The Unilever Global Development Award Small Business: Hydrologic

Award Type: 

Winner

Giving people access to clean water in even the most remote parts of Cambodia – and doing it in a sustainable way.

Impacts

  • 500,000 water filters sold
  • 46% reduction in cases of diarrhoea
  • 460,000 tonnes of CO2 reduction
 
Action 

Cambodia suffers from a lack of access to good quality drinking water and an absence of a centralized system to deliver it. So, most Cambodians have to collect water and then treat it by boiling it. If they don’t they will suffer the health impacts. The need to boil water means families, which are often poor, face extra costs, not to mention the increased CO2 emissions that come from firewood burning.

Step forward Hydrologic, a company on a mission to solve the problem, and winner of the Unilever Global Development (Small) category in the Responsible Business Awards. 

It makes, distributes, and sells ceramic water purifiers (CWPs) – or filters – to customers across rural Cambodia so that they can remove any bacteria in the water, removing the need for boiling it. "Our core mission is to deliver products with high social, environmental, and economic benefits to rural Cambodian households – and the more successful we are at implementing our business plan, the more positive impact is created,” says Michael Roberts, Chair of the company’s Board of Directors.

The business started life as a donor-funded programme of the international NGO, iDE. Now, it has been transformed into a commercial enterprise that marries commercial and social objectives to delivering positive impact without relying on grants. It has proven that, under the right circumstance, the creation of a social enterprise is more than a viable option for NGOs and other development agencies to achieve the elusive goals of scale and sustainability, adds Roberts.

As for Hydrologic’s impact, the numbers speak for themselves. In the past 14 years, it has sold more than 500,000 water filters. Using data from a field study by the University of North Carolina, removing up to 99.99% of bacteria from water translates to health impacts of 46% lower incidences of diarrhoea in water filter users and 44% fewer deaths from diarrheal disease – saving 3.5 lives each year for every 1,000 households that use a filter.

Meanwhile, families spend less time and money collecting and using wood, their healthcare costs are reduced and their productivity is given a boost. The overall savings from having a water filter is estimated at $70 a year per household. This equates to a cumulative total of more than $100 million in financial value created for users of filters since 2001. 

Then there are the environmental benefits, with 78% of users reporting less exposure to harmful smoke, and 730kg of wood being saved by each household.

Not only that, but the local production and distribution of CWPs generates rural employment with a decent living wage, providing opportunities for Hydrologic staff and others in the supply chain dealing with the ‘last mile’. Dozens of micro and small rural enterprises across Cambodia are involved in the trade of water filters, including retailers, distributors, transporters, and suppliers of filter production inputs.

The company has also developed a simple financing solution to let people pay for the filters in instalments. Today, more than 57,000 filters have been sold on such terms – and, since 2014,  average monthly sales have jumped fivefold, from 35 filters to more than 180.

Hydrologic is a real success story. During the last 14 years, the $2.5 million it has received in grants to turn it from a concept into a commercial entity has returned some $89 million to rural Cambodians. More than 600 million people globally still without access to decent drinking water – including 4 million in Cambodia – there is still plenty more to achieve.