Every summer as temperatures across the plains of India cross the 40-degree Celcius mark, and throats go dry both in rural and urban India, the hunt for safe drinking water begins in earnest. A number of start-ups have entered this segment, providing an alternative to expensive packaged water, with a little help from technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) and solar power. Their mobile water dispensing systems, or water ATMs as they are popularly called, are proving to be a cost-effective alternative, bringing drinking water to places which have traditionally been bereft of reliable, safe drinking water.
Swajal Water is one such social enterprise that has set up about 400 water ATMs across 14 states in India including UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan, providing clean drinking water to urban slums, villages and high floating population areas at a low cost. “While IoT helps us to remotely monitor and manage each machine, the usage of RFID cards,makes the water vending streamlined by taking input from the user of the amount of water needed. These RFID cards are rechargeable. The water ATMs run on solar in regions where lack of electricity is a problem,” says Vibha Tripathi, founder and managing director, Swajal.
In a typical rural set-up, groundwater is pumped using solar power and undergoes multiple stages of purification. The acquisition of water depends on the area; it is derived from ponds, rivers and wells. Sometimes, the municipality gives it access to water. Potable water is finally treated with UV light and an ozone generator as an extra precaution. There is always a reserve of drinking water in each machine varying from 200-10,000 litres. While a litre of water is available for Rs 5, a glass of water comes for Rs 1.
Tripathi, a physicist and PhD from IIT Kanpur, spun off Swajal Water as an independent entity from solar engineering company Saurya EnerTech in 2014. Starting with a seed fund of Rs 40 lakh, it received funds and grants from the ministry of new and reneweable energy and Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP). In 2015, Swajal raised $1.2 million in series A funding round.
Sustainability and affordability were the twin focus areas for JanaJal, the brainchild of brothers Parag Agarwal and Anurag Agarwal. “The revenue model is based on the price paid by the consumer to procure safe water from every JanaJal water ATM.
Every system is operated for a minimum period of five years during which all responsibility of maintenance, replacement of consumables and running operations rests upon the company. The initial capital investment for one water ATM is Rs 6.5-10 lakh depending on the size and capacity of the water dispenser and number of people that have to be catered to at every location,” says Parag Agarwal, co-founder and CMD, JanaJal. Consumers receive the benefit of a cascading pricing model wherein they pay Rs 5 per litre and Rs 20 only for 20 litres.
The 24×7 kiosks are equipped to receive payments in the form of cash, RFID prepaid cards, BHIM, UPI and e-wallets besides having an operator that is present to assist consumers during procurement. Today, JanaJal has 450 systems operating across the country, with the major focus on building dense clusters of water ATMs in Mumbai region, spreading across Maharashtra and in Delhi NCR. In 2017, the company received $5 million from Tricolor Cleantech Capital, a US-based social impact fund that is being actively deployed to scale up the footprint of water ATMs.
While these machines were initially installed under the CSR initiative of various corporates, these social ventures are now working on the franchise model and direct water sales. The mobile water dispensing systems aren’t confined to only rural areas or urban slums with drinking water issues. Both Swajal and JanaJal, as well as others like Pi-lo are also looking at high footfall areas in cities such as railway stations and bus stations.
“Presently there are 100 water ATMs installed and operating across various railway stations in Mumbai region with another 50 being installed in NDMC, New Delhi and 20 under commissioning as Phase 1 in Ghaziabad. The total number of systems in Delhi and Ghaziabad alone that will be installed by end 2018 is 300 water ATMs,” says JanaJal’s Agarwal. As Tripathi says, the idea is to sell water at a competitive price to facilitate shift of users towards point-of-use systems rather than plastic water bottles, thus reducing usage of plastic.