By Eric Pringle
A College of Design student was part of a team of four University of Minnesota students who recently won a competition to help bring clean water to the slums of Mumbai, India.
Sponsored by the Minnesota-based Acara Institute, the Acara Challenge required participants to design a sustainable business model for reusing or recycling water in the Mumbai slums.
Landscape architecture graduate student Karthikeyan (Karthik) Bharath Kumar and three civil engineering students made up the team ReachOut Water Solutions, and their business plan was judged the best of the six teams participating in the challenge. Kumar said his team's business plan was successful because it was both comprehensive and realistic.
"The business plan provides a long-term plan, identifying key points for capital investment, an idea of the spending and costs, and a realistic time frame for the return on investment -- both financial and social," Kumar said.
In May, the ReachOut Water Solutions team traveled to Mumbai "to see if the proposed business model could actually survive the scrutiny of the clients [the slum communities], the authorities, and the potential investors and venture capitalists," Kumar said.
"Slums are highly inaccessible places when it comes to infrastructure," he continued. For the plan to work, they had to identify services in the slums where key infrastructures were already routed and maintained.
These included a series of community toilets and other community services run and maintained by community-based organizations. A strong partnership with these organizations to maintain other similar infrastructure services was an important component of the team's plan.
While in Mumbai, Kumar said the team discovered just how diverse the slum communities are, culturally, demographically, and geographically.
"When we were in Mumbai our objective changed from trying to implement a water solution to... [trying to] understand, as comprehensively as possible, the issues and problems related to water supply in the slums of Mumbai, so that it may enable us to design solutions that are reliable, sustainable, and adaptable to the changing needs of diverse slum communities," he said.
In addition, the team presented its findings and solution to an official from the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology. The team already received $30,000 in funding to implement the pilot project and is confident it will receive approximately $90,000 more to fund the subsequent phases. Kumar said ReachOut Water Solutions hopes to begin actual work on both phases in Mumbai by October.
"It's important to realize that this is a social venture, and the cause we are working for takes precedence over everything else," he said. "Essential services are not available to these people, and we are looking for the most sustainable way to provide it for them."