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Clean Water for Urban Slums

Clean Water for Urban Slums

In Hindi, the word walla means “provider” or “person who does.

In Hindi, the word walla means “provider” or “person who does.” Collaborating with four students and recent grads from Brown University, Soaib Grewal 11 ID is something of a waterwalla – or actually, a walla enabler, working to create a new corps of micro-entrepreneurs who can deliver reliable, clean water to urban slums in India and beyond.

Launched in 2010, WaterWalla isn’t a charity or a traditional NGO. It’s a not-for-profit organization that applies business principles to a public mission – drawing on an urban slum’s existing social and economic channels and strengthening them through business training and public health education.

“We believe that entrepreneurship can fuel development,” says Grewal, who was born and partly raised in India. Last summer, he and WaterWalla co-executive directorsAnshu Vaish (Brown 12) and Neil Parikh (Brown 11), traveled to Dharavi, a Mumbai slum, to conduct a comprehensive research study as the first phase of their project. “We’ve seen firsthand the entrepreneurial drive and creativity in a lot of these places. We see ourselves as connectors between people who are trying to get products into pre-emerging markets and people who need access to those products.”

When he first offered his design expertise to the project, Grewal says that his Brown counterparts initially figured he might be useful in designing a logo. “But my role has really become more about systems design than product design,” he explains. “It’s about the design of key services and interactions, like a campaign to get people to realize the connection between water, illness, and the overall health and productivity of the entire community. It’s about recognizing that this problem is bigger than a design problem and fostering cross-disciplinary work, but doing it from a creative standpoint.”

In its first year, WaterWalla is already gaining growing recognition. In February the organization won the Intelius Entrepreneurship Award for Social Impact from the Karios Society, a global network of student leaders, and was selected as a semi-finalist for the DELL Social Innovation competition. In April it was a finalist for Brown University’s Entrepreneurship Program Business Plan Competition. The group has also teamed up with two large corporations in India and three US universities.

Connecting with real people

From the outset, Grewal says, WaterWalla has sought to engage people in the design of the products they’ll use, conducting field visits to understand the specific resources and health conditions within the slum in order to develop a portfolio of products that reflect local needs. The aim is not just to provide access to clean water, but to offer local residents what all consumers look for when they invest in a product: options.

“Once we got on the ground, we realized that we needed to match technologies to different slums,” says Grewal, who is currently juggling his work for WaterWalla with a design studio internship in New York. “The needs of specific slums are different, depending on the political setting, the geographical positioning, the lifestyle choices in that slum and of course, whatever is in the water.”

The next key phase: identifying technology providers already making water-purifying devices and convincing them to simplify or retool their product at a cheaper price point. After their initial research, WaterWalla began working with the maker of a simple in-home device similar to a Brita filter. But getting them into the homes of slum residents and getting those residents to use them and replace the filters reliably is another matter.

“The makers of this product have already positioned it more for the middle class in India,” Grewel says. “They can’t create a market demand there, and they don’t have the manpower to maintain and watch over the filters.”

WaterWalla’s plan is to enter and bridge that gap: They are working to pair the makers of the filters with local Dharavi entrepreneurs, who will operate as franchisees and are already trusted sources of business and knowledge in their communities. What they lack, Grewal says, is infrastructure, targeted training and a locally rooted and relevant educational model that will build sustained demand by making the connection between clean water, health and prosperity.

All of WaterWalla’s founders are of Indian heritage, but Grewal says they are all learning – and in some cases unlearning – lessons about the communities they hope to help. “India is a very stratified society, and even though a slum isn’t physically walled, there are metaphorical walls,” he says. “You don’t necessarily know what’s going on and you have assumptions about how they work. But in designing for others, it doesn’t work if it’s from atop-down, theoretical level.You have to have that one-to-one connection with people on the ground.”