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Exec Taps Sun to Address Water Poverty in Africa

Eradicating water poverty in Africa became YPO member Sunil Lalvani’s life’s calling after a ride on Ghana’s dirt roads brought him to witness a shocking, but all too common, scene.

At the time, Lalvani had been leading his family’s consumer electronics business for 20 years, traveling frequently in sub-Saharan Africa. While journeying between cities, his driver suddenly stopped the SUV to avoid a group of children collecting water from a dirty puddle in the middle of the road.

For his Ghanaian driver, he says, this seemed perfectly normal.

“I was brought up in the U.K., and for me, water comes out of a tap,” Lalvani says. “I was fascinated and horrified at the same time.”

Lalvani got out of the vehicle that fateful day in 2014 to talk to the children. They said they lived about 100 meters (about 110 yards) up the road and had been on their daily 2 kilometer-trek (1.2 miles) for their families’ water when they came upon the puddle.

“They told me that, luckily, it had rained the night before, so there was a convenient puddle of water to collect from instead,” he continues. “This, to me, was obviously unacceptable.”

He walked with the children to their village and learned that the handpump installed by an NGO had broken down years before, and they had neither the funding nor the expertise to repair it. Since the breakdown, the children walked the 2 kilometers every day to retrieve water, as they had been doing prior to the handpump installation.

“I really felt a responsibility to do something,” Lalvani explains, “I also felt that, given my business background, there was something I could do to help them.”

The dawning of Project Maji

And so Lalvani founded Project Maji (Swahili for water), initially as part of the corporate social responsibility efforts of his family’s business. His first challenge: figuring out how to improve the centuries-old hand pump.

“The hand pump has served its purpose, but it has many weaknesses and is not an acceptable solution in today’s day and age,” Lalvani explains.

Given his experience in electronics, and what he calls ‘a lot of hard work by a lot of people,’ he figured a way to harness Africa’s abundant sun to power a ‘water kiosk pumping system.’ These new solar-powered pumps remove all the manual effort of a handpump, increase capacity for the community. They are also equipped with mobile monitoring.

“With our technology, we know when they are working and when they aren’t, so we can go back and fix them if and when necessary,” adds Lalvani.

As of last count, Project Maji has provided 50,000 Ghanaians and Kenyans with sustainable access to safe drinking water. Lalvani’s plan is to scale the program to additional countries and reach at least a million people by 2025.

Achieving his goal will take, according to Lalvani, “a massive amount of work, and of course generous partners and donors.”

A business venture, not a charity

One of Project Maji’s core tenets is that its impact on water poverty be sustainable. Acknowledging that many good charitable models have been successful for decades, Lalvani advises that a new model is required for future success and longevity.

“Organizations that rely purely on donations and have no incentive to look after their cost base nor ongoing revenue streams, are going to be challenged,” says Lalvani. “Come at it from a business mindset, look at revenue streams, look at optimizing your costs, and anyone can solve that.  We look at this as a sustainable social business model rather than a pure charity model.”

To that end, he works with the village communities where the pumps are installed to determine an agreeable, affordable, nominal fee for the water. One reason he charges a fee is to ensure that if anything goes wrong with the pump, there is money to repair it. The other reason is more philosophical.

“I’m a big believer that if people put a financial value to something, they’re going to care for it and not waste it,” Lalvani explains.

Any leader can make an impact

Lalvani encourages other business leaders to take on humanitarian issues, saying, “Any humanitarian issue or cause can be tackled by any competent business leader.”

His advice is to approach any issue with a business mindset.

“Look at the end beneficiary. You look at what kind of problem they have and ask yourself, what kind of solution can you offer?” he advises. “Make sure there’s sustainable revenue streams so that it’s going to be viable, and make sure you have good business processes behind it to make sure your cost base is efficient.”

As for the number of potential beneficiaries, Lalvani says, “We talk about the ‘bottom billion,’ so in essence, you have a billion potential customers out there.”

He stresses that it’s vital that business leaders spend time with the end-beneficiaries to understand where their real needs are.

“Unfortunately, in the charity world,” he cautions, “people with a great benevolent mentality are often too quick to jump in and support quick fix solutions without properly understanding the long-term measurability and sustainability of those interventions.”

He adds, “It is important to know your strengths, and then leverage them.”

Addressing the critical and overwhelming issue of water poverty was done so by drawing on his experience in electronics manufacturing.

“I stayed in a sector I knew,” he states. “Manufacturing electrical products in China and shipping them to Africa is something I’ve been doing for 25 years. I had to nail the ‘last mile problem’ to make sure we could reach the ultimate beneficiary, but I took an immense amount of the knowledge and experience I had and applied it to a great humanitarian cause.”

Doing good is good business

He acknowledges that CEOs are responsible for maximizing profits and shareholder value, but that there is more to business than that.

“Look after yourself; look after your families; look after your shareholders,” he says. “But also (look after) all the other stakeholders involved – your employees, the community around you, and the world at large. We have a responsibility, and an ability, to help people. Keep that in your business plan.”

Value, conserve water

“There are a lot of places in the world suffering water stress – in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and even places like California,” warns Lalvani.

He acknowledges he is much more aware about the value of water since meeting those children at the Ghana pothole, explaining, “I’ve made tremendous personal changes, from the length of my shower, to what I eat. I’m conscious of the quantum of water used in the production of various foods.”

He points out that five liters (1.3 gallons) of water disappear with every toilet flush, but that technology is beginning to find solutions to the problem with low water consumption toilets. Low-flow showerheads are also commonplace today, and the new plant-based meats becoming available are more water friendly than commercial livestock farming.

“At least the world is starting to become more aware of this problem,” he says. “Each of us has a responsibility to play, to be aware that we have this precious limited resource. We turn on a tap and it comes out virtually free. We need to value that, because that’s life-changing and will not last forever with our current consumption patterns.”

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