Students Tackle Water Crisis in India With Rainwater, Support from Ford

September 4, 2013

Rainwater for Humanity (R4H), a social enterprise founded by Brown University students to address the potable water crisis in India, is among nine university enterprises selected to receive funding from Ford Motor Company Fund this week.

R4H will use the $25,000 grant to complete the construction of 50 rainwater collection systems for rural villagers in the Kuttanad region of Kerala, India. These locally-made harvesting tanks, which serve three to five families each, will provide a sustainable supply of potable drinking water to 1,250 residents by 2014.

“R4H shows promising efforts towards self-sustainability by applying an innovative water vending model,” explains Vice President Daniella Flores ‘15. “This has been and will continue to be the program's foundation for successful expansion.”

The chief innovation of R4H is a self-sustaining, pay-per-use vending model, developed in cooperation with village residents. Under this model, revenue is collected and used to cover tank operating costs (including repairs and salaries for the local managers) as well as to recoup the initial capital investment for future construction projects.

While public water taps are available, they provide water only a few times a week and require up to five mile walks. Alternatively, private vendors deliver water to remote villages, but the supply is costly (about 10% of the average local income), timing is irregular, and quality is unregulated. In a recent Impact Survey by R4H, tank users report having a larger quantity of water for household tasks while simultaneously saving 8.5 hours per week on average after switching to rainwater harvesting tanks. This time-reduction allows parents to spend more time with their children as well as generating extra income.

“The R4H team has leveraged expertise from Brown’s faculty in engineering and resources in entrepreneurship to improve the performance of the tanks, hone their business model, and develop strategies to scale,” says Alan Harlam, Director of Social Entrepreneurship at Brown University.

The Ford College Community Challenge (Ford C3) is a national challenge grant competition that recognizes colleges and universities that utilize a school's resources to address an urgent community need related to the grant's theme: Building Sustainable Communities. Unlike many college grant programs, Ford C3 requires colleges to create proposals that have significant student input, involvement and leadership from beginning to end.

In discussing the entrepreneurial culture of Brown students, President Christina Paxson has said: “The notions of innovation and engaged scholarship permeate Brown. Confronting the challenges of the world makes our work stronger and our mission directly relevant.”

“The Ford College Community Challenge is designed to leverage the talents and creativity of students to drive meaningful change in their communities,” said Mike Schmidt, director of education programs, Ford Motor Company Fund. “We applaud these universities and colleges that are making student-led, community engagement a priority.”