The safdarjung hospital in Delhi got a new potable water ATM in September. Within 10 minutes of its installation, there was a 200-meter-long queue of people. "Such instances tell us how acute the problem of accessible clean drinking water is. It hits the ones at the bottom of the pyramid the hardest," says Vibha Tripathi, founder CEO of smart water purification solution company Swajal Water Pvt. Ltd.
A series of events during Tripathi's life led her to empathise with those who struggle to get potable water. One was losing her two-year-old cousin to diarrhoea. And outside her house in Hyderabad, she would see people queue up every day to get water. This led her to drop her research in IIT-Kanpur on affordable organic solar cells and start Swajal Water in 2014 along with her son Advait Kumar.
Swajal installs solar-powered water ATMs in high-footfall areas. The first pilot was in Unnao, a village in Rajasthan. It was funded by the NGO World Vision. Even though the water was not free -50 paise a litre - the project was a success. The idea was to make water accessible to everyone. "The moment there is a price to water, it becomes a commodity and is accessible to all who can pay. If it is free, class system and casteism take over," says Satyendra Kumar, a director and also Tripathi's partner in life.
The success of the project got them a funding of Rs 1 crore in 2013 from Vienna-based Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership. They used the fund to set up five water ATMs in Delhi slums to test the business model.
"There was huge demand for clean drinking water but the high price of water purification systems cannot be met through the money these people can afford," says Tripathi. What was needed was a sustainable business model that could be scaled up rapidly. They started by working with NGOs or companies that would donate a water ATM and also pay for its maintenance through their CSR funds. It costs about Rs 5 lakh to install a machine.
Swajal Water's first client, a Gurgaon-based company, has put water ATMs in 40 government schools in Nuh village in Mewar district in the past two years.The school's attendance improved and "teachers and students started carrying vessels to take clean water back home," says Tripathi.
Their main focus was to make the system 'monkey proof'. "It had to be a fully-automated, plug-and-play model which didn't need electricity and work without an engineer's intervention," says Kumar. Swajal's water ATMs are solar-powered and can be installed as standalone devices at any place with a water connection.The purification technology was already available and so the team focused on data collection and automation to prevent service disruptions in remote locations and reduce operational costs. It raised Rs 2 crore from Agra Chains Pvt. Ltd in 2015 and the same amount from Intellecap in 2017. Most of the investment went into R&D to develop a platform based on Internet of Things, so that the systems, water quantity and water dispensing metrics could be remotely monitored. Swajal now also offers ozonisation of utensils. Tripathi says they get a warm welcome from villagers. "We got royal treatment when we visited the sites," she says.
The company is currently focusing on a new operating expense business model where it can recover the machine's cost through sale of water. It is testing this model with New Delhi Municipal Corporation and has installed 120 machines in Lutyens' Delhi. Water is sold for Rs 5 a litre. They have also installed 25 machines each in Guwahati and Shimla as part of Smart City projects. "Through this model, we can achieve breakeven in 14-16 months," says Tripathi. Another key project is with IRCTC to set up water ATMs in 100 railway stations.
Swajal's team of 180 people has installed 400 machines across 15 states. This provides 5,00,000 people with clean drinking water, and also prevents 4,00,000 kilo tonnes of plastic bottles from going to landfills. Swajal's next step is to test machines with speakers and video recordings so that these can work without operators, especially in remote locations.