What is the social and/or ecological challenge?
More than 30% of Ugandans lack access to secure water sources (World Health Organisation). The situation is not much better for the remainder of the population, with 60% of people reliant on boiling water to drink and 10% on purchased bottled water. As a result, water-borne illnesses remain the top cause of death among children under the age of five. Such sobering health figures do not even take into consideration the economic impact of diarrheal diseases due to loss of productivity and demand for healthcare, which together cost an USD 170 million each year, or the opportunity cost of the time it takes to fetch and boil water. It is estimated that in Uganda women and children spend 140 million hours every day collecting water, accounting for 76% of water collection for households (WHO/UNICEF). The WHO estimates that 1 kg of wood is needed to boil 1 litre of water. If each Ugandan who currently boils his or her drinking water consumes 2 litres of water each day, that means burning roughly 45 million kg of wood. As a result, over one year 2.7 billion kg of carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere just by Ugandans who boil water for drinking. Moreover, as a method of water purification, boiling poses problems related to cross-contamination as the water cools.
The social entrepreneurial approach
Ceramic water filters offer an attractive clean water solution for Uganda. According to a UNICEF assessment of the use of ceramic water filters in Cambodia, “[ceramic] filters have the advantage of being lightweight, portable, relatively inexpensive, chemical-free, low-maintenance, effective and easy to use.” In 2015 Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment approved Purifaaya ceramic filters produced by the social enterprise SPOUTS of Water, stating that the filters are “efficient and effective to produce water that meets the recommended standard for human consumption.” Apart from their technical excellence, Purifaaya filters have the advantage of being culturally and socially acceptable in Uganda thanks to a longstanding tradition of storing drinking water in clay pots. Ugandans like the taste of Purifaaya-filtered water and are accustomed to maintaining ceramic products. The sense of pride in owning a household water filter further increases the likelihood of proper long-term maintenance. A Purifaaya filter can serve an entire household for two years and, at USD 20 per unit, is the most affordable durable household filter on the Ugandan market, paying for itself in just six months by eliminating the fuel costs of boiling water. Purifaaya users also save themselves both the time it takes to boil water and wait for it to cool and the risk of cross-contamination through storage in dirty containers. Finally, women and children no longer have to fetch so much firewood, freeing up time for more productive activities and schoolwork. For households that previously did not treat their water, the Purifaaya is the first source of safe water for their families, with concomitant health benefits. On a larger environmental level, by eliminating the need to boil water and thus to collect charcoal and firewood from local forests, which act as an essential carbon sink, the Purifaaya reduces greenhouse gas emissions. By replacing bottled water, it also reduces plastic consumption. And by locally sourcing its raw materials from Uganda, SPOUTS can employ more than 20 manufacturing employees while minimising its carbon footprint tied to manufacturing and shipping. To distribute its filters across the country, SPOUTS segments the market by income level, selling to households and working with NGOs to provide clean drinking water to refugee camps, schools, prisons, clinics and other public spaces. In urban and peri-urban areas, Purifaaya filters are sold in retail shops patronised by households that can afford the upfront cost. SPOUTS reduces the barriers to purchase by providing financing options through partnerships with microfinance institutions and Savings and Credit Cooperatives. SPOUTS partners often extend loans for up to six months to enable customers to gain stable long-term access to clean water for their families.
Goals and expected impact
SPOUTS of Water started as an attempt to circumvent the cycle of aid and dependence that many clean water solutions seemed to perpetuate. In 2015, its first year of sales, the company sold 3,800 filters, bringing clean drinking water to more than 44,000 people. In the first 8 months of 2016, it sold more than 3,000 filters, with demand exceeding supply. The goal is to increase production capacity to meet this excess demand. In 2017 SPOUTS will focus on expanding it market presence. By 2018 it plans to provide more than 1 500 new filters to households and more than 700 large filters to schools every month, giving an additional 37,000 people access to safe drinking water. In the long run, the initiative will establish a profitable and sustainable solution to the country’s clean water crisis.