Impact investors Spring Health visit Odisha, India

In January Sjef Ernes and Program Manager Public Private Partnerships, Astrid van Agthoven set of to Odisha to visit Spring Health. Here’s their story:

‘No better birthday gift than hopping on a plane to sunny Bhubaneswar in India, escaping the dark and flu-ridden Netherlands!  Together with other impact investors we visited Spring Health,  a social enterprise delivering clean drinking water to people’s doorsteps. They run 200 kiosks which provide purified drinking water to about 100,000 people. Not an easy task, considering Odisha is one of the least developed states of India. During the drought of 2016 30% of the wells that Spring Health depends upon, dried up.

The Spring Health model is simple: water from wells, owned by the local operator (shopkeeper, family) is treated to make it safe drinking water. The water is stored in 10 or 20 liter containers that are home delivered on a daily basis by three-wheelers (auto rickshaws or tuk tuks). Ideally people pay for their water with prepaid cards. The company is now developing a second franchisee-option for full-time operators which are able to produce water at a larger scale.

To make it a profitable, scalable business is not simple: the demand for treated water is low as people are generally content with the unimproved sources they are accustomed to and which are free. Apart from that it’s hard to find capable people to fill middle-management positions and the business model is vulnerable (droughts). The health message is unfortunetaly not enough to raise the demand.

However Spring Health has managed to get certified carbon credits for their operations – with financial support from Aqua for All and technical support of Believe Green. The carbon credits are awarded thanks to the CO2 emission reductions achieved by eliminating the need to boil water to make it safe to drink. The first carbon credits have been sold. This generates a significant additional revenue stream for Spring Health that offers interesting potential for their expansion, both within Odisha and in other states in India.

We also took the opportunity to visit FINISH Services Management Company(FSMC), also based in Bhubaneswar. FSMC is a company (for profit) that has been established a few years ago as a spin off from FINISH Society, the non-profit organization that recently won the Sarphati Sanitation Award for its great contribution to put an end to open defecation in India. The core competence of FSMC is aggregating all suppliers, materials, contractors, permits and subsidies to provide sanitation services by using scale as their revenue model .

It was interesting to learn that the main bottleneck in achieving  the Indian Government’s goal to equip all households with a toilet before 2 October 2019 (the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi)  is the shortage of skilled masons to build toilets. Running training programs to fill this gap seems an easy solution but becomes more daunting when understanding the large numbers needed.

Another risk is that it turns into a supply/subsidy-driven toilet construction project that appears blind for the lessons learnt on demand creation and ownership. Probably the short visit gave us not yet the wright impression to understand the complexities of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in such a large and diverse country as India’.

To accelerate the efforts to achieve universal sanitation coverage the Prime Minister of India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission on the 2nd of October 2014. They aim to achieve Swachh Bharat by 2019 as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th Birthday Anniversary. You can read more about this campaign here: