Water, Plants, Humanity and the Future
“A company’s journey, led by two recent college graduates, to use plants to solve the global water crisis by following key 5-steps”
In this article, the founders of Everwaters share their insights on (1) how market research helped them define the customer problem they want to solve and (2) how they brainstormed and validated their solution ideas.
The entrepreneur: passionate, unrelenting, courageous, and, arguably, insensible at times when it comes to believing in their ideas and visions – a friend of mine likes to think “entrepreneurs all have a weird tick,” something that bothers them so much that they start a company to solve it. My Co-Founder, Matthew Lisle, and I definitely have a tick: 3.4 million people, mostly children under the age of five, across the world die each year because of contaminated drinking water; it kills more than malaria, measles, and AIDS combined per day.
If you look at history of the United States, a doctor, John Leal, in 1908 decided one day to pour chlorine, without the approval of local authorities, in Jersey City’s municipal water supply. With over 200,000 people depending on it, a mistake would cost thousands of lives; fortunately, this tick to clean contaminated water proved a success. Dr. Leal revolutionized water treatment in the United States and, almost immediately, he decreased infant mortality by 74% and total mortality by 43% – that means 7 out of 10 children under the age of five were now being saved practically overnight.
There is a reason water is deemed the “elixir of life”, but we have another problem: it’s 2016 and 783 million people still lack access to clean, affordable drinking water, a problem we solved in 1908! I ask myself everyday: “If we’ve solved this problem at home, why does it still exist, and arguably, worsen with time, abroad?” Our company, Everwaters, has a tick, or belief, that we can solve this global crisis.
Enter Moringa oleifera (MO), colloquially known as the “Miracle Tree.” This tree cleans water – yes, a plant can turn dirty water into safe, drinkable water (Fig. 1 & 2):
People in the Sudan have long used the seeds of the Moringa tree (Fig. 3) to coat their vessels to clean water and, for over twenty years, researchers in many countries have explored the water purification abilities of Moringa seeds (Fig. 4). Our company is taking this research out of the lab, integrating with a novel business model, and pioneering plant-based water treatment technology to provide “clean drinking water, for everyone, for life.”
Think of us as the Brita of the underdeveloped world. Everwaters creates a plant-based, household water filter that removes microbes responsible for water related illnesses, such as cholera, typhoid, etc. – these are the microbes that are responsible for 3.4 million deaths per year, but fortunately, our “Miracle” is here.
So, what? We have plants that clean water, do we travel around the world and tell everyone to grow it? How do we achieve widespread adoption to combat this global crisis? Through this article, I’ll explain our company’s journey, all the challenges we faced, and future vision of where we see plants and water creating a healthier world for all. Through our story, we’ll provide aspiring entrepreneurs with a simple 5-step process to identify a market-problem and develop a suitable business plan to solve it.
For starters, is there to a better way to understand a problem than jumping headfirst? After all, it’s all about the journey. As two aspiring entrepreneurs eager to understand the water crisis, we began our adventure by booking a flight to Kenya (Fig. 5).
Step 1: Defining the Problem – Real Market Research
During our two month stay in Kenya, in addition to the occasional elephant crossing the road and zebra grazing in the backyard, we had one goal in mind: “define the problem; speak to as many people about their water problem.” During the occasional candle-lit dinner – power went out on Thursdays – we all sat around, drank tea, and had a real heart-to-heart: many mothers, like our friend Mamamwangi, walk for hours every day to fill an empty jug from the local well (Fig. 6). If walking is too strenuous, many gather water from a local trench (Fig. 7), which is shared by local cattle and goats.
The containers are unclean and heavy, and when it rains many prefer to collect and store rainwater at home. By storing them, however, in open containers at home, the water gets infected and provides prime real estate for mosquitos to breed. To make matters more difficult, most families earn about $60/month; they spend about $40 on school fees, and the remaining $20 is used sustain their homes and put food on the table. Given that competing solutions cost between $25-$40, some even $90, the problem is clear.
Step 2: Research – How are people currently trying to solve the problem? How can successful solutions in other industries complement our company’s goal?
