Selling Clean Water Is Still A Dirty Business

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Women and children in rural India, spend hours fetching water walking miles, often missing out on education and wasting time that could have otherwise been put to more productive use.

Women and children in rural India, spend hours fetching water walking miles, often missing out on education and wasting time that could have otherwise been put to more productive use

If you’ve travelled across India, it’s likely that you’ve seen groups of women in villages carrying earthen pots of water on their heads. While their colourful ethnic clothes make for pretty pictures in the print media, have you ever thought about the root cause of the problem? Lack of access to a safe drinking water source – that’s what it is.

Women in rural India, and often their daughters, spend hours fetching water from far-flung areas, wasting time that could otherwise be put to more productive use. Government bodies, non-profit organisations, for-profit companies and CSR arms of large corporations are trying to solve India’s drinking water problem. For most of these entities, a rural water project provides a warm feeling and an improved image.

Indian women carry water pots to collect drinking water in Purulia,300km (186 miles) west from the eastern Indian city of Calcutta, June 5, 2003. Indians prayed for rain at temples and mosques as the death toll from a heat wave sweeping the country neared 1,150 on Wednesday. The United Nations marked world environment day on Thursday with a focus on water, saying two billion people were dying for it. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw PP03060014 JS/DL - RTROWEA

Although for-profit companies are trying creative approaches, water for the rural population is still a difficult business to crack. Most venture capital funds and impact investors have stayed away from the sector in India due to complexities involved in building a successful water business. Challenges of avoiding the “water mafia” in cities, dodging market distortions caused by unexpected NGO activities, coping with poorly executed public-private partnerships and the fundamental issue of consumers’ unwillingness to pay continue to worry investors.

Despite these obstacles, clean water for the Indian masses continues to be a large underserved market waiting to be captured by innovative entrepreneurs. While there have been a handful of commercial investments in the water space – Spring Health, Water Health, Waterlife and Greywater have raised institutional funds – it remains to be seen whether these companies can build truly sustainable businesses by catering to India’s masses and turning a dirty mess into crystal clear profits.

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