Full House for the Water Entrepreneurship Day at World Water Week 2019

Many relevant stakeholders started the World Water Week with the full-day seminar Entrepreneurship driving water impact for all, co-organised by the SWEP. This was the first time entrepreneurship was so high on the agenda in Stockholm, as highlighted by Will Sarni, Founder and CEO of Water Foundry, in the online magazine GreenBiz “The community there moved measurably closer to fully embracing innovation and entrepreneurs as critical to contributing to solving water challenges.”

The purpose of the seminar was to inquire into what it takes to build the right enabling environment for impactful entrepreneurship in water and sanitation as well as for environmentally and socially conscious businesses in high, middle and low-income countries. We were particularly happy to see financiers and investors in the audience, along with entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, as well as delegates from incubators and accelerators. As we all know, the financing gap in the water and sanitation sector is huge. Having all stakeholders represented allowed us to dig deep into the question of how to build bridges between the different stakeholders in the room.

Session 1 was dedicated to the role of governments and big corporates in providing catalytic support mechanisms. The session recognised entrepreneurs as drivers of innovation. One key question centred on how entrepreneurship could support utilities in fulfilling their mission and how existing procurement rules might be a hindrance in this respect.

For the SWEP members, the highlight of the day was clearly Session 2 Be part of the solution! An interactive session evaluating the links between sanitation and water entrepreneurs, financiers, enablers, and end-users. Using Mentimeter and roundtables, the audience participated actively and shared ideas on how to improve the entrepreneurial “ecosystem” in our sector. As a collective, we became more aware of the needs of the different stakeholders, which gave us a more complete picture of the ecosystem. It showed that while there are a number of organisations supporting water and sanitation entrepreneurs today, collaboration, learning and exchange between water financiers, enablers and entrepreneurs need to be strengthened for more impact. One main challenge is how to help entrepreneurs cross the chasm from the pilot/prototype stage to the industrialisation stage. Participants also debated whether high-tech or low-tech solutions were more appropriate in our context. They recognised that effective solutions are demand-driven rather than needs-based. Entrepreneurs also voiced common challenges, such as the limited knowledge sharing, the apparent inflexibility of investors, the missing regulatory support by governments and the need for a common language. Finally, it was also stressed that the well-being of entrepreneurs and their teams was a key success factor.

Session 3 ended the day with thoughtful inputs from the Global Water Partnership, the Toilet Board Coalition, the SWEP and Water.org, followed by a “hard talk” among entrepreneurs, financiers and accelerators. All aimed at finding solutions towards achieving Agenda 2030. A few nuggets from the session:

  • Water is different from all other sectors as it is clearly a limited, yet vital resource for human survival.
  • Two mind-set shifts might do wonders: utilities as customers (and not enemies) of entrepreneurs and human faeces as a valuable resource (rather than a harmful waste)
  • Different entrepreneurial models (co-)exist in the sector; not all of them are suited for the investor universe.
  • Three key success factors: local demand, local technology and local finance

By the way, two out of the three sessions complied with the Gold Standard of the World Water Week (gender balanced in speakers/panellists and representation of young professionals)!

We left Stockholm energisedwith the feeling that the WASH community is really moving closer to embracing entrepreneurship as critical to achieving SDG6. We are happy to contribute to this movement and proud to take concrete action towards that goal through the expansion of our SWEP initiative.