June 1, 2017
Grant Competition: A Better Bottling Solution for Drinking Water in Low- and Middle-Income Countries
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.
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.
- Paper proposal deadline: December 1, 2017
- Judges’ session with in-person oral pitch at Harvard University campus: February 10, 2018
- Depending on the nature of the selected project ideas, Aquality will agree with Project teams on a series of check-in points for design and prototyping, field testing, piloting, and publication.
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
- The market is such that bulk bottled water is significantly more affordable than water sold in smaller, single use containers. To give rough estimates a 1 gallon single-use jug of water costs ~$1.00 and a 5 gallon jug refill costs ~$1.50. This affordability is key for the many families who are already stretched thin living below the poverty line.
- The plastic that is used to make the larger 5 gallon jugs is expensive, so families typically invest in these bottles at ~$15 per bottle. An average family will own one bottle per person and will purchase a refill for each bottle about once per week (i.e. each person consumes about 5 gallons per week including drinking, cooking, and hygiene).
- Since the families own these bottles, they can do whatever they like with them in between exchanging them for filled bottles. It is common to see these bottles get used for chemical storage for things such as gasoline, turpentine, and paint before being exchanged for a fresh, filled bottle.
- The mouth of the bottle is narrow for pouring convenience and there would likely not be feasible to propose a design change for the bottle in this regard.
- Some bottles have a hollow, integrated handle that also stores water, but this kind of bottle tends to be less prevalent than the ones without any handle. A project idea should be able to address contamination in reusable jugs of different shapes and sizes.
- Bottles are currently transported in push carts, rickshaws, or in full trucks for larger scale operations.
- The taste of the water is a key factor determining whether or not people will drink it. We have found that in many rural communities, people will opt to drink untreated rainwater or well water as opposed to bottled water if there is a taste that they aren’t used to (i.e. when the water contains residual chlorine disinfectants).
- There is a relatively high level of education among people, even in very rural communities, regarding good hygiene practices and the understanding that consuming untreated water poses a significant health risk – most of them have experienced waterborne illnesses first-hand and have ended up in the hospital or medical clinic because of it.
- So long as the bottles can still hold water, they are reused. The average lifespan of a bottle is likely 3 years or more, although this has not been well-studied. They are simply too expensive for it to be economical for either families or the bottled water companies to replace them when they become dirty or contaminated. This is the most common practice in the U.S. when a bottle is found to be contaminated, it is destroyed (plus bottling facilities in more developed countries tend to be much more highly regulated and sterile, so there is little concern that your bulk bottled water in the U.S. is contaminated).
- Commonly, bottles are cleaned in between uses with some combination of pressurized water, hot water, soap, bleach, and/or a scrub brush. In our research we have found that none of these solutions consistently worked well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cleaning method that worked mildly better than those mentioned above was dish detergent purchased in the U.S. that was unavailable in rural communities.
- For project ideas that propose a better method to clean the bottles, keep in mind the cost to clean each jug in terms of electricity, wasted product drinking water, and manual labor. If a proposed cleaning process is serial (as opposed to batch processes or cleaning in parallel), it should take less than 15 seconds per jug for high-volume production.
- Project ideas should think carefully about the messaging associated with an implementation strategy. Aquality’s research has shown that most people in these low-income communities purchase bottled water because it is a safe option for their families. If we begin advocating for a change because we have found these bottles to be highly contaminated, we do not want people to stop buying bottled water in favor of drinking water directly from a river, well, or rainwater catchment tank. While the bottled water is largely not safe by regulatory standards, it is still considerably healthier than drinking water directly from most rivers or ponds.
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):
- Project abstract (one page)
- Team member backgrounds (teams of 1 to 5) (one page)
- Detailed project description – please address the following:
- Solution description, including detailed technical specs if applicable (one page)
- Background research and brief literature review of any similar solutions (1-2 pages)
- Economic analysis; estimated cost per bottle at a rate of 2,000 bottles daily (if applicable) (one page)
- Social acceptability of your solution (one page)
- Proposed implementation strategy (1-2 pages)
- Itemized budget to achieve a working prototype or ground-ready solution (if other funding sources are available, please describe) (one page)
- Advantages to your solution (1-2 pages)
- Drawbacks (one page)
- Proposed timeline to achieve a working prototype or ground-ready solution (half page)
- Professor/supervisor note or letter stating your team will have access to necessary equipment or resources to complete the prototype within the proposed budget (one page)
Grant winners will need to hit certain mile markers in order to continue receiving Aquality’s support:
- First stage: design & prototyping
- Second stage: lab testing (if applicable)
- Third stage: field testing
- Fourth stage: randomized controlled trial looking at correlated health benefits
- Fifth stage: widespread commercialization
- Does the application/pitch address all of the criteria above?
- How diverse and capable is the team?
- Would the project idea, if implemented the way it is described, lead to a reduction in waterborne disease in the low-income communities we are targeting?
- Does the project have a reasonable and socially-acceptable implementation strategy?
- How affordable is the solution (business plans that involve social entrepreneurship are encouraged)?
- What is the apparent likelihood of success?
- How significant are the drawbacks?
- How creative is the project idea/is the precedence for success?
Thank you, and we look forward to reviewing your applications. Please send all applications to email@example.com, 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