PATH’s history of market strengthening
Increasing access to safe drinking water
Through the Safe Water Project, PATH developed market-based approaches to meet the need for clean drinking water among low-income households in Africa and Asia. We helped to create new, healthy markets and strengthen existing markets for household water treatment and storage products. We focused on improving access to safe water by supporting the creation of products more appropriate for low-resource settings, developing innovative distribution channels, and increasing consumer demand.
Nearly 700 million people still lack access to safe drinking water, and many more have inconsistent or inconvenient access. Large-scale public water systems are unavailable or inadequate in many parts of Africa and Asia, especially in rural areas, and many families have been unable to buy household water treatment and storage products through commercial markets because of high prices and limited availability. Use of contaminated water at home can lead to severe diarrheal disease, which kills hundreds of thousands of young children each year.
Identifying market gaps
With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH began working in 2006 to explore the potential for market-based solutions to increase access to safe drinking water among low-income consumers. PATH worked with private-sector partners to introduce water treatment solutions, strengthen markets to make these solutions sustainable, and enable low-income households to prevent life-threatening diarrheal disease through better access to affordable, attractive, and effective products.
At the start, PATH conducted a comprehensive value chain analysis, which identified three main barriers to increasing access of safe water products. These were:
- The lack of affordable and appropriately designed products for low-income users.
- The lack of suitable distribution models for reaching low-income populations.
- The low priority of water treatment among many potential users.
Building the supply of suitable products
To build the supply of suitable products, we first conducted an extensive landscape assessment of existing technologies and devices. Our own product development experts also tested a range of products in our lab, and we conducted more than 600 hours of extended user testing with hundreds of consumers around the world to better understand how, when, and why consumers used these products.
PATH used the insights from user testing to advise existing manufacturers on how to make their products more suitable for this market segment and to develop functional prototypes designed specifically for low-income users. We also developed and published design guidelines for other groups to use to create or improve household water treatment products for this population.
Developing innovative sales and distribution models
PATH tested innovative distribution and sales models in India, Cambodia, Kenya, and Vietnam. For example, projects in India and Cambodia tested a sales model that included partnering with microfinance institutions. Other models included:
- Retail sales.
- Sales through self-help groups and nongovernmental organizations.
- Direct sales by entrepreneurs on bicycles.
PATH’s efforts reached more than 50,000 consumers during the project. The models in India and Cambodia showed especially promising results with sales through microfinance institutions. This model scaled independently after project completion, reaching more than 500,000 people.
Increasing consumer demand
To help build consumer demand for safe water products, we conducted market segmentation research. We gathered data from hundreds of low-income households in Asia and Africa on their preferences, beliefs, and behaviors related to water treatment and storage products to better understand what motivates and inspires consumers and how to best reach them with various products. Our work in each country identified five distinct market segments and contributed to market sizing and demand forecasts. PATH distributed the findings to commercial firms to help them better market their products for initial purchase and sustained use. One key insight was that both health and aspirational messages are required to stimulate purchase and use of household water treatment and storage products. Such messages resonate most where people have challenging water sources and perceive a need to treat water. Other insights included incorporating trusted social influencers at the time of product sale (such as health care workers and friends), conducting product demonstrations, and targeting other family members (such as husbands and mothers-in-law) to influence purchase and sustained use.
Generating and sustaining impact
Through the Safe Water Project, small commercial partners learned how to work more effectively and efficiently in low-resource settings. To help build their skills in market research, product development, and other business areas, PATH developed a commercialization toolkit, which can be downloaded for free.
Other partners have realized new potential applications for their technologies. For example, Cascade Designs, the Seattle-based parent company of some of the most respected brands in the outdoor recreation industry (MSR, Therm-a-Rest, Platypus), also makes and sells water filters for recreation and military markets in the United States and other high-income countries. Through involvement in the Safe Water Project, the company invested in developing and selling low-cost water treatment and storage products for emerging markets.
Manufacturers have benefitted from our user experience testing and design research to develop new products. Three manufacturers in China, for example, developed new products based on our design guidelines and began commercial sales in 2013.
PATH’s Springboard Initiative is now building on the success of the Safe Water Project. It has produced a new ecosystem of interchangeable water filter products from a variety of companies, providing consumers with a range of products at a lower cost.
Header photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki