PROVO -- For the majority of Kenyans, staying hydrated means choosing between an overpriced bottle of clean water and a recycled bottle that might be filled with pond water. Living thirsty isn't an option on the equator, even if water-borne illness is the all-but-certain alternative.
Three graduate students at Brigham Young University want to bring another option to Kenyans: plastic pouches of clean water that everyone can afford. They've seen it in action in western Africa, and are sure the social venture can be equally successful on the continent's untested eastern coast.
They're calling the project Marere Pure Water -- "marere" means fountain in Swahili, which is spoken alongside English in Kenya. Marere Springs is also the name of the Mombasa, Kenya, natural municipal water source into which they'll be tapping for their supply.
"The humidity is stifling, and the temperature feels like the sun is beating down right on top of you," Marere co-founder Kyle Freebairn said of Mombasa. "They get headaches and can't work effectively, but if they turn to the untrusted bottled sources, they're likely to get a myriad of diseases that will do the same thing ... It's a catch-22 that we'll just go in the middle of."
Decent water bottles in Kenya currently go for about 20 shillings, or 25 cents, Freebairn said, while the top-shelf bottles sell for a buck apiece. Marere will sell 17-ounce polyethylene bags for 10 shillings, or 12 cents, each. The simple sachet design -- the corner of which is bitten into for a drink -- is exactly what Kenyans need, and nothing more, he said.
"Currently, people's needs are being overserved," Freebairn said of water bottles, deeming them superfluous to the basic need of thirst. "If you give them a utility they don't need, you are forcing them to pay a higher price point than their optimum need."
The pouch is the simplest, and cheapest, form of water delivery. Freebairn found an "overwhelming demand" for the product on a recent trip to Kenya. Marere stands to significantly improve Kenyan quality of life as well as bring in a tidy profit.
"In Ghana and Cameroon, this is a proven business model," said Marere co-founder and BYU MBA student Zac Clarke, who witnessed its success firsthand while working with the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Clarke hopes to move 30,000 bags a day in Mombasa, where Marere will run all its operations, including filtration via reverse osmosis, micron and ultraviolet light.
The students, also including co-founder Kyle Lemmon, are still in the hunt for funding, trying to garner attention through business plan competitions. They just finished in the top 20 in the University of Oregon's New Venture Championship. Finding investors that are willing to drop money into an economically unstable country, first of all, and second, into a social project, can be tricky.
Freebairn said investors hold a certain stigma when it comes to social ventures because they tend to depend on goodwill and philanthropy -- not stable sources of profit. Marere, on the other hand, will appease the bottom line while still providing a much-needed service.
"Marere is financially sustainable, but socially we're using business and capitalism and natural incentives to drive the quality of life up; it's very rewarding," he said.
Social ventures are indeed tougher to get off the ground, New Venture Championship director Terry Sebastian said, but that shouldn't scare innovators away. Despite the execution risks, "some of the greatest accomplishments in the world are built by people willing to go against the odds," he said.
Freebairn is already moving through local regulations and looking into locations for Marere. The students hope to launch the company as soon as the capital is secured, which Clarke said shouldn't be too far off, though they had to push back their hopeful May 1 launch date. It will take $200,000 to get things running, Freebairn said.
• Matt Reichman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.