June 1, 2017

Grant Competition: A Better Bottling Solution for Drinking Water in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

Detailed Description


Aquality International is a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding access to clean water around the world. We are currently seeking submissions for a grant competition that is aimed at developing a solution to reduce the contamination levels found in the plastic containers used in low- and middle-income countries for drinking water distribution.


Aquality’s mission is to expand safe drinking water access in low- and middle-income countries through research, collaboration, and sustainable solutions aimed at improving the existing water landscape.

In many parts of the developing world, people spend a significant portion of their income to purchase and consume bottled water that is transported and sold in large, reusable containers. They do this in an effort to protect themselves and their families because other water sources are unavailable, unsafe, or unreliable. A recent Aquality study in Muisne, Ecuador found that 96% of its population frequently consumes bottled water, even though 98% of the community lives below the poverty line. Drinking water is typically distributed in large, 20L jugs to more rural communities that lack adequate piped water systems. These are the same kind of blue, 5-gallon bottles that are commonplace on the top of water dispensers in many office spaces in the U.S. Our research in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras, and Mexico has shown that the vast majority of these reusable bottles are contaminated with coliform bacteria, and in many cases E. coli bacteria. Almost all major international drinking water guidelines stipulate that the concentrations of these kinds of indicator bacteria should be zero, as they are closely linked to waterborne illnesses. While there are various sources of contamination, our research shows inadequate cleaning of bottles between uses is the principal problem.

Competition Details

Proposals will be assessed based on their merit, and the top teams will be invited to pitch their proposals in-person (location TBD). The pitches will be evaluated by a panel of judges, and teams will have the opportunity to win seed funding up to $10,000 to develop a prototype of their idea. In addition, winning teams will have the opportunity to work with Aquality International in developing and implementing their projects. If prototypes continue to meet pre-agreed expectations and benchmarks, then Aquality will continue to provide funding, with the expectation that your team’s research will eventually be published and field tested with some of our partners on the ground in Latin America. Aquality has excellent connections at most major research universities across the country and elsewhere, and we will leverage those connection to provide guidance and mentoring for project teams who receive seed funding at the pitch event.

Aquality has designed the competition to be as flexible as possible (funding amounts, timeline, finalists, etc.) in order to encourage a wide variety of project ideas. While we anticipate that many project ideas will be technically-oriented solutions for ways to prevent the bottles from becoming contaminated, we encourage teams to think outside of the box – social engineering, regulatory changes, community-based approaches, and other alternative project ideas will be accepted and judged appropriately.


Grant Application

Aquality is seeking project proposals aimed at developing a solution that would reduce the contamination in drinking water that is frequently introduced during the bottling and distribution process. Successful project proposals will be well-researched and address all of the challenges outlined in the Problem Section below.

Problem: While our research has focused primarily on investigating the prevalence of bottled water contamination in Latin America, the kind of 20-L, reusable jugs that we describe can be found in virtually every country in the world. In the U.S. and Europe, it represents more of a luxury item, whereas in most of Latin America, Africa, and Asia they are simply a daily means of distributing drinking water to communities that lack an alternative safe and reliable water supply.

To be clear, these are the bottles being discussed:

Our research has uncovered that many of the bottled water plants in  low- and middle-income countries do, in fact, produce clean drinking water that is within, or close to the drinking water standards that are expected in the U.S. and elsewhere. What our research also showed, however, is that once the drinking water is placed into reusable water jugs, there is a significant increase in the rates of contamination. This trend was not observed in single-use containers that are often also used.

We understand that the mechanism of contamination is biofilms that grow on the inside of the reusable jugs in between uses. These biofilms are robust, and exceedingly hard to completely clean. Chemical treatments and ultraviolet radiation typically inactivate the outer layer of the biofilm, but this outer coating is then used as a shield to protect the healthy bacteria underneath. The narrow mouth of the bottle makes it difficult to manually clean the inside of the bottles with a physical cleaning process. Once the drinking water is put into the bottles, some of the living bacteria under the outer shell will expand out, detach, and contaminate the water.

Challenges and General Information for consideration

Application Requirements

To be considered for a spot as a finalist at our pitch event, please submit a response to the following points by December 1, 2017 (no more than 15 pages):

Grant winners will need to hit certain mile markers in order to continue receiving Aquality’s support:

Judging Criteria

Thank you, and we look forward to reviewing your applications. Please send all applications to hdavis@aqualityinternational.org, and feel free to email with any questions or to request more information about the current bottled water market or the grant competition.

Aquality International | 183 Marlborough St. | Unit 2 | Boston, MA 02116-1884