Over the years, I’ve heard and written about many efforts to provide clean drinking water to the world’s poor people–Procter & Gamble’s PUR, Unilever’s Pureit, Lifestraw from Vestergaard Frandsen and PackH20 from Greif. (See, for example, my blogposts about Lifestraw and PackH20.) They’re worthwhile and innovative but, for various reasons, they have been slow to scale.
Last week in Israel, I learned about company that is only six years old but has already delivered safe drinking water to two million people in a single city–Manila. Called Miya, the company also has projects underway in Brazil, South Africa and the Bahamas. A wholly owned subsidiary of Arison Investments, Miya is one of the emerging stars of Israeli’s clean tech sector. [See my last blogpost, In Israel, clean tech is not the new new thing.]
Shari Arison, the owner of the Arison Group, launched Miya in 2006 with $100 million of her own money. [In a Jewish text known as the Kabbalah there are 72 names for God, one of which is Miya.] She did so, she told me, because it aligns with her desire to lead businesses that do good in the world. Miya isn’t a glamorous business–essentially, it deploys sophisticated technology to help water utilities close leaks from underground pipes–but it is growing fast and already having an impact on a urgent problem.
Meir Weitchner, Miya’s chairman, told me: “The way the world today is dealing with water is leading to disaster. In our generation, we–if we don’t do something different–are going to suffer from serious water shortages.” That’s because people continue to move from rural areas to cities, and because the amount of water used by people is rising.
Meir, 48, is a former Israel Army officer, like many technology executives in Israel. He was an executive at Nortel, managed a venture capital fund and then started an experimental school that brought together children from Israel’s Orthodox, liberal and secular communities.
The fundamental problem isn’t a shortage of water, he says, but waste. In many cities, water utilities are losing 50% or more of the water than enters their system through leaks caused by aging, corrosion and shifts in the earth. “It’s water that you’ve invested in–with energy, chemicals, what have you–and then it gets lost,” Meir says.
But replacing all the pipes is impractical and very expensive. Producing more water is costly and time-consuming. A salination factory that produces about 100 million liters of water a day–far less than what Miya has saved in Manila–costs about $300 million, Meir told me.
Miya, he said, is the only international company that is dealing with water loss, which is also called water efficiency or non-revenue water (NRW). One of its key assets is exclusive rights to software developed by a UK company called Crowder Consulting that monitors and analyzes water pressure and uncovers leaks throughout a sprawling system. Miya can then pinpoint the worst leaks, and repair those, and work its way gradually through a system. That way, as Meir explains, the savings generating from the early work in the field pays for the rest of the system repairs and upgrades.
In a videotaped testimonial, Victorico P. Vargas, president and CEO of Maynilad, Manila’s water utility, said after working with Miya, “We have been able to save 500 million liters per day.” That’s huge. The water utility was also able to add another 2 million people to its system, creating more customers and revenues. The upgrade has paid off, he said: “For our shareowners, we have tripled net income since 2008.”
Other locales have taken note. Last year, the Water and Sewerage Corp. (Bahamas) awarded Miya a contract for a 10-year comprehensive project, worth an estimated $83 million, to maximize efficiency of the water system of New Providence, the most populated island in the Bahamas. It’s also doing business with the water utility of Sao Paulo, Brazil, which serves 26 million customers. Miya has opened an office in Canada and is prospecting for business in the US.
Meir predicts that, as the company becomes better known, it will have a massive impact on water loss around the world because the business case for making strategic repairs is so strong. “What we are doing here is, almost literally, taking money out of the ground,” he says.
[Disclosure: The Arison Group paid my travel expenses to Israel and a fee to moderate a panel about their model for Doing Good.]