This post is the first in a series I will be contributing for my Business Model Designs for Social Impact course at Northeastern University. This is the course’s first time being offered and it is taught by Professor Gordon K. Admodza. In this series, I will be publishing my findings on different social innovators and the business models that are allowing their inventions to reach the people most in need. As a class, we define social innovations as sustainable, pro-poor solutions.
Throughout the 2013 Spring semester, I will be working as a consultant for a company working in the clean water and sanitation space along with a team of six taking a Business Model Design course at Northeastern University. This company we are supporting, like many others around the world, are pursuing one of the most life-saving social missions in the developing world. It is summarized as goal 7C of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” As millions die each year due to waterborne illnesses, researchers and entrepreneurs around the world are looking for solutions that can save lives. The following is a review of some of the names tirelessly working away at this problem along with a brief summary of the business models that allow their work to be sustainable.
First off, two of the biggest names in clean water movements are charity: water and water.org. These are primarily aid organizations with heavy celebritysupport. They run some of the most effective philanthropic social media campaigns and by doing so, are able to raise millions of dollars that have been invested in water well and deposit construction projects around the developing world. The construction of such projects are done by partnering organizations based in the communities at stake.
While the above groups are primarily advocacy and fundraising based, other organizations are innovating on the technology front. LifeStraw is a ‘point-of-use’ technology that literally acts as a straw to be used when drinking dirty water right from the source, such as from a river stained by pollution or animal excrement or a water well that lacks proper insulation. LifeStraw’s business model includes receiving funding from major NGOs to distribute their product for free in the developing world, while also marketing their product to people of the first world who hike and camp outdoors.
The second element of this Millennium Development Goal is to provide basic sanitation to the developing world. Because the concept and possibility of sewage systems as we picture them in the first world are currently unfeasible to build in many rural developing communities, it is very normal for human and animal waste to be ‘deposited’ in back yards or by water sources. Flooding, for example, can then lift this waste and mix it in with the same water sources that people are drinking from. Because waste is toxic and filled with bacteria, the international community has recognized that investments must be made into sanitation infrastructure in developing communities. Some of the world’s most famous philanthropists, such as Bill Gates through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have invested in sanitation projects aimed at tackling this issue. One such project the Gates support is a solar-powered toilet designed by California Institute of Technology professor Michael Hoffman. Solar energy is harnessed to power an electrochemical reactor which breaks down waste and creates fertilizer or energy that is recycled to power the flushing mechanism on the toilet. The toilet uses no outside water source and produces no pollutants. No plans have yet been released regarding this group’s business model.
These are just some of the hundreds of brilliant innovators around the world using technology, business, or systems-based approaches to solve the world’s most pressing demands. Their impact on lives saved can be seen in the numbers. According to the World Bank, 1.6 billion people gained access to clean drinking water from 1990 to 2006, making Millennium Development Goal #7 one of only two goals (out of eight super-goals) that will have been achieved by the UN-mandated deadline of 2015. The work is not complete, however, as 2.5 billion people still lack basic sanitation and 8% of the world’s population — eight in one hundred people — will still not have access to clean water by 2015.