The BLOG: Voices

In Guatemala, potable water requires sustainable solutions

(Courtesy of Philip Wilson)

(Courtesy of Philip Wilson)

“Pare,” “Stop.” I tell a child as he is about to take a sip of brown, stagnant water. It is a natural reaction as a parent. That water can’t possibly be good for him. Living in Guatemala, I have lived this scene over and over again. Like many people, my second reaction is “Where was the government? Why do these poor children have to drink parasite-infested liquid? Someone should fix this.”

For many years that “someone” was someone else. I did my part, paying my taxes and dutifully giving to charity. However, it seemed neither of these actions had any tangible results. The government was often ineffective and, at worst, corrupt.

Many well-meaning non-governmental organizations helped the poor, but their aid was often temporary and never came close to solving the problem.

As a member of the private sector, I knew that business was very good at managing resources efficiently and effectively. The consequence of not doing so was certain death for any company. Could one use a business model to solve a huge social problem as big as providing clean water?

In Guatemala, 1 out of 20 children do not reach the age of 5 due to an intestinal infection caused by drinking unclean water. In the country, 97 percent of available water is contaminated by bacteria of fecal origin. This reality keeps the poor stuck in a terrible reality. Constant intestinal disease means lost work and school days, money spent on medicines, instead of food, and a ripple of social and health problems. I wanted to solve the problem for the 1 million rural families currently living without potable water in Guatemala.

The first thing I did was go to out to the field and ask lots of questions. I wanted to understand what the poor were currently doing, and not doing, to purify their water in the home. Some were not purifying water but were spending money on medicine to treat stomach ailments. Another large group was buying firewood to boil water and a smaller group was buying bottled water. The average amount spent by the poor in most communities was about $12 a month for clean water.


The Ecofiltro


The Ecofiltro

Gathering this data was the first step in not seeing the poor as an object of pity, but as customers. Like any good business, I used this data to put together a sales and marketing strategy to promote an effective, low-cost filter.

The solution was the “Ecofiltro,” an affordable water filter that was made from clay, effective, easy to use, and culturally accepted. The question was how to make up the difference between the $35 cost and the price a poor family would be willing to pay. A charity would have fundraised, a government subsidized, but as a business I looked for other higher paying markets to make up the difference.

The lack of clean water affects everyone in a developing country, rich and poor alike. Therefore, I developed an urban filter with an elevated margin. The higher margin allowed us to set the price of the rural filter model at an affordable level and provide financing. We found five monthly payments to be the ideal financing plan so that the transaction would be a positive cash flow event for the poor from month one.

This year we will reach over 60,000 families and we are well on our way to reach the 1 million families that do not have access to clean water. In the five years as a “Social Business,” we have reached 170,000 rural families and 85,000 urban families with our clean water solution.

Today, we still do charity, but it is directed to where it will do the most good. We have found the most effective way is to donate filters to rural schools. Last year we reached 824 rural schools, impacting 170,000 children with clean water. This year we are set to reach 350,000 new students in 1,500 new rural schools.

Ecofiltro’s technology and model has been validated by many leading institutions, like MIT, and has received dozens of awards from the World Bank, the Schwab Foundation (of Davos fame), the Swiss government and others. Most recently, the Stanford Design School partnered with Ecofiltro to improve the manufacturing process to reduce costs and help reach more rural families.

By combining a proven technology with a social business model, we are providing clean water to thousands, but most importantly preserving the dignity of the poor by eliminating dependence on government or charity handouts.

Ecofiltro School Program from Ecofiltro on Vimeo.

Philip Wilson

Philip Wilson

Philip Wilson was born in Guatemala and is a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (MBA) and the University of Notre Dame. Philip is the CEO of Ecofiltro and also the founder of Solucionweb, the leading web services company in Guatemala. Philip has served on numerous company and foundation boards including the Center for Corporate Social Responsibility (CENTRARSE). He is married with four children and resides full time in Guatemala.