It’s World Water Week, so we spoke to one of the companies on our Future 20 incubator who are working towards solving the global water crisis. Blue Tap create products to improve access to high quality drinking water in low resource settings. Their latest creation is a 3D printed chlorine injector which is being used in Uganda to sanitise the water supply in people’s homes. Blue Tap’s Founder and CEO Francesa O’Hanlon explains how their work strives for a world where everyone has access to safe, clean water.
In a nutshell, could you describe what Blue Tap do?
We have developed an affordable chlorine injector, which puts in exactly the right amount of chlorine to sanitise the water that supplies people’s homes. Our markets are emerging economies; we’re currently working in Uganda and looking to expand into India over the next couple of years.
Is there any reason why you started with Uganda?
A lot of it was to do with an emotional attachment I had. I worked in Africa, in South Sudan and Central African Republic previously, so I knew the area really well and I knew there was a need for the technology. A lot of it was based on getting that initial link with the partner charity and partnering with the adult training centre, which just made it really easy. It also happens to be really beautiful.
Your chlorine injectors are 3D printed. Would you say that 3D printing opens up new possibilities?
The idea for the chlorine injector came when I was working in Mexico City where they were putting chlorine in the water, but the tablets weren’t dispersing, so you were getting a really strong taste of chlorine, or no chlorine at all. I started building with bits that I could get from the hardware store to make a chlorine injector – and at the end of the 6 months project, I had built something that worked, but that was really difficult to replicate. 3D printing was pivotal for us because we could 3D print many prototypes easily and test them again and again, making sure it was the same every time. Without 3D printing, we would have probably spent hundreds of thousands of pounds, whereas it costs us £1 each time we want to 3D print. For us, the role of 3D printing has been rapid prototyping and it’s been great for testing.
How does your approach differ from other forms of water sanitation?
There’s quite a lot of water purification technology out there, and there are two issues with it. One is the cost of it; when I worked in Africa, I ordered a chlorine doser for £1,500 which is just not affordable. That made me realise we could try to build something that works and sell it for an affordable price. I did a lot of research into why these technologies are priced so high, and it’s simply because they can.
The other major issue with water technology is that it falls into disrepair. You have pumps in rural Africa where one component will break, and you can only order that component in Germany for example, which could take 9 months. We pair our technology with training local plumbers, so it’s always the people in the communities who can be contacted and come and install, maintain, and check that it’s working properly.
How does your chlorine injector work?
We use an old bit of engineering design. It’s called the Venturi Principle – as water flows through the pipe, the pipe narrows a little bit which creates a pressure drop, and this means a second fluid can be injected into the water. It’s very simple, but it’s quite an unstable design, so what Tom, our CTO has done, is designed a clever pressure feedback system which basically means that we can be really accurate with the amount of chlorine that we dose. The problem with chlorine tablets is that they don’t distribute evenly, whereas our technology distributes evenly, and puts in just the right amount as well.
Could you give some an example of a success story from Blue Tap?
One of our best success stories that we’ve had in the last year is generating awareness of the need for this kind of technology at an affordable price point. But while we’re still testing in the lab, we’re focusing on the capacity with the plumbers in Uganda. We did some market research in 2018 where we spoke to the plumbers who are part of an association in the local town, and we were ready to carry out a training course which was entirely technical. We were going to teach them how to use a chlorine injector, how to manage water and teach them to understand chlorination. We found out that the plumbers actually were really good at all this already. Where they had a real gap in their knowledge was actually in managing business. Some of the plumbers were losing money on jobs by charging their customers less than the materials were costing them. So we put on some training about managing balances and how to cost their business properly. It’s had a real impact on our partner plumbers and how they approach their jobs and customers, and it’s improved their revenue; so that’s one of our biggest wins so far.
This year for World Water Day, the theme is “Water for society – Including all”, what is your take on this?
I think the big thing with water access is to understand that certain groups of people are marginalised; the obvious one for this is women. In really poor countries it’s the women’s job to take care of the water. When I went to Uganda last month, I was interviewing women, and some of them were saying they spent 6 hours a day walking down the hill to collect water and back. This means that they can’t work, they can’t tend to their crops, and it really has an impact on building their own careers. My focus is on trying to train up some female plumbers. When we were in Uganda in 2018 we met with a local plumber’s association and there were about 3 female plumbers out of 80 people there. How we’d like to adopt the focus on water access for all at Blue Tap, is by encouraging more women to attend our training courses so that women have access to water, but also women are more in control of the water that they use as well.
You also partner with local organisations in the Countries that you work in – can you talk a bit more about that?
When we started Blue Tap, I was really aware of the backlash against Western international development organisations and charities working in countries where they’re not based. We sat down as a team and questioned what is it that we can offer that Ugandans can’t, and the answer is our technical expertise. This is why we focused on partnering with local plumbers and education centres; if Blue Tap is really successful, none of the founding team will really be going to Uganda, because the Ugandan team will be the ones that are running all of the sales and the training there. We have a core group of plumbers that we’re training up, and over the next 6 – 8 months, they’ll be able to start training others. I think it’s a really important principle because you want the revenue to benefit Ugandans. That’s why we sell to plumbers and then they sell to customers at a higher price, so they can make some personal profit.
What has the response to your chlorine injectors been like?
It’s been really positive. The different modes of traditional water purification are UV, physical filtration and chlorination. What’s really good about chlorine, is that it kills any bacteria or bad pathogens that are in the water, but then there’s a little bit of chlorine leftover that acts as a protector against future infection. That’s something that no other purification method can do. That’s why it’s such a good method, because most of the contamination happens in transport and storage. The bad thing about chlorination is that is has a really negative perception. This is because it’s a chemical, but also because people have been over chlorinating which results in a bad smell or taste. If you chlorinate correctly, you shouldn’t be able to taste or smell it. When we’ve been explaining to people in Uganda about the chlorine injector, even a lot of the plumbers have said they want it in their home. Water quality is one of the most difficult aspects of water to work in because you can’t see if it’s bad quality. You can have a perfectly good looking glass of water but it could be full of pathogens, so a lot of water quality is about education.
How do you hope the Future 20 programme will help BlueTap to grow?
Structure and framework. When you set up a new company, no one has any idea what they’re doing. You get to a stage where you become really aware of what you don’t know, but you’re not sure how to overcome those barriers. The Future 20 programme has given us structure and opened up business possibilities we hadn’t even thought of. When you’ve got the support, you know that you’ve checked all the boxes. If you’re a small start-up, there is no formalised mentorship or structure. You’ve got no boss, or HR telling you what to do, so it’s really good to have that kind of support.
With 2.1 billion people not able to trust the water they drink at home, we are still a long way from achieving World Water Week’s aim of ‘Water for society: Including all’. It’s by organisations like Blue Tap finding innovative solutions to these global challenges, that we become closer to achieving clean and accessible water for all.
For more information about Blue Tap visit their website here
The Future 20 programme is a bespoke incubator programme run by Allia Future Business Centre comprised of 20 of the very best UK tech for good and social ventures that are addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.