Dreamwater: Solving the paradox of water crisis in flood-prone Bangladesh

June 28, 2023

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Meet the social enterprise that works in flood-prone regions in the country and works to solve the age-old problem of lack of drinkable water by leveraging innovation.

Just like the famous line, “water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink,” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ when torrential rain and upstream water completely submerged most parts of Sunamganj and Sylhet districts last year, drinking water was scarce for the people.

For the approximately 40 lakh stranded people in the Sunamganj flood, it was challenging to source drinking water from somewhere else, which led young social entrepreneurs of Dreamwater Enterprises Ltd to the idea: ‘What if we could drink flood water by converting it to drinking water?’

That’s when they decided to deploy 26 efficient portable water treatment plants through which 4,50,000 litres of flood water was transformed into drinking water. This innovative portable water filter – Dreamwater Portable Filter is a product of Dreamwater Enterprises Ltd.

Around the same time, another flood surge came down to Kurigram. A few self-motivated women travelled from one shelter centre to another with Dreamwater’s portable filters and supplied water to the flood-affected people.

Dreamwater is a profit-based model and a concern of Footsteps Bangladesh (a non-profit organisation), initially created under its Disaster Resilience Programme. According to Mohammad Taqi Yasir, Chairman of Dreamwater, the organisation recognises the limitations of a non-profit model for certain ideas, including Dreamwater. He stated, “Actually, we have a lot of ideas in the pipeline, and some of them won’t work in a non-profit model, and Dreamwater is one of them.” He further explained, “The project’s focus on market building, entrepreneur development, and product innovation necessitates a profit-based model to fully capitalise on these opportunities.”

Furthermore, as Dreamwater follows a business-to-business (B2B) model, where customers purchase the product to establish their own businesses, the company plans to establish service centres in various locations to cater to the needs of its customers. Hence, adopting a paid model is more sustainable and viable for the project.

“Also, substantial investment is required in research and development, marketing and other expenses to successfully operate in the market. Therefore, the company, like any other for-profit business, needs to generate revenues for its stakeholders,” Taqi added.

Portability: The innovation behind the solution

Bangladesh is a highly flood-prone country that lacks drinkable water. To solve this paradox, the team behind Dreamwater brought in a portable water filtering machine.

“In 2018, we sourced a portable filter made by a company based in Singapore. But that took 3 to 4 months to come, and by then, the 2018 flood had caused its damage. Besides, it cost us around Tk70,000 excluding tax just for one machine and when we used it on the ground level we were not satisfied with the result,” said Shah Rafayat Chowdhury, the Managing Director at Dreamwater, who studied Environmental Economics and Policy at Pennsylvania State University in the United States.

So, they felt the urge to build something similar in Bangladesh. Having worked on the concept for around two years, in 2020, the duo came up with the idea of a portable water filter which is less costly and more effective.

“Under the rubric of our Disaster Resilience Programme, we planned to develop the product with local materials like the insecticide spray body, bicycle pump etc and came up with the first prototype,” said Hasibul Haque Majumder, the Operations Manager at Dreamwater.

After seeing the response, they realised that this could be a company of its own, which could create more than just this product and invest more in water innovation. That’s when Dreamwater Enterprises emerged.

Shah Rafayet Chowdhury, Managing Director of Dreamwater Enterprise Ltd.

Dreamwater works in three steps: product innovation, market building and entrepreneur development. Rafayat further explained that the company innovates a product, creates a market for it and creates entrepreneurs who can build up small businesses using their products.

Additionally, there are two versions of the Dreamwater portable water filters. For Version 1, which is the manual hand pump version, they identify and train women in rural households to become disaster respondents and water entrepreneurs in targeted communities. In the pilot phase, they found nine women in Ulipur, Kurigram and trained them on how to use this filter. The women use the filter to meet their daily needs for clean drinking water as well as they can sell (Tk1 per litre) purified drinking water to the communities which lack access to pure water.

