Water droplets. As tranquil as they might sound to some, these droplets suggest a stormy powerful stance – staying healthy and alive. These molecules of life are essential to the survival of people all over the world. However, the quality of that water is of equal importance. While it is hardly a concern for the privileged, the same can’t be said for around 40 million people in Bangladesh. Approximately 3.2 million people do not have access to clean drinking water. Hence, it’s causing a major public health challenge. Due to this huge necessity, Shishir Water was founded as a social business to provide clean and safe drinking water for the disadvantaged communities in Bangladesh. Shishir Water collects, purifies, and delivers water at $0.006 a liter to the doorsteps of people who could not otherwise have access to clean water.
This social intention was built when Shazeeb M Khairul Islam, conversed with his mentor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Muhammad Yunus, about the incumbent social issues that Bangladesh is facing and how the country’s young people can come up with solutions to solve them. Speaking on a personal level, Mr. Shazeeb confided his altruistic connection to two issues – water security and agriculture.
Right after his graduation, in an attempt to commemorate the notion of social businesses, he formed YY Goshti which deals with supporting early stage social entrepreneurs, to come up with ideas in order to solve pressing global issues by bolstering their very own social businesses.
Shazeeb M Khairul Islam, Founder of Shishir Water
Photo from Shazeeb Khairul Islam
Tying the Knot of Partnership
In mid-2017, after several thoughts, discussions and analyses, a joint venture between Mr. Shazeeb’s company, YY Goshti and Grameen Telecom Trust which was founded by Professor Yunus as a social business fund for supporting such initiatives, took place. It was named Shishir Water. Shishir Water started their operations in Mymensingh where they are delivering water jars to over 2,300 people.
Arsenic contamination of ground water along with widespread poisoning, river pollution, poor sanitation, and the rising levels of saline water, led to an unfortunate situation for millions of lives in Bangladesh. Shishir Water stands like a shield with their water treatment solutions. Partnering with Shishir Water for such a cause, Watersprint AB, a Swedish water technology company came up with a UV-LED technology. They are the first ones to implement such tech innovativeness.
“We take pride in saying that ours is a Green Company. One might ask why we are the green one. It’s because the energy our technology uses is really low – it is a UV-LED water treatment solution, friendly to the environment and we can run the plants with zero waste. We have developed this technology as a real time monitoring stance. These plants have the capacity of running on solar power,” Mr. Shazeeb shared.
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Gets Going
The initial challenge included convincing the rural people in buying water which differs from their norms. According to Mr. Shazeeb, they had to do some tactful research in order to address their psychology and behavior. “What we have found is that there are many such initiatives regarding the usage of technology to solve this sort of crisis. But the problem arose when we wanted to convince these people to buy water from us because in these communities, water is in abundance and hence, they think that water should be free. In our case we treat river water with technology, and then deliver it in water jars to their houses.” Mr Shazeeb said.
He further explained that when the rural local people got sick, they eventually became aware of the severity of the situation. They realized that their medical bill expenses were increasing due to them drinking contaminated water. For Mr. Shazeeb, if they have spent that money on safe drinking water instead, more money could have been saved for other expenses like their children’s education.
Personally, Mr. Shazeeb had to face two challenges – dealing with the weather (climate change) and consumer behavior. According to him, the quality of river water changes over time and they had to adapt to their treatments due to those changes.
Photo from Shishir Water
A 20-Liter Solution
Several franchisees are selected based on their entrepreneurial capabilities, their passion for the cause, and how well they deal with their communities. A persistent background check is maintained to ensure mutual mindsets. This is because for the success of these projects, they need someone from the community who is aware of their community’s needs and who would have an approach of building a business while delivering water. These franchisees will deliver a 20-liter jar of water to every household for consumption. Currently they have one franchisee that did the aforementioned tasks.
Despite the rural Bangladeshi not being accustomed to buying water, the founder’s faith and hope never wavered. They came up with a different strategy of pricing–a cross subsidization model. For the poverty-stricken or the disadvantaged communities, they sell 20 liters of water for 10 Taka which in Bangladeshi economy, is regarded as diminutive ($0.12), for small shops and restaurants, they sell it for 25 Taka ($0.30), and for other commercial businesses, hospitals, and schools, for 35 Taka ($0.41). “We did not just want to do a project, but mostly, we wanted to build a model through which our plants can thrive and can become sustainable in the process. The problem is a big one and I think we cannot solve it alone. We need to inspire other people and come up with really small, scaleable, yet sustainable solutions. It’s still a challenge as still a lot of work needs to be done but right now our business is surviving,” with conviction, Mr. Shazeeb said.
For their micro franchising model, their time, necessary capital, technology, strategies and best practices are invested in finding a local youth who then becomes the entrepreneur. They also work with them in maintaining the quality of water that they deliver. “At some point, the franchisee starts to give us our invested amount back (their franchise fee). It’s part of the revenue that they make which they have to give us back, as per their means. It was duly noted that running one water plant doesn’t cost much, it costs about $650 a month and each plant makes about $1200. So, the rest of the money, some parts of it comes back as little bits as the investment payment and rest of the money is the profit for the local entrepreneur. Once our money is paid back, it becomes their business. So, in a social business model we are getting the invested amount back which aids in solving social problems and creating valuable jobs.” Mr. Shazeeb explained.
In the next two years, they aim to create 30 more jobs and serve 45,000 people. For now, he is ecstatic that their model works and it’s been successful.
Photo from Shishir Water
“We never wanted to build this business by ourselves. We wanted to empower the communities,” Mr. Shazeeb asserted.
A young local Mymensingh fellow, Shahin Uz Zaman, is Shishir Water’s franchisee. Mr. Shazeeb calls this partner of his as his bhai (brother) out of sheer respect for their bond. Shaheen bhai was given the necessary money and technology to run the plant out of which he created jobs that hired four more locals. “It’s not me or my company or my investors in Mymensingh who are running the project, it’s them taking our support and building that plant, themselves,” he said.
The Odyssey Continues
Mr. Shazeeb dares to fall in love with his problems every day. While his core wish is to get “married” as he profoundly stated, his teammates say he is more likely to be profound in the matters of integrity, passion and hard work. With Shishir Water’s motto, he wishes to constantly deliver clean and safe drinking water to remote and underprivileged communities. In his own words, “Since, the other name of water is life, everyone needs to have access to clean drinking water.”