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“Our Consumers Use ‘Smart Cards’ That are Preloaded with a Convenient Ticket Size for the Purchase of Water.”

April, 25, 2018

Safe Water Network has been providing access of affordable water to the poor facing water quality challenges since 2010. These facilities are entrepreneur owned and operated and are equipped with state of the art water treatment technology equipped with remote monitoring system forgathering real time data through cloud technology. Recently, water ATM innovation was deployed in Hyderabad city and across Telangana which serves water 24x7 through the use of RFID card as well as coin based dispensing. The SKU’s are decided based on local consumer needs and are currently 10Liter, 20Literor even 500 ml or 1 liter in high footfall areas. Safe Water Network has track record of supporting initiative having over 215 safe water stations across India, with over 200 of which are in Telangana. In exclusive interaction with DT, Ravindra Sewak, Country Director, Safe Water Network and Kurt Soderlund, Chief Executive Officer, Safe Water Network shares his insights for further plans.

Q: How is Technology an enabler especially the IOT solutions?

Ravi: See, most of our iJal stations are in rural India, and it’s so difficult to reach them and measure their performance – the availability and quality of electricity, water quantity produced, quality of treated water, health of the plant, etc. We strive to provide reliable, uninterrupted, safe drinking water through our local operator to our consumers to prevent them from slipping back to free yet unprotected drinking water sources. In order to get visibility on our iJal station performance, we deployed our ‘Remote Monitoring System’ using within our first year of operation. There are 14 sensors which, with the help of the GPRS, transmit the data to a centralized cloud-based server. It helps us track key technical parameters, which are then analyzed using our ‘data analytics platform’ in order to inform us of deviations, so that preventive action can be taken and the life of the plant—especially high-value equipment like membranes and motors—can be protected by provision of local alarms. Additionally, we measure basic water quality data every 15 minutes. This live update, made available on dashboards, keeps our plant downtime at less than 1%, and allows us to serve quality, treated water to our consumer on a reliable basis.

Our consumers use ‘Smart Cards’ that are preloaded with a convenient ticket size for the purchase of water. Credit is deducted per purchase. These RFID-enabled smart cards not only save time and hassle for the entrepreneur—making change for each purchase, for example—but they also provide valuable information with respect to consumer identification and their purchase practices. This ensures all revenue is tracked, accurate, and transparent. Going forward, our Smart Cards will eventually permit telescopic pricing of water or linking with a government Direct Benefit Transfer scheme for water delivery to the poor and weaker sections of the society.

Through our operations, consumers use e-payment via RFID smart cards, water is dispensed 24x7 through automatic water ATMs, and plant performance and water quality indicators are received through RMS periodically. “I am pleased to say that we have cracked the code for delivering affordable, safe water reliably to the poor in rural and peri-urban slums”

Q: So, the buzz is around IoT that Safe Water Network is a technology enabler. You could be the first movers of IOT what other digital initiatives do you have?

Ravi:  The word “IoT” has proliferated into the vocabulary very recently. To ensure sustainable and reliable operations, we adopted our ‘Remote Monitoring System’ (RMS) in 2011. This cyber- physical system assisted direct integration of the physical iJal stations into computer-based systems, resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy, and economic benefit—all with need for reduced human intervention or targeting their efforts better. State Governments have begun to mandate RMS as an integral component in their tenders for ‘Community Water Purification Plants’.

Safe Water Network’s goal is to scale up our approach by leveraging the strength of other NGOs, organizations, and governments, so that—as per UN SDG 6.1—safe and affordable water can be made accessible to billions worldwide on a sustainable basis. We see standardization and digitization as the key for replication. We use digital tools in almost all aspects. Our ‘Consumer Activation’ tools use audio-video spiels and endorsements by key opinion leaders in the local language to promote positive behavior change. The ‘Education Tool’ uses 3D imaging and trains the operator using their local language to train them at a convenient pace and qualify for a certificate after successfully completing all the modules. The ‘Monitoring and Evaluation’ tools offers several benefits: the ‘Plant Audit Tool’ grades the performance of the plant against established performance benchmarks of SOFIE (Social, Operational, Financial, Institutional and Environmental); the ‘Water Quality’ tool tracks the quality of both source water and treated water. We have digital tools to measure financial viability with respect to investments and return on investment to the entrepreneur and investors, to provide advice on appropriate technologies based on raw water quality, and others. Through our ‘Technical Assistance Program’, these tools will bring water to millions, not only in this country, but across countries in need around the world.

Q: One thing I want to understand that India is a different market altogether compared to US and others, so what type of challenges you face when it comes to the India market?