Last year Dreamwater took it to the next level and developed an automated version of the filter called Version 2.0. “It will automatically absorb the water from surface water sources like flood water and convert it to pure water and at the same time, we have installed a kind of automation, which will switch off the filter when its filtering capacity is over,” said Taqi.

‘Imagine a water treatment plant in the palm of your hands’

Dreamwater filter is able to purify 77 litres per hour and it can purify any surface water, be it from lakes, roads anywhere else. “Four of us drank Hatirjheel lake water filtered by Dreamwater. We even demonstrated the activity of the filter in front of officials from various non-profits, companies and embassy personnel. The water quality is really good and we have icddr,b reports to back that up,” affirmed Taqi.

The filtration mechanism of Dreamwater is different from any other ordinary filter. Version 2.0 can be compared with a water treatment plant. “Imagine a water treatment plant in the palm of your hands,” said Rafayat.

Md Taqi Yasir, Chairman of Dreamwater Enterprise Ltd.

There are five different layers to purify the water. One cartridge is dedicated to removing odour and improving the taste. Md Asefur Rahman (Finance & Admin manager) added, “The other water filter purifies the tap water which is already primarily filtered by WASA.”

Considering all of these, they have no direct competitors in the market right now.

The second version is now in the pilot stage. Dreamwater has produced 32, and 10 have already been deployed in Kushtia. The price is now Tk 28,500 per unit.

The water filter, made of high-quality hard plastic material, is designed to be durable and long-lasting. However, customers should plan on replacing the cartridge every 5 to 6 months to ensure optimal performance.

Due to supply and demand constraints, the filter may be too expensive for some customers to buy, especially at the grassroots level. So they have created a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs to sell purified water on a subscription basis.

Asef said, “If we can go into massive production, we can keep it [the price] low; also, the internal components we have to buy from China which makes it a bit pricey because of the higher dollar rate and other expenses. We are trying to bring down the prices within Tk15,000-12,000.” Essentially because lower prices will create higher margins of return for entrepreneurs by attracting more potential customers, increasing demand and sales volume, and ultimately generating more revenue.

According to Rafayat, if we can manage the water around us properly, none would suffer from the lack of drinkable water and we will also be able to help people outside the country. But for this to happen, young people like them have to come forward and solve the old problems in new ways. We don’t necessarily need to look to the West for inspiration.

What does the future look like?

Dreamwater has plans for more innovation.

“We want to make the water free of arsenic and salinity someday. Apart from that we are trying to work on underground water. For example, in Bangladesh, there are tube wells in every corner, but the water in all the tube wells is not pure. We are trying to make a machine that will be placed at the head of the tube well and will purify the water.

We are also planning to incorporate solar in Version 2.0. Some people are not able to manually press the filter and have no access to electricity,” said Hasibul.

“We face mainly three challenges: lack of acceptance, lack of funding and lack of resources. Innovation in Bangladesh itself is a challenge here. People of our country prefer conventional means to innovation,” said Taqi.

For Rafayat, people are afraid to try out innovative ideas. And at the same time, people expect outstanding output from the very beginning. He thinks innovation has to be given the space to make errors and improve.

“For example, while testing Dreamwater version 2.0, we had to adjust its flow rate and test it many times. It took two months to get the perfect water. But some people want it to be done overnight,” expressed Rafayat. “If innovators are given more support and room to work on their ideas and express their creativity with the risk of failure, then we can embolden the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tags soon.”

Initiatives like Youth Co: Lab play a crucial role in supporting and empowering social enterprises like Dreamwater. “We are grateful for initiatives such as Youth Co: Lab, co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, which provides need-based mentorship and networking opportunities,” added Rafayat.

The company is determined to overcome obstacles and continue its innovative efforts. They aim to make water free of arsenic and salinity, purify underground water from tube wells, and incorporate solar power into their filters – and empower local communities in the process.

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