responsible for most water-related diseases, explains Malone. Only a small number of sicknesses are derived from ingesting toxic chemicals in water, like arsenic, mercury or lead. Healing Waters tests for chemical contaminants at the site of each project, but finds them at only five to 10 percent of its sites. When the team does encounter them, they install additional treatment steps to remove the harmful chemicals. In rare cases, more complex and expensive technology, like reverse osmosis, is required.
Reverse osmosis (RO) is what large water bottling companies like Nestlé or Coca-Cola use for their brands of bottled water. The process is so effective at filtering out even dissolved agents that the water it produces is essentially pure. The final product is more uniform both in chemical composition and taste as a result, Malone says.
“Reverse osmosis is more of a ‘one-size- fits-all’ solution and is great for creating a consistent product,” Malone explains. Take saltiness, for example. “Anything where the salt concentration is more than 1,000 parts per million (ppm) will start to have a bad effect on taste, and anything above 2,000 to 3,000 ppm is when RO is the better technology choice,” he says.
There are several drawbacks to reverse osmosis, however. For one, the upfront costs and ongoing maintenance of an RO purification system are much higher than ultrafiltration, which is an important consideration in charity work. The units Healing Waters installed in the Dominican Republic cost approximately $9,000, with annual maintenance costs of about $1,800. A similarly sized RO unit would have run close to $15,000 and annual upkeep would have been up to 2.5-times more costly. RO systems also waste much more of the original water source than ultrafiltration systems (50 to 60 percent versus five to 10 percent), and they use about 10 times the amount of energy.
Ultrafiltration is a simpler technology, but certainly not less safe; it is a tried and tested process that is very cost-competitive for Healing Waters, Malone says. “We like it because it is really reliable, whereas with other filtration systems, you might easily end up with contaminated water if an operator makes a mistake.”
One ultrafiltration filter can clean enough drinking water to serve 500 people daily.
Malone says that local operators can easily be trained in how to clean ultrafiltration units and “backwash” the filter membranes, which ensures that they continue filtering water at their optimal capacity. In all, this takes 10 to 20 minutes each day. If the filters are not maintained properly, the only consequence is a slower output, not unsafe water.
By contrast, RO systems require anywhere between two and four hours of maintenance daily to ensure the systems’ numerous filters are properly cleaned and performing as intended. Generally, this has to be done by a professional, because the risk of ruining the filters and ending up with contaminated water is high, says Malone.
For Healing Waters, the benefits of making its own equipment were immediately evident when it launched the PowerPure in 2011. The unit performed with good results, and the charity was able to reduce its per-project costs significantly. Some of the systems’ features still had to be sourced by outside providers—namely, the ultrafiltration membranes, which cost about $300 each. But that is a pretty small expense relative to what an RO system would require, Malone says.
The one major limitation was that the unit required a constant supply of electricity. “The PowerPure has a pump that needs to be plugged into a 120- or 240-volt power supply, which definitely limits the places where you can use it,” Malone explains—meaning that the unit is well-suited for areas with fairly reliable power.
But Healing Waters wanted to focus more on remote communities, where there was a higher need for clean water solutions and fewer organizations doing the work. Since power is less reliable in these areas, the organization set to work redesigning its system. In 2012, it had developed a new model called the GravityPure.
GravityPure uses the same ultrafiltration process, but as the name suggests, it relies on gravity rather than electricity to pull water from its source through the filter. In order to work, the water source must be elevated at least seven feet above the system—a tank mounted on a roof, for example—in order to produce enough pressure to force the water through the system’s filters.
Developing a gravity-based unit forced the Healing Waters team to add a number of flexible design features. For example, the engineers knew it would be impossible to predict the amount of pressure and flow rate for any given site, so they made the system easily scalable.
“The unit’s capacity is dependent on the surface area of the filter and the incoming water pressure,” explains Malone. Healing Waters’ 12-lb (5.4-kg) filters have about six square meters of surface area, which can produce enough drinking water for about 500 people each day. “Because you have such a large surface area, you can get a pretty high flow rate, even in a low pressure gravity flow situation,” he adds.
In very low-pressure circumstances, one filter in a GravityPure might only produce two liters of clean water per minute. But the system can be built with up to four filters to accommodate the amount of water a com- munity needs. Each filter can clean anywhere between one and 10 million liters of water (depending on the quality) before it needs to be replaced.
As an added measure, Healing Waters also designed a large storage tank to hold clean water until it is needed. This feature allows the system to run continuously. Any GravityPure that is meant to serve more than 100 people automatically includes a tank.
