Water ATMs emerge in India’s urban slums — a clean water breakthrough?

Many of the residents of Savda Ghevra — a resettled slum in the western part of Delhi, India — spend several hours a day acquiring water for basic daily needs like drinking, washing, and cooking. The cumbersome and time consuming process often involves waiting in long lines for sporadic trips from government-sponsored water tankers, and long walks with heavy containers to water sources that are at risk for being unclean.

India water tanksBut a for-profit five-year-old startup called Sarvajal (“water for all” in Sanskrit), which is backed by the Piramal Foundation, is trying to offer a better way. The company has built a business off of developing franchise-run water filtration and distribution services in rural areas of India and is now in the process of launching newly-developed connected ATM-style systems that can distribute low cost, clean water to customers using an ATM card.

Sarvajal already has 35 of its water ATMs installed in urban areas in India, and the plan is to launch another 50 in the coming months across slum redevelopment communities in Delhi. The ATMs are owned and managed by local franchisee entrepreneurs and the devices have some 25 sensors, which manage and monitor water pressure and filtration, and make maintenance and repair of the systems low cost and easy.

SarvajalFrog Design’s Executive Creative Director of Global Insights, Jan Chipchase, describes Sarvajal’s new water ATMs to me as “pushing the boundaries of what the Internet of Things is.” Frog Design helped Sarvajal with design-focused research around how customers would use the new ATMs and launched a report on Tuesday laying out their findings.

The big question with the business model is: Will residents of Delhi’s slums be willing to pay for the convenience of buying water quickly and easily — even at a low cost — in contrast to getting it for free from the government (albeit at the expense of much time committed)? It’s not yet clear, though Sarvajal says it’s able to sell water through its ATMs for one cent per liter, compared to seven cents per liter for large bottled containers, fourteen cents per liter for small water pouches, and up to 32 cents per liter for hand-held bottled water.

Sarvajal founder Anand Shah tells me during a phone interview from New York that the company took the for-profit route — despite the difficult nature of making a profit by selling clean water to consumers in the developing world — because he wanted to scale the business much more quickly than a non-profit would be able to. In addition, being a for-profit made it easier to attract young talent to the company, Shah explained.

Shah, who used to run the Piramal Foundation, says Sarvajal isn’t profitable yet, but he sees a path to getting there. “This is why the Piramal’s of the world are so important,” he says, because the road to profitability is a long one for this type of social good business. In addition, Shah says that the work with Frog Design — which was funded by the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion — was invaluable and bought the company some five years of experience in the field and a new appreciation for empathy-led design thinking research. We’ll be discussing design thinking and technology at our RoadMap conference in November in San Francisco.