Monday, March 4, 2024

Abhimanyu Rathi’s Vardan Water: A Clean Water Mission

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Meet Mr. Abhimanyu Rathi, the founder of Vardan Water, a company on a mission to make clean water accessible. In a world where many struggle with the scarcity of clean water and the dangers of waterborne diseases, Mr. Rathi is a ray of hope. His company, Sustainable Livelihood Initiative India Pvt. Ltd., is all about finding innovative ways to provide safe drinking water to those who need it most.

In this interview, Mr. Rathi talks about his journey as an entrepreneur and how he’s tackling the challenge of clean water. He shares how he’s adapting to make sure his technology works for different water conditions and how he’s driven to make a positive impact by reaching one million people with clean water.

Can you take us on a journey through your life, sharing your background and the moments that lit the spark of entrepreneurship in you?

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Driven by a passion to make significant societal and environmental advancements, I have ventured across numerous sectors, drawing both from triumphs and invaluable lessons learned.

Entrepreneurial Journey: Marking my beginnings in an era with 356.97 ppm CO2 levels, I took my first entrepreneurial step at the tender age of sixteen by founding a computer education startup. Since then, I’ve spearheaded ventures spanning telecommunication, management consulting, corporate recruitment, real estate, security services, facility management, and scientific R&D. While some of these endeavors thrived, others imparted essential lessons through their challenges.

What’s the story behind why you chose to start your own startup? What was that “aha” moment or driving force?

According to Water Aid, 1 billion Indians are living in water scarce areas. Niti Aayog reports that 75% of Indian households do not have piped drinking water supply on premise and of the remaining 25%, 70% receive contaminated water. The non-piped sources of water like wells, ponds and rivers are full of life-threatening contamination. As per Government data, 7 Indians are killed and 36,000 Indians suffer from water borne diseases every day. People are well aware of the dangers of contaminated water, but unfortunately, they do not have any viable alternatives. The go-to method of filtering water in India is Reverse Osmosis (RO), but it is expensive and discards at least 3 litres of water for every litre purified, whereas boiling water requires fuel which has a massive carbon footprint making it unsustainable for our climate. Impure water is inducing inequalities and poverty, thereby pushing human development back. It is this question of survival that we are passionate about solving.

Were there any personal struggles or defining moments in your life that influenced your decision to venture into entrepreneurship?

Validating our idea from the customer’s pain points has been the most deftying moment of our journey We have validated the customer’s pain points in three ways. First, health records available in the public domain, collected from primary healthcare centres (PHCs) spread across Western India were analysed, which point to the spread of water-borne diseases. Second, a detailed survey with a sample size of 504 participants was carried out where participants were questioned on a broad range of topics like their source of water supply, the number of members in their family, the kind of purifiers they use and feedback, income and savings, their expectations, health related issues etc. The survey was backed by randomised field trips and checks to verify the legitimacy of survey answers. The collected data helped us focus on the core issues. 

In the early days, who were the people who stood by your side, believed in your vision, and encouraged you to take the leap into entrepreneurship?

From the very inception of our journey, it was our parents who acted as our bedrock of encouragement and motivation. Their unwavering faith in us and their continuous source of inspiration played a monumental role in our resilience. For over nine years, we steered this company without generating a single dime in revenue and refrained from pursuing alternate employment. This extraordinary feat was largely possible due to our unwavering belief in the final outcome we envisioned. Furthermore, the people of India resonated deeply with our mission, providing an added layer of motivation. The pressing issue of water purification, which touches the lives of countless individuals across our nation, became our guiding star. Our drive to address this pervasive problem and bring about a change remained the lifeline that sustained our spirits and propelled our endeavors.

Could you recount a vivid memory from the early stages of building your startup that left a lasting impact on you?

In the last few years, we have worked on several prototypes extensively. 11 pilot tests across 23 households were conducted with each test lasting 5 to 25 days. Based on feedback, the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) was finalised and successfully beta tested for one full year across 5 households and across various seasons with each test lasting at least 87 to 102 days. All input and output water samples are tested in-house with randomised scheduled testing at independent laboratories certified by NABL, Quality Council of India. The output samples collected from beta tests on the MVP conform to specifications given by Bureau of Indian Standards for Potable Water (IS 10500: 2012) with all parameters being well under permissible limits. The effort of doing such elabrate feedbacks left a lasting impression on me.

Entrepreneurship often requires sacrifices. What are some significant personal sacrifices you made on your journey?

Indeed, the path of entrepreneurship is seldom straightforward and often demands its travelers to make significant concessions. One of the most pronounced sacrifices I made was choosing not to take up formal employment for nearly a decade. While many of my peers embarked on traditional career trajectories, I decided to stay fully committed to our startup, pouring all my time, energy, and resources into its growth.