Existing solutions are impractical for most families to purchase, and after further interviewing, this is the main reason why many prefer to stick with rainwater or water from the local trench and spring.
The World Health Organization, USAID, and the United Nations agree that a simple, affordable, point-of-use household filter has the highest potential of acceptance and prolonged usage in the underdeveloped world. By combining an in-depth understanding of the problem with further industry research and recommendations, we came to the conclusion that our plant-based “Brita of the developing world” at the right price, may best be suited to solve this problem.
After we developed the most basic version of our product, or minimum viable product (MVP) – we designed a CAD model – we went around asking our friends in both urban and rural communities for their opinions (Fig. 8 & 9).
This was critical during the development of our MVP. By obtaining their feedback on the initial design, we were able to modify certain elements of it to better suit our future customer’s needs. Companies exist to solve problems for a specific segment of people who deem it valuable to be solved, and in this context of urban and rural communities in Kenya, the same principle applies. Obtaining appropriate user feedback on an MVP was quite difficult: communities were 40 minutes away by car on a dirt road, language barriers made it difficult to ask the “right question” and cultural norms were absolute musts in order to gain our customer’s trust.
At any company, trust between your customers needs to be established to obtain high-quality information about the problem and feedback about a potential solution. In order to gain trust, we visited their homes, invited our friends to lunch and dinner, and shared stories over the famous Kenyan beer, Tusker. During our conversations, we learned about other successful companies: M-PESA, a mobile banking platform used by over 72% of the population, M-KOPA, a pay-as-you-use solar company, and thought about ways to incorporate their successful programs with our product.
Step 3: Brainstorm – Every idea, good or bad, counts.
Once we understood the problem and its context in the urban and rural communities, we had a brainstorming session: late night food runs, work-induced mania, the occasional office chair push ups, and 4:30 a.m. conversations about integrating a plant-based filter into a sustainable business model; we rolled up our sleeves and wrote down every crazy idea that came to mind on the office white board (Fig. 10).
Our unfettered brainstorming session created a slew of ideas, some more applicable than others:
- Use social entrepreneurship tools – this specific breed of entrepreneur has not one, but two ticks: profits and social impact
- Use the mobile banking platform, M-PESA, which over 72% of the population uses
- Sell crushed moringa seeds
- Hoverboards should be part of company culture
- Ask the government to grow moringa
- Market to a specific segment
- Remember Peter Drucker’s wisdom: “If it’s not measured, it’s not managed”
- Local service centers selling filters
- Abandon ship?
By setting the expectation that no idea is crazy enough, we produced a novel approach to integrating our filter in the local community: set-up users through a flexible payment plan via M-PESA, a mobile banking platform, and distribute through local service centers.
Step 4: Prototype – Iterate, Iterate, and create a solution to the problem, not a problem for the solution.
Once we had a comprehensive list of ideas to pursue, we made it a point to, in the least amount of time as possible, rule out or pursue suggestions – some call this being “lean”. To accomplish this, we drafted more lists of questions and surveys and took them directly to our potential customers. Customers are great at explaining their problems, but it is up to the entrepreneur to develop the solution – if Henry Ford asked his customers for a solution, they would say faster horses.
A great product sells itself, and through steps 1,2, and 3, we were able to iterate on ideas for a solution to a well-defined problem, market-segment, all within the context of competing solutions and business models. Many household filters we saw were solutions designed without the end-user in mind, creating an unpopular product that has never penetrated this underserved market segment across the world.
We knew what we wanted to make; we spent countless hours walking through local cities to find the supplies to make our MVP: PVC piping, moringa seeds, and some basic hardware. After some time, and bartering, we had the materials and developed a prototype for further testing (Fig. 11).
Our tests were negative, suggesting our technique was not working as well as we thought. The filtered water was unclean and we knew we needed to think different. Dozens of tests were carried out, and it was at this point where a keen quote kept our spirits up:
“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.” – Thomas Watson, Founder of IBM.