The first GravityPure was put to use in Somalia in 2012. Malone explains that the team packed the unit into three 50-lb (23-kg) duffel bags and carried it directly on and off the airplane, without having to wait at customs. “The portability of the system has really opened doors,” he says.
The PowerPure, by contrast, has to be shipped to each project site via ocean freight because of its size. This has caused numerous logistical headaches for Healing Waters. “We had trouble in Haiti in particular. The delays at customs would stall our projects for months at a time,” Malone says.
Since the first implementation of the GravityPure in Somalia, five more units have been installed in the country—all at schools with about 2,000 students each.
A New Kind of Partnership
When the Welsches approached Healing Waters in its search for a technology partner, they presented Healing Waters with an entirely new business model than what the charity was accustomed to.
Jibu had been operational for just over a year at that point, trying to plant the seeds for a market-based solution for clean drinking water that could be scaled across East Africa and beyond. From their own charitable and development work on the continent, the Welsches developed the idea for an affordable brand of bottled water that would target the “middle 70 percent” of urban Africans. This demographic cannot afford premium bottled water but can pay for safe drinking water as a service, like power or mobile phone credit. Jibu sells its water at a price that is competitive with the cost of buying charcoal to boil water at home, says Randy Welsch.
Jibu’s method for distributing its brand is to support local entrepreneurs in setting up franchises that filter and bottle the water and sell it to their communities. The company does this by providing promising business owners with a complete “turn-key” business set up: a water-treatment unit; infrastructure to house the equipment; bottles in 1.5-, 7- and 20-liter sizes to sell to customers; operational training, marketing and branding support; and ongoing technical support. It requires the entrepreneur to contribute $1,000 of the $30,000 start-up costs to ensure they have “skin in the game,” says Randy Welsch.
Locals in Jibu’s three initial start-up markets—Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo—were keen on the idea, but Jibu’s technology created a bottleneck to getting franchises up and running. Every new franchise was given its own customized filtration system to account for different community sizes, water sources and taste preferences. But this approach was costly and complicated, which motivated the Welches to outsource the engineering.
“We are such different organizations, but we saw so much mission alignment with what they were doing,” Malone says of Healing Waters’ first introduction to Jibu.
Healing Waters offered Jibu its PowerPure model to try, which Jibu tested alongside other technologies during an 18-month testing phase. The Welsches ultimately favored Healing Waters’ technology but ran into a familiar problem with it: unreliable power supplies.
“The systems would be down for days at a time,” says Randy Welsch, adding that running a back-up generator would be prohibitively expensive for most of its franchisees. He and Galen went back to Healing Waters with number of proposed modifications.
“We ended up doing a whole new design for them,” says Malone. “By that point, we were about four years in with that system and were thinking about a redesign anyway.”
Within five months, Healing Waters designed, built and shipped a completely new prototype and installed the first four of these units in Rwanda and Uganda in January 2015. They called the new model the SolarPure.
A New Kind of Technology
The SolarPure looks very different than Healing Waters’ two other models. The system is powered by solar panels, which are common rooftop fixtures in many of the urban neighborhoods that Jibu targets. It is also a higher capacity system that pushes water through the ultrafiltration membranes at a rate of approximately 30 liters per minute. This eliminates the need for a water storage tank and thereby cuts down infrastructure costs for franchisees.
SolarPures are adaptable to different power conditions as well. On days when power levels are low (say on a cloudy day), the units continue filtering water via an ultra-efficient solar-compatible “flex” pump that can run on power levels as low as 200 watts, as well as on variable voltages. The units also come with deep-cycle rechargeable batteries as a complete back-up option to solar power.
As Healing Waters’ engineers were designing the SolarPure, their first inclination was to build a fully automated unit. “But we realized that if any of the wiring got disconnected, or if there was a surge from the electrical supply, which happens a lot in Africa, and one of the pieces got fried, it would be confusing to figure out what needed to be replaced,” explains Malone.
Instead, they installed manual controls for everything, and moved them onto a single front panel so operators can tell at a glance when something goes wrong, like a clogged filter.
To manage the flow of water, the operator uses a simple ball-valve handle in the center of the unit. “If the handle is parallel with the direction of the water flow, that means it is open. If the handle is perpendicular, that means it is closed. It is really simple and easy to fix should something go wrong,” Malone says.
To clean the filters, the operator uses a hand pump to push clean water back through the membranes. Each backwashing session takes about five minutes and must be done several times a day.
