Bottled drinking water carries with it several risks. The chief being quality—for there is no way of telling genuine from fake. The most overlooked danger, however, is the one posed by empty plastic bottles to the environment.
Such concerns led to the creation of Amrutdhara, a start-up that promises to deliver safe, unpackaged drinking water. And it comes at a low cost for both the user and the environment. On February 23, their first working prototype was set up in an ice-cream shop on the Puducherry promenade, where it’s been doing good business. This field trial has helped them with valuable inputs on improvising the product.
The idea of Amrutdhara took root when industrial designer Akshay Roongta and environment consultant Min Ameen met at Auroville.
Roongta says, “Petroleum (that constitutes the plastic bottle) doesn’t disintegrate and these bottles are a real threat to our land. A concerned Ameen got in touch with me and said we needed to do something.”
In 2012, the duo started ‘Ban the Bottle’ campaign urging the Puducherry government to ban the sale of packaged drinking water.
“There was hardly any response to it. We understood we had to come up with a viable alternative to packaged drinking water,” says Roongta.
The first step was experimenting with on-site filtration and market research. And in August 2013, Amrutdhara’s co-founder and CEO Ameen was selected to be part of Villgro’s Entrepreneur-in-residence programme.
“With their guidance, we were able to do some lean market testing. When we reached out to users to find if they would buy unpackaged drinking water, the response was phenomenal. In September 2013, we started out with full-fledged water kiosks,” says Roongta.
But soon enough, they realised stand-alone water kiosks were capital-heavy and unsustainable. That’s when Roongta and Ameen hit upon the idea of banking on the existing bubble-top dealers.
The duo came up with a front-end system that would convert a bubble-top into a water-vending machine with options to collect coins. You can just bring your own bottle or use a glass to draw water.
Additionally, a display in the vending system shows the results of testing the water in real-time. Ameen says their system checks for biological microbes and metals and gives the user an indication of whether the tested water has undergone RO (reverse osmosis).
Still, there’s one glitch. Their model still involves plastic in the form of bubble-tops. Ameen reasons, “We have a use-and-throw culture here and water bottles are thrown after one use. We find this [bubble-tops] as a good compromise as it reduces large amounts of plastic and also makes it easy for recycling.” He adds, “We would ideally like to have on-site filtration but both running water and stable electricity are in short supply.”
The founders reveal that the response has been positive from both the vendors as well as users. They have been testing the model in 10 different locations, researching product design and marketing over the last three months for their pilot. Roping in shopkeepers to host their water refill stations has been another key challenge. They are experimenting with different finance models such as leasing the machine or giving it out for rent.
Roongta and Ameen are also crowdfunding to expand their infrastructure and work force and take their project to the next level. They hope to set up the initial network of refill stations in Pondicherry and later across India. Clean water and less plastic, now that’s an idea worth rooting for.