After working for years in international development, Galen Welsch wanted to try something different. He was fed up with the “patronizing approaches” of aid projects, he says, and frustrated about not having enough money to pay people.
“I had a sinking feeling with all of them that they weren’t going to work. There was only good feeling driving all these projects. I couldn’t even pay my local partners,” he says.
That’s why Jibu, Welsch’s Uganda-based water business, is unashamedly for-profit. Business is the best way to incentivize people to work with you, he says. It’s the best way to spread the business to new places. And the best way to have something self-sustaining: Each new part is funded by customers, not by unpredictable donors.
Jibu works in African cities where people have a water supply but can’t depend on it for drinking. Welsch licenses water filtration equipment to local entrepreneurs who bottle up cleaned water in thick, exchangeable bottles. People, therefore, don’t have to boil their water using charcoal or gas and can save money.
So far, 23 entrepreneurs have bought into Jibu’s social franchise system, paying an upfront fee of $1,000 each. Jibu loans the franchisees $30,000 worth of filtration equipment, storage tanks, and a retail apparatus—money that they pay back over time.
“We’re meeting a basic need with a viable business,” Welsch says. “The only way it can be scalable is if there’s real profitability built into it. That’s the only way we can spread across cities and regions, and create that viral source of talent.”
The entrepreneurs start paying back the loan when they start selling 1,000 liters per day of water (Jibu installs a smart meter, so it knows the volume at any stage). The top franchisee is now generating revenues of $130,000 a year, Welsch says.
Welsch, who’s 28 and originally from Colorado, runs Jibu out of an office in Kampala, with outposts in Rwanda and Kenya. Jibu is part of Spring, an accelerator for startups empowering girls and young women, funded by the U.K. and U.S. governments, the Nike Foundation, and Girl Effect. Jibu hires girls as “micro-entrepreneurs” who distribute water on behalf of each franchisee. Welsch hopes the girls will graduate to buying their own equipment soon.
Selling bottled water might strike some people as terrible for the environment. But he says not burning charcoal and gas for boiling water more than compensates. Plus, the bottles are reinforced and cleaned regularly, so they last at least two years.
“The price point is cheaper than the cost of charcoal or gas to boil the water,” Welsch says. “And by replacing boiled water, we’re also giving entrepreneurs the chance to own a business.”
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