Solving water scarcity

By Catherine Early.
(This article originally featured in our event magazine the CLP Daily #1. Sid Vollebregt was one of the speakers during our Global Grand Final 2020)

Sid Vollebregt, Managing Director of Elemental Watermakers, describes how a surf trip inspired him to create technology that makes seawater safe to drink using renewable energy.

“A long time ago I was on a surf trip to Madagascar, one of the ten least developed countries in the world, and saw some young boys carrying hundreds of liters of water in jerry cans. I tasted it and it was really salty, but it was their only water source for them and their families. It took them three hours every day to fetch the water, which meant they couldn’t go to school, and the water was bad for their health. It was really shocking,” he says.

A few hours later, while on his surfboard in the sun, Vollebregt realised that the combination of the sea and the sun should offer a solution to the island nation’s water issues. The experience inspired him to specialise in water treatment and sustainable energy, so that he could develop a technology to makes drinking water by removing salt from seawater using the power of the sun.
Vollebregt set up Elemental Watermakers to scale up and sell the technology and sell it to communities, resorts, private properties and industries in islands and coastal areas where water is scarce. The team took part in EIT Climate-KIC’s acceleration programme from 2012 to 2015, an experience he found crucial to the success the company has now.

“We were engineers of technology and the programme really helped us become entrepreneurs”

“We were engineers of technology and the programme really helped us become entrepreneurs, to help us think about intellectual property, negotiations, financing, the whole business plan – the coaching through the network and the programme really enabled us to start a successful business,” he says. Elemental Watermakers is now operational in 14 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. Last year, it won the MBR Global Water Award from the Emir of Dubai for its technology, beating 138 organisations to first prize.

It has established a foundation through which it donates its technology to poor communities, including the one in Madagascar Vollebregt visited all those years ago, which now has access to 15,000 litres of potable water a day.

Low awareness
Vollebregt believes that there is nowhere near enough attention paid to water scarcity. “It is becoming a big problem – even since we started in 2012, there have been droughts in Europe. It’s a big issue but we don’t see it mentioned much from governments and the private sector.”

The focus on climate is too often about energy and renewable energy, but without water, there is no food, products or energy – renewable water needs to be added to the agenda, he believes. There is little discussion of the water footprint of products, for example, the beans in a cup of coffee have used 400 litres of water to produce, but no-one is asking if their coffee beans were grown in a water scarce area, and therefore contributing to the problem, he says.

Identifying customers
Vollebregt believes that one of the keys to success for a start- up is to validate assumptions of who the customer is. “We started out quite idealistically wanting to do projects in Madagascar, for charities and communities. But then we found out that charities were quite risk averse, and communities of course don’t have the money,” he says.

Vollebregt believes that there is nowhere near enough attention paid to water scarcity.

On-the-ground research was also invaluable in the early days of Elemental Watermakers, he says. “You can do a lot of reading, but at the end of the day you have to step on a plane, and knock on doors and get an understanding of the market. I think we did that quite well, which allowed us to take our technology to so many countries.”

But also important, according to Vollebregt, is for young entrepreneurs to have confidence in their product, and trust themselves to make decisions about it. “Listen to everybody, but be aware that you’re the only one that knows the whole nature of your business. There’s a lot of people who want to give an opinion about start-ups, they’re there for one hour and then they go away, they don’t know the whole story.”

“That can be a bit overwhelming for young entrepreneurs. Don’t listen to everyone otherwise it’s going to be a very confusing time!”

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