Innovative I-Drop Water bringing safe and affordable drinking water to Sub-Saharan Africa

Oxford alumni start-up is working to disrupt the bottled water market via its innovative decentralised water purification and vending system.

Sales of bottled water continue to rise, with researchers estimating the industry will reach $280 billion globally by 2020. Despite the industry’s profitability, it remains an exemplar of unsustainability – hugely wasteful both in environmental and financial terms. Bottled water costs many time more than tap water, yet in many countries it is often the only reliable source of potable water. It is the poorest who bear the brunt of this expense, spending a disproportionately large chunk of their income on what should be a low-cost commodity.

This paradox caught the attention of Saïd Business School MBA alumni, James Steere and Kate Thiers-Steere, founders of an innovative water start-up, I-Drop Water. While traveling around Africa for business, James was struck by the widespread consumption of bottled water despite its high cost. Ironically, at the time he was distributing water purification products using a new filtration media. Despite the huge potential for his products, the mass-market that needed them most was ultimately unable to afford them: the technology was sound but the African business model was not.

This question caused much debate between James and Kate, who eventually concluded that this was ultimately an example of a failure of business and not, as is more popularly described, a failure of governance. Using knowledge gained through their MBA, the pair set about developing a business to overcome these barriers: this was to become I-Drop Water.

Established in 2015, I-Drop water supplies decentralised purification systems to shop owners, which provide safe drinking water to consumers using refillable containers at around 80% less than the price of bottled water. I-Drop can install purification units at no capital cost to a retailer, with whom they share a percentage of sales revenue. The system is designed to serve both formal and informal grocery outlets, and can operate wherever there is a non-saline water source.

James built a proof of concept in 2014 and tested it in a grocery store with an accommodating shop-owner. Sales were encouraging, but the complexity of oversight prompted the idea of incorporating a GSM-based remote monitoring and control system. The following year, I-Drop Water built and tested its unit with integrated GSM controls. Since launching the first commercial prototype, the company has never looked back, and is now deploying one unit almost every day and has expanded into four countries.

I-Drop Water’s achievements were recently recognised by the Skoll Centre, who presented the founders with a Skoll Venture Award: a prize open to Saïd students and alumni pursuing social enterprise.

“We are incredibly proud to win a Skoll Venture Award,” said Kate. “The Skoll Centre is in many ways responsible for us meeting and for I-Drop Water existing. It is one of the most important centres for social entrepreneurship, and the validation for this business we started only 12 short months ago is fantastic. It’s also helped us raise awareness amongst like-minded businesses and people who are interested in the opportunity that business provides to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges.”

I-Drop Water now has commercial pilots running in Ghana, Zimbabwe and Botswana and its already established South African business is growing fast. The company sees real growth opportunities in cities and towns across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Asia and Latin America. This first phase of growth has been aided by initial seed funding, but now the firm is looking to launch a Series-A round of fundraising to support further expansion.

Ultimately, its founders believe I-Drop Water’s unique combination of technology and innovative business model holds the potential to transform the supply of drinking water in low income countries, and in doing so, disrupt the unsustainable bottled water market, reduce plastic waste, and provide safe affordable drinking water to the poor.

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