Written by Amy Whitesall
Most of us don’t think twice about turning on a faucet and seeing potable water pour out. But for an estimated one billion people around the world, the reality is very different. In many regions, lack of access to safe water requires daily treks of several miles in search of a viable source — a task that often falls to the women and young girls of a village.
The problem hit home for University of Michigan MBA student Cynthia Koenig during a William Davidson Institute fellowship in South Africa. Moved by the health and socioeconomic effects of the water crisis, Koenig launched a nonprofit organization to help distribute a locally available water transportation tool. In order to address the issues of poor quality control, corruption, and limited geographic distribution, she soon found herself at the helm of Wello. The social venture manufactures and distributes the WaterWheel, a 20-gallon drum that moves four to five times the amount of water possible using traditional methods of collection and carrying.
“It’s simple, and that’s the beauty of it,” says Koenig. “The U.N. guideline for how much water people need on a daily basis is five gallons per person, which weighs 44 pounds. That’s like carrying a typical suitcase on your head. In many parts of the world, women and girls spend hours every day walking, waiting in long lines for clean water, and carrying the heavy load home — often repeating this cycle multiple times per day. So there’s a significant benefit in being able to use a WaterWheel instead.”
The purpose of the 20-gallon WaterWheel is to provide water for irrigation, personal hygiene, and household cleanliness, as well as people’s daily consumption needs. Wello’s goal is to improve sanitation and create business opportunities that stem from better access to greater quantities of water. An exciting side benefit is that women and girls are freed up to pursue education or other more productive activities if they aren’t called upon to transport water every day.
Koenig was determined to make the enterprise to serve those who most needed it. “There are many instances of great products that never reach their intended markets. By making it possible for the WaterWheel to generate income for its owners, we’re addressing two problems at once.” Enter fellow Stephen M. Ross School of Business MBA students Colm Fay and Christopher Mueller.
Fay’s background in financial services and Mueller’s training in engineering – coupled with their interest in base of the pyramid (BOP) initiatives – were what Koenig was looking for to move her venture forward.
“We had very similar views on what was happening in the BOP space,” says Fay. “I was coming at it from a very business-oriented perspective and felt like there was some reinventing of the wheel going on in BOP initiatives. We definitely shared the same interests and frustrations.”
He estimates there are roughly a billion people who could benefit from this product. “We want to put the technology in people’s hands and make it accessible and replicable,” he says.
With such a huge market, Wello was faced with the challenge of where to initially target the product and how to tweak it to best serve that population. The Indian state of Rajasthan was the ultimate choice. A team of Wello volunteers spent the summer in Rajasthan, assessing the potential market and developed a profile of their target consumer. The response from end-users was overwhelmingly positive.
“There’s a lot of daily work I have to do,” says a 45-year-old woman who tested the product. “With extra time (that the WaterWheel would provide), I could have more cattle because I’d have time to take care of them. This would increase my income. Also, with more time and increased livestock, young girls can go to school.”
Wello currently is poised to begin a pilot project in Rajasthan later this fall, working in partnership with nonprofits Seva Mandir, Rang De, and the Barefoot College.
To fund the project, Koenig, Fay, and Mueller actively pitched Wello this spring, finishing second in the 2010 Princeton Entrepreneur Network Pitch and winning the Dow Sustainability Challenge Grant. The trio also earned the Social Impact Award at the 2010 Michigan Business Challenge. In May Koenig’s work was recognized by President Bill Clinton during the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University. Additionally, Ross professor Michael Gordon recently won first place in the oikos/Ashoka Global Case Writing Competition, focused on business cases related to social enterprise. Koenig co-authored the case, which is based on Wello.
In addition to its work in India, Wello has been approached by the United Nations, and is in discussions with the organization about providing WaterWheels for use in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan. It’s all more than enough to keep the Wello team busy, but they welcome the challenge.
“The WaterWheel literally lifts a huge burden from the shoulders of women and girls,” says Koenig. “It’s exciting and rewarding to see the positive impact it has on their lives.”
Amy Spooner is an assistant editor at the Ross School of Business. This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Dividend Email.
Photos: © Josh Dick Photography / Wello