Imagine this scenario and all the possibilities for things to go wrong: within 6 hours, including a 4-hour drive on a one-lane road from Loitokitok, a city southeast of Nairobi, Kenya, we had to stop at three different natural springs and collect three water samples. After driving for 4 hours, we passed off the water samples to a local motorcycle driver and prayed the samples were delivered in time; it was late, and all of our tests were invalid.
We tried, and tried, quickly discarding hypotheses and identifying ways to correct our previous mistakes. Many of my entrepreneurial friends call this scenario the major slump of the company’s lifespan: you either push threw it, aka pivot, or perish. Because of the failed experiments and difficulties with logistics in Kenya, we decided to cut our trip early and fly back to the United States to recreate our experiments – this was a tough and expensive decision: we were bootstrapping, but we took a leap a faith and decided it was necessary.
During this iteration phase, teams need to establish hard, fast deadlines. With goals and milestones in the short and long term, and ways to track the progression of them, startup companies begin to foster a culture of execution, accountability, and can then adjust to better position future deliverables on a timely schedule. Our team struggled at first, but by agreeing on deliverables and deadlines, we were able to prioritize our tasks and quickly iterate on experiments, filter designs, and business models.
With deadlines, well-defined deliverables, and water testing at a nearby facility in Philadelphia, we showed significant and achieved much more promising results (Fig. 12 & 13):
Wherever we were, with whatever resources we had, both product supplies and customers to interview, we made the most out of them by moving quickly to confirm or reject different hypotheses that we brainstormed in step 3.
“What is the most important question I need to answer, and how can I do it with the least about of time and money.”
Step 5: Think Big – picture the company 5, 10, 20 years down the road.
Our technology, business plan, and overall goal is to pioneer plant-based water treatment technology. In the long term, we see many uses for this technology: on an industrial scale, researchers claim that the technique, which we are refining, will produce fewer and more useful by-products and eliminate chemical traces that have raised public health concerns in municipal water supplies. By thinking 5, 10, 20 years down the road, we strengthen our message, identify short-term and long-term company goals, and provide a meaningful future that attracts money, talent, and other resources to fuel our efforts.
Take a page out of Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One,” and create the future: create a world, where if your company didn’t exist, we would all lose something very special.
Here is our example:
Our goal is to address the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which calls to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030. To accomplish these goals, we must address a fundamental issue: access to clean, affordable drinking water. Without clean water, children miss school, families are burdened by medical bills and high infant mortality rates, cascading to stifle economic prosperity and trapping billions in poverty and disease. At Everwaters, we believe water is life, and through social entrepreneurship, or market-based thinking and entrepreneurial capitalism in a social context, we will work to provide “clean water, for everyone, for life.”
So the next time you have a tick, think back to our story and how, regardless where you are in the world or what problem you are trying to solve, there are 5-steps to solve problems and get your idea off-the-ground: Define, Research, Brainstorm, Prototype, and Think Big. Our team is working hard to innovate and solve the global water crisis because we believe no one should die from drinking dirty water. We believe that every child should have the same chance to thrive and live a fulfilling life. Follow us on social media as we continue to develop our technology and distribute a plant-based household water filtration system to the whole world.
What problem will you solve? What idea do you have to change the world? What’s the hardest part about turning your great idea into reality?
Check out our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, ‘Water, Plants, Humanity and the Future’ in partnership with the Millennial Train Project.” This 10-day trip will take us across the country, spreading the idea to use plants to clean water and save millions of lives across the world.
Currently Located in Philadelphia, PA, Everwaters is developing plant-based household water filters in Kenya with plans to expand to Tanzania, Uganda, East Africa, Latin America, India, and the United States. Since its Founding in June 2015, Everwaters has been developing a plant-based filtration technique and has been recognized for its pioneering business model and technology, notably winning the 2015 Inaugural 2015 UPenn’s President’s Engagement Prize. Co-Founders, Adrian Lievano, CEO, and Matthew Lisle, CTO, are two recent Mechanical Engineering graduates from the University of Pennsylvania working to combat the world water crisis, with plants.
All figures (1-13) are designed and photographed by the team of Everwaters in the year of 2015; the author is Everwaters, LLC. Copyrighted some rights reserved.