There’s much more to insti than acads, sports, DC, trip sessions at Guru/Zaitoon and the usual mix of extra-curriculars – albeit with more variety than the average college. In addition to all this, the atmosphere at insti is inspiring – so much so, that it has encouraged many of its students to develop and commercialize innovative products and solutions during their stay here. In this series of articles featuring both alumni and current students, T5E takes a look at some of these ventures.
Alternatives to Bottled Water
Sandeep (also known as Puski), a final year Dual Degree student at insti and co-founder of AmrutDhara, tells us how the idea struck Min, the environmentalist in their team. “Once, while travelling with other environmentalists, Min found himself in a restaurant needing water. His friends, though, weren’t willing to drink unpackaged water, as they did not trust its quality. Despite being environmentalists campaigning to ban bottled water, they were forced to buy bottled water. That’s when Min realised that unless an alternative to bottled water is provided which gives water with quality-assurance, no campaign for banning bottled water could be effective, because people don’t have any other trustworthy choice. The idea of AmrutDhara water stations was born from here.”
How did they visualize the idea? “The majority of bottled water consumption happens in public places, big corporate buildings like IT Parks and during events. The consumption pattern and consumer segment for each space is different.” While AmrutDhara water stations are targeted at reducing bottled water consumption in public places, the team is also exploring solutions and value propositions that match their requirements for the other spaces. “For public places, we are developing a leaner product than the water stations, which can penetrate deeper and faster without excessive government reliance.”
Putting Together a Team
Team members? “There’s Min, Akshay and me,” Sandeep says. “Min spent a majority of his time in the UK, working in finance and consulting. To pursue his passion for environmental work, he came back to India in 2005. Since then, he’s been working on independent environmental projects. Akshay met Min in Auroville, where he worked with Min right after completing his studies in Product Design. After a short stint there, he worked with Quicksand in Delhi on projects centred on sanitation and hygiene for a few years, before he joined Min in this initiative. They started looking for a team for this venture.”
He goes on, “I’m in my final year of Infrastructural Civil Engg here. In 2012, I did a winter internship at the University of Queensland on urban planning and sustainable development. I was a research scholar and Min was a fellow, so we met there. Back then, I was working to start up another social venture in the area of low cost housing, while Min was looking to do campaigns on banning plastic bottles.”
During this time, Sandeep realised that his idea of a low cost housing company wasn’t working out. But he was “bitten by the entrepreneurship bug” and was desperately looking for a socially relevant idea to create a start-up around. “I had a coincidental conversation with Min around that time. He told me about his idea and the three of us came together to found AmrutDhara.”
Between them, they bridge all gaps. “Min’s the environmentalist who realised entrepreneurship is the only way to solve this problem, I’m the civil engineer who realised this idea is a perfect opportunity to pursue my passion for social entrepreneurship and Akshay’s passion for aesthetics and design ensures that the product is grounded on user-centred principles.”
Identifying problems and coming up with solutions
Based on consumer feedback, the team identified the major problems involved and tried to tailor-make the project to address these. “Firstly, bottled water generates millions of tons of plastic waste every year — not even one-fifth of the disposable bottles are recycled. They degrade land and water, and animals often choke on the plastic. The plastic even enters the food chain. We try to solve this by serving ‘unpackaged’ water, so that consumers can fill water in their reusable bottles or just drink a glass of water.“
There were other issues too. “Bottles are unreasonably expensive — it’s very unethical for something as basic as water to cost Rs. 15-25 per litre. Retailers make margins of upto Rs. 10 on a single bottle of water. We plan to sell water at very affordable prices of around Rs. 5 per litre. Another issue, of course, is safety. An independent study on 13 major brands of bottled water in India found that 10 had foreign floating objects. At AmrutDhara water stations, the water will undergo real-time testing and the quality parameters will be displayed in the dispenser, which will be remotely monitored and automatically shut down if the water quality goes below the standard limits. This gives you quality assurance of water.”
Continuing the thread, he says, “While identifying consumer needs and coming up with solutions is easy on paper, the challenges keep growing as we move closer to the goal. Putting up infrastructure of this kind is risky. Our biggest challenge is to get the piece of land to put up the station.” Then there are a number of operational challenges. Water scarcity being a problem, getting the necessary amount of raw water is a big issue. “We decided to have an underground sump at every station to store the water as and when we receive it, rather than relying on a daily water supply. The quality of raw water will vary based on the source, so we will have to come up with customised filtration modules based on input water quality.”
Testing the Idea
To validate their idea, they interviewed people on the quality of water, their willingness to pay for unpackaged water, etc. “Interacting with consumers on the ground re-confirmed the need for such a system while also bringing us other useful insights.” In addition, they wanted to take more concrete steps towards understanding the key problems faced by consumers. So they went to a few public places in Chennai and Pondicherry and “sold loose water in a very rudimentary way, to see people’s responses and get a deeper understanding of customers’ needs.” In the process, they realised that having a bottle cleaning facility at the station was absolutely necessary.
Throughout the evolution of the idea, they have constantly been receiving support from various experts and organizations, including profs from insti (particularly Dr. Ligy Philip and Dr. Ashwin Mahalingam) and Villgro, whose EIR program they are a part of. “Last year we won the National Student Challenge 2013. Since then, we are incubated at IIHS Bangalore and have been getting support from them as well.”
‘More than just a company selling water’
Sandeep says that they visualize AmrutDhara as a lot more than just a company. “Campaigning to bring awareness alone is not sufficient. A social enterprise model is the only way to fight this problem. We see AmrutDhara as a movement.” While one component of the ‘movement’ is providing an alternative through AmrutDhara water stations and similar products, another equally important component is “a massive campaign, to make citizens aware about how the consumption of bottled water is universally damaging and encourage them to be part of this movement. We are asking people to carry their own reusable bottles wherever they go, which is definitely more inconvenient than grabbing bottled water. It requires a behaviour change in people to develop the habit of carrying a bottle everywhere.”
Sandeep says conventional marketing techniques won’t be enough for this. “We need to understand their behavioural psychology and do social marketing by adopting innovative strategies to encourage people to carry their own bottles. We are partnering with various institutions and organizations with a similar vision in order to tap into their networks and audiences. With this, we hope to change people’s attitude towards the environment and make them more conscious of their actions.”
Building a Consumer Base and Competing with Other Brands
Sandeep feels gathering a large consumer base shouldn’t be a problem. “Though the full-fledged water stations are yet to be installed, the sales response will depend largely on the location. However, finding a consumer base will not be difficult because there is a genuine need for a system like this. People face issues with bottled water and are fed up with paying insanely high prices, but they simply don’t have a choice. We want to bring that choice to people.” During their lean pilot at Broadway Bus Stand in Chennai, for instance, they had people from all layers of the economic strata “jumping to get water” from them. They sold 25 litres of water in less than 25 minutes.
On competing with the state government run Amma Kudineer, a similar initiative, Sandeep says, “We are competing with all bottled water brands and Amma Kudineer is no different. The only obstacle we have faced is that it has been difficult to get TN bureaucrats to directly support us in terms of space and infrastructure because they believe our project undermines the Amma Water initiative. So we have reached out to the Bangalore and Pondicherry governments and are currently in talks with both.”
More importantly, Sandeep reaffirms that AmrutDhara is a for-profit social enterprise. He qualifies this. “For us, making a sizeable social impact is a bigger priority than making profits. We do not believe in the charity model and it is important to make a profit in order to be sustainable in business.” He ends by saying, “However, we will ensure that our margins are enough to sustain and grow the business but not turn exploitative.”