This commitment required not only a professional but also a personal hustle. I often found myself working round-the-clock, foregoing weekends, social events, and sometimes even personal health and well-being. This unwavering dedication was in part fueled by the larger mission at hand, but also came at the cost of many missed opportunities and moments. In our specific landscape, the challenges were intensified due to the nature of our venture. Hardware startups, especially in India, often grapple with a unique set of obstacles. From funding to infrastructure to mentorship, there’s a noticeable lack of robust support systems tailored for hardware-based enterprises. In spite of this, our determination did not waver.

Moreover, while the entrepreneurial ecosystem in India is burgeoning, it still occasionally lacks the comprehensive support needed for nascent startups. The sparse support, particularly in the hardware realm, meant navigating an often solitary path, devoid of the ample guidance and mentorship software-based startups might receive. However, every sacrifice, every late night, and every hurdle only served to strengthen our resolve. It cemented our belief in our vision, and the understanding that true change often requires walking the path less trodden, irrespective of the challenges that may lie ahead.

When you were forming your initial team, what qualities did you seek in your co-founders or team members, and how did you find them?

I was lucky to have my brother as a co-founder. He is the markeyting, outreach guy while I am the product and financial person. We sought more operational people and folks who could go to the market and perform filed operations.

Think back to a time when you faced an unexpected challenge. How did you navigate through it, and what did you learn from the experience?

A few years back, right after we launched our advanced water purification system, we found out that a specific region’s water contained unusually high levels of a contaminant our system wasn’t designed to handle.

To address this, we swiftly assembled a task force of our best engineers and interns from IIT-NITs. They worked on an additional filtration component to tackle this specific contaminant. We then offered this component for free to our existing customers in the affected region and integrated it into our future models.

This experience taught me the value of adaptability in our industry. It’s essential not just to react to challenges but to proactively seek and anticipate them. Since then, we’ve expanded our research and testing parameters to account for a wider range of water conditions.

Think back to a time when you faced an unexpected challenge. How did you navigate through it, and what did you learn from the experience?

A few years back, right after we launched our advanced water purification system, we found out that a specific region’s water contained unusually high levels of a contaminant our system wasn’t designed to handle.

To address this, we swiftly assembled a task force of our best engineers and interns from IIT-NITs. They worked on an additional filtration component to tackle this specific contaminant. We then offered this component for free to our existing customers in the affected region and integrated it into our future models.

This experience taught me the value of adaptability in our industry. It’s essential not just to react to challenges but to proactively seek and anticipate them. Since then, we’ve expanded our research and testing parameters to account for a wider range of water conditions.

Share a moment when you felt like the odds were against you, but you found the strength to persevere. What kept you going?

Our beachhead markets are rural villages completely cut off from the urban infrastructure with no availability or immediate hope of access to pre-filtered piped water supply. These villages are situated in the arid areas of the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat which have a well recorded history of life-threatening water contamination leading to severe water borne diseases. These villages consist of predominantly artisans and farmers with all members of the household being a part of the commercial trade. They rely on impure sources of water like wells, ponds or lakes for their daily needs. Electricity is not always constant. The family income is just enough to make ends meet and keep some savings for a rainy day. Lack of even the most basic healthcare services forces these villagers to spend a lot of money travelling to big towns and cities to access appropriate facilities. An affordable and sustainable way to purify water is not just a mere luxury but a question of survival for them. Finding our beachhead markets has been difficult.

How has entrepreneurship impacted your personal life, your relationships, and your daily routines?

I am far more confident, informed and knowledgeable. I belive I can counter any illogical conversations better now.

Beyond the business, what’s the grand vision or mission you hold dear, and how does it align with your personal dreams and aspirations?

Our aim is to transform the lives of at least 1 million people in the next 5 years.

Who or what serves as your North Star, motivating you to press on, especially in challenging times?

North star – the 95% of india that faces water challenge in some form or the other.

If you were to receive a significant “cheque” from your startup, how would you personally envision using it to take steps closer to your dreams and goals?

Setup a factory to sell our purifiers in bulk.

What is that one advice you would like to give to the entrepreneurs reading this?

Be hungry, be foolish, keep building, never settle.

Mr. Rathi’s story is a reminder that entrepreneurship isn’t just about business; it’s about finding solutions to real-world challenges. His determination and adaptability in the face of obstacles are truly inspiring. And his mission to impact one million lives by providing clean water highlights the incredible potential for positive change that can come from the world of entrepreneurship. It’s a story of resilience, innovation, and a commitment to making the world a better place, one clean drop of water at a time.

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