Kurt: One of the reasons we started in India is that there is an enormous need here. In addition, India has remarkable resources, capabilities, expertise, and access to technology. The country is a leader in IT and Telecom, and through that expertise we’re able to innovate affordable models. So, we are looking to leverage all that with corporate partners and develop world-class partnerships that can in turn produce a world-class safe water system. This creates a model that is exportable to other parts of the world. As Ravi mentioned concerning the digital tools we are developing currently, the design and packaging of those tools are replicable and can be used worldwide.

Ravi: -One of the challenges of the Indian market lies in the fact that water is governed by the local bodies at village or city level under each State’s norms, regulations, and governance. There is no single window clearance for getting a large project sanctioned, multiple authorities act as regulators. On top of this, it is essential to deploy different technology due to climatic variation and type of water contamination. You need to be of a specific size and turn-over to participate in a tender, so there are limited avenues for pilots. We need to create an environment where wecan get funding for pilots to establish proof of concept of diverse models suitable for local needs.

Q: So just to understand this thing when you reach out to entrepreneurs and all that, they are monetizing it, right? How this monetization is taking place?

Ravi– We are supported by our donors with CapEx to set up the water treatment facilities, but it has to be OpEx-sustainable from inception, and we expect the life of the utility to be a minimum of 10 years. We have therefore adopted an entrepreneur, Self Help Group (SHG)or community operated model. The entrepreneur, community or SHG invests in the infrastructure with respect to land, building, raw water source, electricity connection, and tanks and pipes, and receives approval for operation from local governance. They need to be able to sustain their own operation costs, with respect to their operator salaries, monthly electricity cost, consumables, repairs, and maintenance. Water is priced at Rs. 5 for 20liters from the iJal Station, and this provides for station-level sustainability—in terms of operation as well as maintenance.

Q: Because what I believe that you are providing affordable and reliable quality drinking water to people. So, for that, you need to have strong money muscles for installation of plants, install latest technology and all and that is the biggest challenge I believe.

Ravi – Our Donors are very supportive. We have come this far due their financial and technical support. They helped us create a robust, replicable, scalable model. Without them, I do not think we would be where we are today. Any scalable drinking water proposition that is universally sustainable and affordable is yet to be developed. However, you do see a few successful demonstrations at credible scale these days.

Garnering capital for affordable drinking water is a challenge, as credit financing is difficult, due to financial institutions’ unwillingness to extend affordable yet patient capital. The capital that is available comes at high interest rates, which make a return on investment almost impossible, as the price point for the poor consumer has to be affordable, in line with their paying capacity.

Q: And what I believe that ownership lies with the government also. I believe that you should get the backing of the government.

Ravi – We work in harmony with the local governance and after seeking their endorsement. Government procurement policies must be abided for those participating in tendering process. There are Government R&D budgets that are allocated to innovations and new solutions but those can only be unlocked through certain programs and channels only.

Kurt–The partnerships that we forge with Governments are part of an effort to advance the sector.  We need to move away from CapEx-centric, large infrastructure projects, and focus on decentralized, easy-to-deploy, safe drinking water solutions. The sector is facing resource constraints and low skill.  There is need for innovation and optimization, as well as large-scale demonstration projects to identify and solve hurdles, so that successful models can be created, tested and scaled.

Q: You have tied up with someone? I know about Honeywell? With whom have you tied up within India?

Kurt– Honeywell, Pentair Foundation, Oracle, Macquarie, and UL are some of the corporates who are supporting us. We are also supported by USAID for the development of safe drinking water models that will be able to achieve scale in the urban slums and three sector facing digital tools with support from other partner donors as well. A CISCO grant has enabled the development of open-source digital tools for the water sector.

Ravi – Amongst the India donors, we have BHEL, India Water Partnership. Sir Ratan Tata Trust was our first Donor. The 2% CSR funding from corporates has been extremely helpful, as these donors like to support programs that reflect their philosophies of social development as well as promoting entrepreneurship and sustainability to ensure service delivery even beyond the period of direct funding. Some companies also support us by bringing their best practices in management and offer technical expertise.

Q: So, for example CISCO is bringing its technical expertise

Kurt: CISCO is primarily funding, but with an agenda towards leveraging technology solutions for scale—especially for the developing world’s disadvantage populations. Such is the case with GSMA, which supports us in Ghana.

Ravi: GSMA is “the GSM Association,” a trade body that represents mobile network operators and telecom companies. GSMA’s Ghana initiative has enabled a tablet-based tracking of water treatment plants that captures operational and financial performance.

Q: So how has the journey been from past 8 to 9 years?

