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Business fighting poverty: Water wheels keep on rolling

Everyone knows that access to water is essential for life, but for the poor we should add ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ to the access part.

One of every seven people on the planet, a billion or so of the poorest people worldwide, lack ready access to clean drinking water. In many communities, women and girls have the daily responsibility of traveling long distances every day carrying plastic jugs to collect water.

Progress against extreme poverty is being hamstrung so long as the poorest have to spend a big part of their day doing what we all take for granted.

Cynthia Koenig and her Wello
Cynthia Koenig and her Wello
Tom Paulson

The best solution, arguably, would be for governments to invest in building the basic infrastructure – water and sewer pipes – that make access to water and sanitation relatively cheap. But until that happens, one entrepreneur has decided to re-invent the wheel.

The water wheel. The Wello water wheel, to be precise:

I met Wello’s CEO Cynthia Koenig a few years ago in Seattle, at a social enterprise competition sponsored by at the University of Washington Foster Schoold of Business.

Back in 2011, all Koenig and her colleagues had was a business plan and an idea. Her concept – of using some kind of rolling container to transport water – wasn’t that new. But her business plan was innovative, in that the idea was not to invent a gizmo and then get poor people to use it; rather it was to test the gizmo among the poor and refine it according to their needs.

“We were aware that this had been tried before with some success,” Koenig told me by phone last week. But despite the apparently obvious advantage to rolling 5 gallon of water as opposed to carrying it, she said the approach had not really caught on with the poor. For one thing, similar products were priced too high to be attractive to the poorest.

“We tried to get the price down and to test our approach as a prototype, to bake user feedback into the process,” Koenig said. They started their first pilot project in the north Indian state of Rajasthan and were able to reduce the selling price to $25, about a third of similar competing products.

But more importantly, Koenig said, they continued to ask consumers what worked and didn’t work, continually modifying the prototype Wello wheel as well as modifying their business plan and marketing strategy. One surprise, she said, was the challenge to their preconceived notion that this was a product focused on women.

“We had assumed that because women were the ones usually collecting water that we should market just to women,” Koenig said. “We discovered that men also wanted to use it. And when they did, the mothers could attend more to the children, getting them prepared for school  and so on.”

In that sense, this appears to be a social enterprise strategy that is returning some big dividends well beyond the original goal – of simply making it easier for the poor to transport water. The “ripple effect,” pun intended, is that reducing the water collection burden appears to also improve school attendance.

Koenig is off to Kenya this week to launch a Wello project in Kenya, funded in part by a new $100,000 Grand Challenges Canada award (a government initiative modeled after the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges program) aimed at helping her expand the social business.

“We need to test this in different countries, with differing terrains, cultures and challenges,” she said.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.