We cannot afford to burden the planet with technology that is unsustainable

Sep 17, 2018-

A cyclist from a young age, Sajal Pradhan learned the importance of the environment and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle early on.

Ever since her school days, Pradhan was certain she would eventually end up working for the environment, whether in the corporate field, in governance or in the development sector. Upon graduating, her first job was in communications and management of a geospatial data

project from the SERVIR-Himalaya GIS Research Centre at the Asian Institute of Technology and Management. In 2015, she went on to co-found Best Paani—an organisation that specialises in research and development, and the installation of sustainable water systems. In this interview with the Post, Pradhan speaks about the importance of investing in sustainable technologies. Excerpts:

How did the idea of Best Paani come about?

My business partner, Gokul Dangal, has been building sustainable water systems for over 10 years now. I had the opportunity to volunteer with Rotary, building wells during my SLC break, so I was familiar with his work. When he approached me in the second semester of my masters in sustainable development at Kathmandu University to collaborate, it was an easy yes, because I knew him as the best water engineer in the country. Although we started the company with rain water harvesting systems in mind as the primary product, two months after the company was established, the 2015 earthquake devastated the nation. We had to quickly switch gears and focus on filtration because it was essential at the time that we prevent a cholera epidemic.

There are many businesses that are similar to yours. What differentiates Best Paani from the others?

According to Oxfam, 80 percent of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects in Nepal are no longer active five years after implementation. What differentiates Best Paani from other private and social organisations that install water systems is that we not only make these systems affordable for people at the bottom of the economic pyramid but we also design them with locally-available materials and teach locals to maintain the systems completely. This ensures the social sustainability, long-term usage and effectiveness of the system. 

To help a community, it is necessary that we help individuals within the community. We do so by not only building access to safe water, but also educating them about plumbing, handwashing, sanitation, and water hygiene to prevent water-borne diseases. By the end of a project, local teenagers will have learnt basic plumbing skills to maintain their own systems; children and parents will have learnt safer hygiene practices and when we return to our own community, other industry organisations will have learned from the good practices we share.

How important is it for Kathmandu to invest in sustainable technology?

Kathmandu needs to address a series of challenges, from solid waste treatment, air pollution, deforestation, water pollution to urban sprawl. When you address one challenge with technology that is not sustainable, history has always shown a spill-over effect that creates a problem in another area, which we try to solve through more technology that is not sustainable. This is a cycle we cannot afford to burden the planet with any longer. And this is why we need to invest in sustainable technology for all human lines.

What sort of challenges do you face when you market such products to consumers?

We design and build non-electric rain water harvesting and slow-sand filtration systems that create access to sufficient and safe water. Our cost-effective filters help to combat cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, etc. The filters are also effective against iron, arsenic, manganese and faecal matter, which prevent dysentery, diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases. We use only locally-available materials to ensure affordability and ease of maintenance. We also connect buyers with financial institutions so they can make monthly payments, which in turn lessens their financial burden. On average, our home projects have cost $600 for five persons, whereas our school projects cost about $1200 for 650 students.

Extreme shortages of water have made the people of Nepal desperate and willing to give anything a shot. Our brand reputation helps, of course. In the past three years, Best Paani has built safe water access for over 300,000 people across 20 earthquake-affected districts.

Does it bother you when people call you a ‘woman entrepreneur’ rather than just an entrepreneur?

The usage of attaching a gender to a person’s profession indicates a clear lack of gender diversity in that profession. Enforcing politically correct terminology by, for instance, demanding to be called an ‘entrepreneur’ rather than a ‘woman entrepreneur’ will not address the lack of gender diversity in entrepreneurship, which is the root problem, but rather, only the usage of the phrase ‘woman entrepreneur’ which is a symptom of that problem. In practice, because it happens too often, most of us are desensitised to it, but theoretically, we should be engineering a society where entrepreneurs from a spectrum of genders are the norm, through effective gender equal policies, education and role modelling.

How important is networking to sustain your business in Kathmandu? Is it possible to be a hermit and do your own thing?

Where you want to stand on the spectrum of networking for business success depends on the nature of your product. A customised service product, such as ours, definitely benefits from being exposed in business-to-business locations. However, if you’re selling a ready-made product, such as a domestic water filter, this can be done online and will work well as long as you set up the supply chain well. There’s no hard and fast rule. It’s entirely possible to sustain a business in Kathmandu without a lot of networking but in order to expand, the more networking the better.

What are some qualities that an entrepreneur must possess?

Passion, motivation, dedication, discipline, adaptability, flexibility, willingness to do deep market research, money management, effective planning, networking, exit preparedness, ability to question the status quo, ability to question yourself, and a willingness to take risks.

Published: 17-09-2018 08:30

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