Project Maji was born out of a desire to provide clean water to people that are living without it, through innovative technology and sustainable partnerships. Sunil Lalvani, Founder and CEO of Project Maji, speaks to AME about the story behind the initiative
How did it all begin?
Five years ago, I ventured on a journey which had a profound effect on my life. I came across two children drinking water from a puddle on the road in Ghana and felt compelled to help. Thus, Project Maji was born, as a CSR initiative within my family business. ‘Maji’ means water, in Swahili. From a single site initiative, Project Maji now operates as a stand-alone entity that has transformed the lives of more than 50,000 people across Ghana and Kenya by sustainably delivering clean water into their villages. In the five years since inception, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some exceptional people who make Project Maji tick with their enthusiasm, dedication and drive. And we have all been privileged to encounter some incredible communities in rural Ghana and Kenya with some of the warmest people and fascinating stories.
So what does Project Maji do?
Project Maji designs, develops and implements solar-powered water kiosks powered by a proprietary system named the Project Maji cube. Designed to fit-for-purpose in the harsh and varies rural environments in Africa, our cubes are modular, customizable, mobile-enabled, affordable and durable. With a steady supply of sunshine all year round in the communities we serve, there is constant power supply to all our sites at zero cost; a key element in keeping our solution truly sustainable. Communities are able to collect water at any time by turning on one of the Cube’s multiple taps, saving time that would otherwise be spent waiting in long queues at the handpump or walking to distant and polluted open water sources. We partner with local governments, corporates, private donors and prestigious NGOs such as World Vision, IFRC and Red Crescent, all of whom share our vision for sustainable change. We typically serve rural communities of 1,000 people or less-the group that is most overlooked by governments and larger NGOs. We operate using a social enterprise model, whereby each and every Project Maji site is self-sustaining.
How exactly does Project Maji operate?
As a first step, we work with community stakeholders to identify smaller rural villages that have poor or no access to clean water. As the next step, all our water is tested to WHO standards prior to installation. We work with community leaders to develop a sustainability plan for each installation, including mobile payment solutions to secure maintenance funds. We then ship and deliver Project Maji cubes within one month and work with local contractors to assemble our equipment and replace the broken handpump (or drill a fresh borehole should it be required). The Project Maji cube assembly is completed within two days. Finally, ensuring full functionality and sustainability, every Project Maji cube incorporates built-in, remote monitoring ; evaluating and monitoring the efficiency and performance of all our sites on a daily basis. This ensures maximum uptime for the facility, notifying us of any anomalies whereby we can send a technician to inspect and resolve the issue in a timely and cost efficient manner.
Africa is a place I’m familiar with, I have a family business there, so it was a natural choice. This doesn’t mean that Project Maji can’t expand elsewhere (in fact, it is). As far as the Middle East is concerned, in some of the water poor areas like Jordan, Egypt etc, I don’t have the right infrastructure on the ground to do that. Ok I could try, but it’s going to take a lot of time and expense. But if I can find the right partner that shares the same mindset, I can.
So what’s the operating model?
Project Maji started off registered as a ‘for profit’ enterprise. My first goal was to go out talk to investors and raise capital. So first I went to friends and family and talked to them. I told them I want to invest in this business but they were skeptical. Surely, you should be donating, not investing,” they said, probably thinking I’m exploiting the African villagers by trying to make a profit from them. Then I went to the investors and pitched to them. They said the idea is good but your returns aren’t good enough, so they refused to buy into it. So then I converted Project Maji into a Not-for-Profit. And I went back to the same people and guess what? They donated. They donated the same money that they would have given to me that I would have given them back, with a return, but they didn’t want it. I did nothing but change the label.
What’s in it for the investors?
There are fixed dividends for investors, but capped…They’re sort of capped by default. We go to a village and serve 5,000 litres of water a day. So our production capacity is fixed. We charge 2 cents for 20 liters. Our revenue is fixed, there’s nothing we can do about that either. We can increase the price, but then they can’t pay. We can increase the capacity but there’s no market for it.
But over a five-year period, we’re talking of around a 20% return. It’s not astronomical, but then it’s better than donating for free. And what is happening in that village? You’re transforming lives-giving people clean water, more time for greater productivity and cultivating richer, more empowered citizens. So while you’re getting some return on the money that you donated, you’re doing something bigger, only you can’t see it.