An estimated one in four people around the world are drinking unsafe water – and the response from business is a bottled water industry that generates almost $200 billion per annum and a million single-use plastic bottles of waste every minute for a product that is unaffordable for the people who need it most.

This article first appeared in the Global Smart Energy Elites 2019. Read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

To see affordable access to safe drinking water, South African-based firm I-Drop Water has designed a unique purified water dispenser machine for grocery stores across the continent.

The unit combines three sophisticated technologies – Nanomesh water filters, GSM internet of things and solar power. They work to enable a zero-capital-cost partnership business model that drives local economic activity and entrepreneurship.
I-Drop Water founder James Steere explained: “Our business model was designed, built and tested from the ground up with the intent to reach the most marginalised parts of Africa, and not just the easiest or most lucrative. We now work with grocery store owners and entrepreneurs across South Africa and in multiple countries, many of whom would never be able to afford the capital outlay or ongoing maintenance cost of providing an
in-store drinking water refill system. By using various technology platforms to create smart
assets, we’re able to work cost-efficiently and pass on cost savings to our ultimate consumers, namely shoppers.”

Through a monthly 50:50 revenue share, the shop owner provides the water source, which
is then purified and dispensed by the system in litres to the end-users, who fill their own multiuse water containers. The typical sale price for a litre of water is 80-90% lower than bottled water and produces no waste water because of the filtration technology used. Through the refill system, plastic and carbon waste is drastically reduced. To date, this project has enabled savings of over 19,000kg of carbon, over 4,000kg of plastic waste
and almost 3 million litres of water when compared to other technologies and products on the market.

While in-store water purification, dispensing and per-litre sales are not new, conventional
purification companies typically sell, finance or franchise purification assets, which limits their reach to wealthier areas and away from people who need it the most. By combining technologies to create smart assets, I-Drop machines are installed at no capital cost, empowering entrepreneurs and shop owners in any location to sell safe, affordable drinking water and share sales revenue with I-Drop.

The built-in SIM card that connects each filtration machine to a cloud-based online monitoring and control platform enables the project designers to log into any I-Drop machine anywhere in real time to monitor, diagnose and fix problems even in the most remote areas. This not only reduces the in-person oversight cost but enables the revenue share model – if a shop owner doesn’t pay over the monthly share, the machine can be remotely deactivated until payment is fulfilled.

This project has
enabled savings of
over19,000kg of
carbon, over 4,000kg
of plastic waste and
almost 3 million litres
of water.”

In addition, the captured performance data will indicate if a machine is being tampered with and if tampering is detected the machine can be deactivated immediately. The I-Drop system is able to run off solar power and from an idle water source, meaning that it can operate wherever there’s a mobile phone network and a source of fresh water. This combination of technologies enables a business model that is truly innovative and scalable.

Yet, no matter how much time you spend in design, you’ll never figure out every possible
challenge that the market will throw at you. The greatest project challenge thus far has been to figure out how to diagnose environmental problems around the I-Drop machines deployed in the field. Often the reliability of phone networks, water supply or electricity is questionable and the model has had to find workable solutions to a myriad of these types of challenges.

Steere highlighted: “This market-based learning is what’s helped us develop a stable platform and versatile system in a relatively short period of time, underpinned by a set of operating processes and best practices that we could never have established on our own.”
In situations where mobile reception is intermittent or weather conditions are poor, the project team together with community members find resourceful measures. There has never – so far – been a situation where a machine has been completely unable to operate. The units are designed to draw very little power and to work for long periods of time without a power supply or a phone network connection. The first prototype was installed in the first half of 2015 at a large supermarket in East London, South Africa. Thereafter, another four machines followed in December 2015.

The project developers spent the majority of 2015 and 2016 redesigning, improving and testing the system in multiple countries and as of mid-2017 have a stable and scalable solution that is working in almost 60 grocery stores in two countries (South Africa and Zimbabwe). The product was also successfully piloted in both Botswana and Ghana to ensure the solution is scalable across borders. I-Drop Water has spent 2017 growing the fleet, revenue and online presence, having successfully signed up multiple retail grocery store chains across South Africa and winning several prestigious awards and social impact competitions.

This article first appeared in the Global Smart Energy Elites 2019. Read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.