Ravi: I would say wonderful. Today we provide safe water access to about seven lakh people across 200 communities, and it`s now growing at a much faster pace. The compounded annual growth rate for volumes of water that we have dispensed over the last seven years is over 100% which means we doubled dispensed volumes each year on the back of natural growth and addition in the number of stations. Maintaining this pace for last seven years is indeed very satisfying especially when the same store growth is over 14%. But, more than that, we have generated a lighthouse effect, where we provide technical assistance to other organizations in the water sector. For example: an NGO that provides shelter and education to children seeks recommendations from us regarding water quality guidance and technology solutions. In this manner, we can impact more people by providing technical assistance and technology-enabling tools by leveraging other NGOs and organizations.

Q: So right now, you are present in which states in India?

Ravi: We are in Telangana and Maharashtra, and a in a very small way in Uttar Pradesh. UP is a difficult owing to limited participation by diverse community groups in the initiative. Both Telangana and Maharashtra are doing very well in terms of consumer participation and off takes because of higher awareness.

Q: So, you mentioned about water ATM’s, so could you please elaborate more about it, is this new globally, like where it has taken place or is it very new to the India market?

Ravi: No, Water ATMs are not very new. The thing is, we had the technology for last eight years, but consumers were not ready—partly due to the fact that they lacked the confidence in smart cards storing their cash safely and basic hesitation in using new technology interface. They had more trust in hard cash for individual transactions or paper based prepaid cards than in virtual money pre-loaded in a smart card. This problem is especially magnified for the rural consumers. This hurdle reduced recently because of demonetization and push by government in using virtual money. This helped us quickly roll out the RFID based dispensing across 80% of our stations during 2017.

Today, coin-based water dispensing systems using customer owned vessels(i.e. glasses or bottles) at railway stations and high-footfall city areas are increasingly becoming common in providing safe and affordable drinking water.

Q: So, what type of new innovative technology you would be bringing in the next couple of years, if you can just help me understand.

Ravi:  In keeping with the needs of the scattered difficult to reach communities and the worldwide trends in technologies, the obvious next steps would be automatic selection of energy sources as well as development of open use digital tools platforms with ability to tailor for specific applications. We also need to make technology more affordable and resilient to suit our environment for at-scale deployment. Cloud based data storage, automatic analytics and IOT based monitoring will also expand.

Q: So, are you in talks with other state governments also for iJal stations?

Ravi: We wish to scale or facilitate scale, as I have said earlier, hence we work with the Central Government’s ‘Ministry of Drinking water and Sanitation’ as their ‘Key Resource Center’ to provide inputs in the policy making. Similarly, we work with the Ministry of Urban Development through their Atal Mission for Urban Transformation (AMRUT) program to expand drinking water access through small water enterprises.

We showcase our success in expanding our drinking water model in rural Telangana when we engage with other State Governments. Our oldest water station is now eight years old, and is still functioning with less than 1% downtime and generates its own operating costs. In Telangana, we have tested three models with participation of local community, entrepreneur, or SHG as operators. We have also integrated innovations such as IOT based remote monitoring system, solar-energy-enabled water stations, and Water ATMs. We have deployed diverse technologies for surface water and ground water contaminants. We have also extensively used digital tools for monitoring and evaluation. This success has made our model mature and ready to replicate in new geographies.

Q: So, you have been to rural India and in urban now, so do you think there is a different scenario altogether in say Kanpur and Orissa or same methodology, is going to work?

Ravi–Water is a State subject with devolution right down to the gram panchayat or urban local body. Water quality also differs from place to place. We therefore need deploy appropriate technology in addition to aligning ourselves with the local regulatory requirements. Hence there is bound to be a difference.

With respect to the methodology or approach of providing solutions, the macro picture and the ‘go to market’ strategy would remain similar, where local community is fully involved in the initiative or the solution metrics. However, each application will require customization in services with respect to: technology, language of communication, training and consumer literacy program based on their existing knowledge and awareness. Even price of services has to be commensurate with the socio- economic status of the region and cost of operations in addition to the facilities or viability gap funding provided by the local governing bodies.

Q: So any innovative technology for the Urban lot?

Ravi– For the urban applications, we have developed automatic purification to minimize operator intervention. Moreover, as we treat surface water, the urban Water ATM uses ‘zero discharge’ nano-technology as a part of six-stage purification process retaining all the natural minerals in the treated water. Consumers get 24 x 7 convenience of automatic single or multi-serve dispensing with option to choose from 500 ml, one liter or 10-litreor 20-litres dispensing. Moreover, for bulk deliveries, even 100 litres option is available to serve large functions. ATMs can dispense using coins or prepaid RFID smart cards.

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