What if India was able to provide clean drinking water to its poorest citizens at truly affordable rates? What if that water was harvested from the ground and purified by clean solar energy so efficiently that it used less than one third the energy a regular solar purifier used? What if the actual purification of water could be customized to the region — areas with high flouride or arsenic versus areas with high bacterial pollutants getting different cleaning processes working for them — and the water dispensed with the help of a smartcard?
If this sounds like a fairytale, keep reading. Because several start-ups are beginning to tackle problems relating to water. From too much (e.g. waterlogging) to too little. One such innovation is Swajal, which uses solar energy to purify drinking water at an affordable rate.
Search for Funds “Water is the most basic resource that all of us share. We want it to be free for everyone,” says Vibha Tripathi, one of the co-founders of Saurya EnerTech. She spun off Swajal as a fully owned subsidiary in 2013. The start-up has recently set up five prototypes of its solar-powered water purifier and is ready to take the machine to market.
The Swajal machine is designed with the capability of nine stages of filtration and installed with a proprietary GSM software that continuously monitors whether the machine is working at its installation point. “We are still working on the software to see if it can monitor water purity remotely,” says Tripathi.
She is looking for funding for the venture. “We are asking for $1.2 million to scale up operations,” she says and is willing to divest 20-25% of Swajal’s equity for that investment. “We would use this money for R&D, marketing, hiring more people — basically scaling up the venture,” she adds
Tripathi, a physicist and PhD from IIT Kanpur set up Saurya in 2009 with other IIT engineers and Swajal four years later with co-founder Advait Kumar, who has just completed his electrical engineering from Penn State University. Kumar has previously cofounded online education portal MindKART and Nirbhaya Urja, a social venture for lighting application.
Swajal also has on board as advisor the rather colourful personality of Danny Kennedy, California-based clean-tech entrepreneur, environmental activist and co-founder of solar company Sungevity. It is trying to find greater international leverage through the American company and plans are in the offing to take this technology to Africa, though Tripathi is quick to clarify that nothing has been signed and sealed as yet.
“We’re still testing the market for viability,” says Tripathi. Swajal won the India Innovation Growth Award for 2014, a joint initiative of the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology, Lockheed Martin Corporation, the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Stanford Graduate School of Business and the IC2 Institute at the University of Texas. The aim of this programme is to accelerate innovative Indian technologies into the global market and find the correct scientific and commercial values for them.
Cheap Water Consider these statistics on the Swajal website from the World Health Organization “Every minute about 4 people die because they didn’t have access to clean drinking water”; “21% of all communicable diseases in India are waterrelated”; “1,600 people die daily in India due to diarrhoea alone”; and “5,000 people die every day because of dirty drinking water”. If machines like Swajal are installed in India’s rural areas to begin with, machines that dispensed clean water produced by clean technology, just the savings in terms of health costs would pay for the cost of those machines.
To test the Swajal prototype, Tripathi has picked five of the 900 villages in the area that comprises Delhi and the National Capital Region to instal solar water purifiers. Besides these, Swajal has just installed two 5,000 litres per day purifiers in Chandankhera and Karinabagh villages in UP’s Unnao district, areas which have high fluoride content in their ground water. Allocated amounts of the purified water are auto-dispensed to each consumer via a smartcard issued by the non-profit organization that has commissioned these purifiers. The purifier can dispense both hot and cold water.
“When the capital expenses are paid for, we can supply the water at 30 paise per litre,” says Tripathi. Even when the capital expense is self sponsored by Swajal, as in the case of the five prototypes, purified water from the ground can be made available at as low as Rs 1 per litre, she says. Tripathi feels Swajal can begin by helping schools and hospitals in rural areas. “Swajal centres are capable of dispensing water with TDS [total dissolved solids] of less than 100 — the acceptable limit according to the WHO is 300,” says Tripathi.