One feature Healing Waters did automate was the injection of chloramine—a mixture of chlorine and ammonia—into the treated water. This effectively acts as a preservative that keeps the water safe without giving it a strong chlorine flavor. On earlier designs, Jibu’s franchise operators had to mix the chloramine themselves, but they had difficulty getting the proportions right.
“There is a big difference in terms of taste and safety. You have to mix it just right, and at the right time too,” says Randy Welsch.
With the SolarPure, the operator uses peristaltic pumps that inject a pre-measured amount of chloramine into the bottles.
Finally, Healing Waters added a polishing filter, which removes from the water any carbon particles that break off from the carbon filter, and acts as a safety check should any other membrane become compromised. In all, the final water product tastes better than most city water, Malone says, which becomes a critical selling point for a customer base that associates the taste of city water with getting sick.
“In Africa, there is an expectation that bottled water is not going to taste like the city tap water,” says Malone. “A lot of times people associate that taste with contaminated water, and assume it’s going to make them sick.”
Jibu reports that many of its customers prefer the taste of ultrafiltration-processed water to high-end bottled water, made by companies that use reverse osmosis. Malone speculates that this is because ultrafiltration preserves enough of the original sources’ salts and minerals to retain a more “familiar” taste.
Within a year of the SolarPure’s first installation, 17 Jibu franchises in Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya had purchased and installed one of Healing Waters’ new units. (Jibu has put its Democratic Republic of Congo operations on hold.) Nearly all of its entrepreneurs had recovered their personal start-up costs in the first three months of operation, Randy Welsch says. (In order to recoup their upfront investment, franchisees need to sell around 1,000 liters a day; Jibu reports that most are selling between 2,000 and 5,000 each day.)
Jibu itself is not yet profitable, because it is reinvesting most of its revenues into the expansion of its franchise network. Having a readily replicable piece of technology is helping the company do this more efficiently; the Welsches anticipate being able to open one franchise per month in Uganda and Rwanda.
“If we can keep up with that pace, which we have been doing, that is a pretty good indicator that we have figured out how to replicate our business model,” Randy Welsch says.
He adds that in time, they hope to grow faster. “We have been in the business for three years and have only been scaling for nine months. We don’t have the band- width or the real estate to grow faster, yet.” However, he believes launching 500 to 1,000 franchises in ten countries in the next five years is a very “achievable” goal. Jibu has its sights set on market testing in South America and Southeast Asia in the near future.
Developing bottled water that tastes different than city tap water is a critical selling point for customers who associate the taste of city water with getting sick.
As for Healing Waters, partnering with Jibu has given the organization valuable insight into how its technology can be adapted and scaled for different uses. Before launching the SolarPure, Healing Waters had installed 162 projects, which distribute 64,000 gallons of clean water per day to roughly 127,000 people. Both the SolarPure and Healing Waters’ collaboration with Jibu will extend the charity’s reach and standard of service much further, Malone says.
“What was exciting for us was that we knew [Jibu] was going to need hundreds, hopefully thousands, of these units over the years,” Malone says. That also means that the charity will have a reliable (and potentially long-term) income stream that it otherwise would not have through its donor-based funding approach. With this, the organization will be able to more easily plan for new projects and new models of its technology.
These mutual benefits have reinforced the sense of “mission alignment” Healing Waters first felt when it was introduced to Jibu. “We are a Christian organization and want to make a big, positive impact on the world. We look to do that by helping people meet their physical needs, as well as their social and spiritual ones,” Malone says. “Both of our organizations are very intentional in our work and focused on empowering people.”
Jibu’s approach to working with entrepreneurs carries important lessons for how to do that. Healing Waters learned early on that for its technology to be successful, the organization would have to do more than set up its equipment, hit the power switch and move on to the next project; rather, they needed to teach site leaders how to effectively run their own micro-businesses to ensure these partners also had skin in the game.
“We can create a great water treatment solution, but to make it work on the ground, you have to get people to see the value in using the system, and using it correctly,” says Walter Nonemaker, who is Healing Waters’ regional water engineer and project consultant for Guatemala.
To this end, Healing Waters dedicates significant efforts to teaching local partners how to use and repair the water systems, and also engages them in heath and hygiene education and business and administrative training, Nonemaker explains. He adds that this aspect of project implementation has become his main focus: “[It’s about] getting better at what we do in the training and transfer of knowledge to have a more wide- spread impact and really transform communities from the ground up.”