With the help of a woman wearing a white overall that makes her look like a scientist, a little girl attaches a blue carboy to her bicycle. They are standing on a sandy path between two houses, in the dwindling late-afternoon sunlight. Once the bottle is secured onto the bike, the woman with the overalls disappears into a blue house and the young girl stops moving for a second, smiles at the camera and then rides her bicycle home.
We are in Prek Anh Chanh, a village about a one-hour drive away from Phnom Penh. It is one of the 100 Cambodian villages where 1001 Fountains has set up access to safe drinking water. Each day, 150 carboys each holding 20 litres of water are produced at the blue house and sold to village families.
Drinking water from the pond
Access to water is a major development issue. It is estimated that today, 900 million people living in rural communities still do not have access to safe drinking water.
This has both short-term and lasting consequences on their health and their lives – water-borne diseases kill more than 10,000 people every day. In Cambodia, 80% of the population lives in rural areas, where access to the water distribution network is far from systematic: in 1998, 24% of the general population had access to clean water; in 1996, only 8.6% of the rural population had access to a satisfactory system of water purification. The Millennium Development Goals, adapted by the Cambodian government to the country’s situation, require these proportions to be increased to 50% and 30% respectively. In villages like Prek Anh Chanh people gather rain water during the rainy season. But, during the dry season, they are left with the water from the nearby pond. It is collected and distributed through a local pipe system, but is still not potable. Ten years ago, this situation led Chay Lo and François Jaquenoud to join forces and create 1001 Fountains.
As the tour of the water processing unit starts, Lo explains how they met: he was a student in rural engineering in Phnom Penh when, in 2003, he was awarded a grant to spend two years studying in France, at the École nationale du génie rural, des eaux et forêts (National college of rural engineering, water and forests). That is when he met François, an ex-partner at Accenture and independent Strategy and Change Management Consultant. “When I met Lo, I was shocked to learn how the people in the rural areas of his country lived,” says François. Together, they decided they should do something to help solve Cambodia’s access to drinking water problems in a long-lasting and sustainable way – by creating a social business. In 2004, 1001 Fountains was born; the first pilot project was implanted in the North-West of Cambodia in 2005.
“Safety, Proximity and Health”
The back of the blue house looks out onto a luxuriant green landscape, bathed in the afternoon sun. Lo points to the pond where surface water is gathered and brought inside the back room of the building, where it transits through several cisterns to be filtered. It is first cleansed of sand and earth, and then purified by UV disinfection: the technique “utilises short-wavelength ultraviolet radiation (UV-C) that is harmful to microorganisms. It is effective in destroying the nucleic acids in these organisms so that their DNA is disrupted by the UV radiation, leaving them unable to perform vital cellular functions,” explains Wikipedia. The whole water treatment unit is powered by solar energy. The water is then bottled in the front room of the building and the bottles are sealed and distributed to the families in the village. On Bun Cheang, the villager who runs the water treatment unit, explains: “Families who live close to us come and pick their carboy up and we deliver to the others.” They pay when they buy, but 1001 Fountains is considering setting up a subscription system. The price of the carboy is $4 the first time you buy it; you bring or give it back when it’s empty and pay $0.01 a litre (i.e. 20¢ for a whole jar). 1001 Fountains replaces broken or used jars for free. The initial cost of setting up a water treatment unit for a village is $25,000, covered jointly by the danone.communities fund and the community, which can contribute to purchasing delivery trucks, for instance, and is involved in the construction.
Lo and François’s idea was quite simple: set up cost-efficient, local water treatment units to decentralise water purification and bring it as close as possible to the populations, at an affordable price. The water is sold under the brand “O-we”, with a logo symbolising “Safety, Proximity and Health,” explains Lo. At a nearby house, we meet a family which is an early adopter of the “O-we” blue bottles; the female elder of the family explains that they were convinced by the entrepreneur himself, and that they are seeing effects on their health (the children are less prone to diarrhoea, for instance). Across the street, her neighbour says she cannot afford to buy the water and still drinks water from the pond. “This feeds our reflection on how we can keep doing better and being more accessible,” reacts Jean-François Rambicur, president of 1001 Fountains. In the meantime, each water treatment unit operator is requested to give up to 20% of their production to a nearby school, so that the children whose parents do not buy O-we can still drink potable water during the day. Today, the water reaches 50,000 children; hopefully in three years the figure will be 250,000. And the impact on their health and everyday life is tremendous: a recent study, published in the US medical review PLOS ONE, showed that the sole provision of this safe water may reduce child absenteeism by up to 75%. In the courtyard and in the four classrooms of the Prek Anh Chanh school, the children are all happy to pose for the pictures in their white and navy blue uniforms. Muhammad Yunus, the social business wizard and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Franck Riboud, CEO of Danone – who are both members of the danone.communities board – strike up a conversation with the children. Yunus has them sing songs and clap hands, and they proudly raise their bottles of water in the air… but are not always able to explain the difference between this water and that from the pond. “They still do not really understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy water, » says the Head of the school. « We have more educational work to do.” But he has already witnessed a significant change in the children’s health and thus in absenteeism.
Building, consolidating and replicating sustainable businesses
It was also important to François and Lo that the project benefited the economic development of the villages, in order to be sustainable in the long run. This is why the operator of each water treatment unit is chosen from among the local community and becomes an entrepreneur. The operators manage their own businesses and make a living, for themselves and the 2 or 3 people they employ. This is now ‘ssole source of revenue, whereas he used to juggle several jobs. He says he hopes his daughter will become a doctor, because he can now afford to send her to university.
The first phase of the project is now completed: 100 villages in Cambodia have their own water treatment and bottling units.
Since 2011, together with the NGO “Teuk Saat 1001”, 1001 Fountains has been building a regional development platform to assist the 100 entrepreneurs. The platform “brings together technicians, who provide regular support to the operating sites in their zone of intervention”: they install the “fountains”, support the entrepreneur during the learning phase and educate the communities on the importance of safe drinking water. They also regularly visit the site to test the water quality and assist the entrepreneur with any hurdles they might face. Lastly, they manage the equipment and spare parts. “Since 2012, we have entered the scaling up phase across the country, building the 2nd and 3rd platforms. Our goal is to have 250 production sites and to reach 100,000 beneficiaries by 2016-2017,” says François. 1001 Fountain’s strategic direction for the years to come is in fact to maximise its impact, “to perfect, extend and duplicate this model.” It has also been duplicated in Madagascar (since 2008) and in India (since 2013). The aim is for 1001 Fountains to reach one million beneficiaries across the three countries by 2020.