World Water Day: The patience you need for safe drinking water in Pakistan

Re-posting my blog post on Acumen’s website and the reason why I’m currently in Pakistan.

WORLD WATER DAY: THE PATIENCE YOU NEED FOR SAFE DRINKING WATER IN PAKISTAN

MARCH 22, 2013 BY  IN FELLOWSON THE GROUND,SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP

In the last 2 years since I helped start the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation and in the six months I’ve been a Global Fellow at Acumen, I learned a great deal about patience.

As a part of my fellowship with Acumen, I moved to Lahore, Pakistan to work with Pharmagen Healthcare Limited, the social enterprise behind Pharmagen Water, which aims to provide clean, safe and affordable drinking water to low-income communities through a system of water shops around densely populated areas.  This service is vital in Pakistan as millions of the urban and rural poor still rely on outdated water systems or poorly-maintained water facilities.

In Pakistan, 40-60% of diseases are caused by drinking unsafe water, and according to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, 100% of tested water sources in Lahore contained unacceptable levels of arsenic contamination and half had unsafe levels of bacteriological contamination.  The health implications of this are grave and are a major reason why Pharmagen is working to improve public health by providing safe drinking water at the lowest possible price: around $0.45 for a 20-liter container, which is enough for a family of six for two days.

Paying to ensure your family has clean water may seem like necessity, but adoption among the poor can be difficult and slow. They have been using free water from public taps for years and are often unaware of the health risks associated with these unsafe water sources. Part of the difficulty in driving adoption is demonstrating that an investment in preventive healthcare actually saves money in the long-run by reducing medical costs.  This is especially true for children—clean water is an investment for proper nutrition and healthy human development.

My main job at Pharmagen Water is to convince potential customers of this truth.  Designing marketing campaigns is a challenge, not only because I still can’t speak Urdu proficiently, but more importantly, social enterprises face a different set of problems than traditional business.

One of Pharmagen’s street kiosk demonstrations in Lahore.

In a way, we’re competing against the mindsets of both our employees and target market as the social enterprise model is new to them.  Some employees have a hard time understanding why we sell a high-quality product at such a low price. Our target market is not accustomed to paying for water at all.

To say the least, building a successful social business is hard work.

Here are 3 things I’ve found to be critical:

  1. Focus on Social Impact – Patient capital is exactly that – an investor that is patiently waiting for the organization to get the business model right because the focus is on maximizing social impact. The challenges inherent in a social enterprise are almost completely different from a for-profit and a nonprofit so it’s important that the “capital” is willing to wait for a longer period of time before the organization is able to scale. The risk of failure is also an integral part of the learning process and in getting it right.
  2. Adaptive Leadership – Leadership without purpose is meaningless. Social enterprises are born out of a need to address a social problem.  Most of the time, the social enterprise’s management has to chart their own path – find a spot in the field and patiently grow what was planted. Pharmagen Healthcare Limited is probably the only organization of its kind in the whole of Pakistan – it takes tremendous amount of courage, persistence and patience to build something like this.
  3. Collaboration – We’re moving away from a world view that values competition as the only source of healthy growth – for social enterprises, nothing is more important than building linkages and relationships with the communities where they operate. That means building trust, not only with customers, but also with employees that are taking a bet on a new approach.

Social enterprises and social entrepreneurs are a different breed—they see a social problem in dire need of a solution and they go in not fully knowing the pitfalls but are ready to face what comes.

You need to have the strength, resilience, humility and the patience to see things through.

And sometimes to truly understand your customer, you must have three cups of chai tea with them – and, though it takes patience, it’s worth the wait.

Pharmagen Healthcare Limited supplies safe, clean and affordable drinking water to low-income residents of Lahore, Pakistan through an existing chain of open water shops. With Acumen Fund’s investment, Pharmagen is opening 32 new water shops. They currently supply more than 100,000 liters of safe water to customers each day, impacting the lives of over one million people in Pakistan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *