In the scramble to solve water issues, we often get lost in the numbers, facts and speculation and miss one key underlying component: Water is as much about culture as it is about facts and figures.
“Water has been with us for so long and it touches many dimensions of our lives,” expresses Fermín Reygadas, founder of Cantaro Azul based in Mexico. “If we think of water issues as only fixing one dimension like the physical—we won’t be successful. We recognized this early on and approach our solutions holistically.”
Reygadas earned a Masters from UC Berkeley and is finishing a PhD; largely working with the Energy and Resources Group and the Blum Center. He says that both relationships have been critical in establishing the classroom-research and practice ecosystems that lead to invaluable innovations.
Cantaro Azul uses innovations like ultraviolet light water treatment designed specifically for rural areas. To date, Cantaro Azul serves more than 10,000 people in Mexico, Bolivia and Sri Lanka. Homes, schools, and marginalized communities gain access to safe drinking water that is not provided to them through any other service—such as public-water systems. Part of Reygadas’ holistic approach includes training members of communities to control the water kiosks, making individuals stakeholders in the solution and also, economic gain.
If we think of water issues as only fixing one dimension, like the physical—we won’t be successful Tweet This Quote
“I still believe there is a culture of collaboration ingrained into lots of communities,” says Reygadas. “In those places, the best solution is to work with them. We create economic incentives.” Cantaro Azul’s nonprofit approach to bringing clean, accessible water to rural communities differs from for-profit business models prevalent in urban areas. Cantaro Azul designs easy-to-use water kiosks that purify water using ultraviolet water treatments system—called Mesita Azul®. They then find and educate local community members and entrepreneurs—through their Nuestra Agua program—to operate and manage the kiosks—giving locals a franchise and sustainable income. Local community members who own the kiosk businesses decide on the most accessible placement of them for their communities.
Traditionally, responsibility falls to the Mexican government to provide treated water in each municipality. Reygadas says there are many limitations in this dependence, and in many areas, there isn’t time to wait for government-led solutions. He states that, “most of the time, people in the rural areas don’t have money to pay for services. It’s a matter of location, of us being there long term, which is partly why we decided to form a non-profit. Our bet is still that we can achieve more impact by being a non-profit. The rationale behind that is if we were responding to the economic pressures of a for-profit, we would have to go to the urban areas where people already have water. We want to stick to the health impact—and deliver in that way and the economic piece.”
So far the trained participants responsible for providing water in their communities has been female led. “On most of these occasions, these women in rural Mexico didn’t have a way to make money,” Reygadas explains as to why this is helping to shift the poverty line. “Now they are committed to the success of these kiosks and providing safe water to many. It has become an important part of empowerment.”
Reygadas says he thinks there are other factors uncontrolled by entrepreneurs that will have to change to address poverty; assessing meaning for him is not necessarily thought of in terms of an economic metric. One aspect that has been personally rewarding to him is to hear these women are proud to be part of an enterprise—becoming leaders in their communities.
Looking back at the beginning of his studies, it was not Reygadas’ intention to build a company focused on water security. It happened out of sheer necessity. After years of rigorous research at UC Berkeley and the hope to apply that research through an extant channel, he realized it simply didn’t exist—yet.
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“We were not able to find an entity to take what we had developed in the master’s thesis, and I was disappointed with it not being turned into a reality,” says Reygadas. “My co-founder, Ian Balam, and I decided to start a nonprofit and do something about it. It was the first time I thought about it outside of an academic context.”
That was back in 2006. Now Cantaro Azul continues to pioneer long-term, community-based solutions in the vigorous battle for water security.
The process of working with students is integral to his approach. “They bring a lot of ideas and if they stay longer we can test some of them,” he explains. The students come as part of an exchange program from UC Berkeley and get real world experience for testing classroom solutions. “All of the complexities and dimensions surrounding water—the technical, the cultural—we had to consider models that aren’t only economic, but also, look at the education surrounding it. Health is still the bottom line.”
Beyond working with students and garnering human resources, Cantaro Azul is looking for funding in the form of credit that will be directly allocated to franchisees managing kiosks as well as growth capital to bring the social franchise to scale. Their goal is to reach one million people in five years and start selling technologies to governments as well as strengthening women-led franchise models.