PackH20: A startup to serve poor women


They say a picture is worth 1,000 words.

This picture could turn out to be worth a lot more.

It launched a business that could serve millions of poor women.

The photo was taken after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by David Fischer, the chief executive of an industrial packaging company called Greif. You probably don’t know Greif but the company, with $4.2 billion in sales last year, has surely packaged something that made its way into your home. It makes steel, plastic, fibre, flexible and corrugated containers,  to ship a variety of products–food, grains, chemicals, ceramics and glassware, furniture, drugs, paints–all over the world.

Now, through a spinoff company called PackH20, Greif has begun to make containers that will make it easier and safer for the world’s poorest women to carry water to their homes.

Last week, I met with Tanya Baskin, the president of PackH20, and Scott Griffin, Greif’s chief sustainability officer, to talk about the new venture. I’m always interested in businesses that aim to solve big social or environmental problems, create jobs and generate wealth–and PackH20 falls squarely into that category.

Pack-BlueThe PackH20 pack is a deceptively simple innovation. It’s made of a durable and flexible polyethylene material that is seven times lighter than the jerry cans (like the one above) often used to tote water around. It’s ergonomic, distributing the weight of five gallons of water–about 42 pounds–across a woman’s back. Its inner liner can be dried and sanitized in the sun. That’s important because the women and children who carry water in poor countries typically do so in cans or buckets that get dirty. A test of jerry cans used by Haitians found more than 90% were contaminated with E.Coli, and 70% previously held oil or  toxic chemicals, according to PackH20.

Scott Griffin, the Greif executive, told me that the idea to make a pack to carry water came to Fisher,  who was volunteering in Haiti, when he snapped the photo. “That was the a-ah moment for Greif,” he said. “We knew we had the capability to design a better product. This is a shipping container, on a very micro level.”

Turning the idea into a product took some doing. Greif, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, designed the pack and then turned to the Battelle, a big research firm based nearby, to test it. They worked with Paul Farmer and Partners in Health to give away the first packs in Haiti, and to get feedback from customers, mostly very poor women. NCT Ventures, a venture capital firm that is also based in Columbus, invested in PackH20.

Why, I asked Scott, did Greif need to start a new company to sell the water packs?

“We’re very good at manufacturing and scaling,” he replied. “We’re good at innovation. But we knew we didn’t have the knowledge to put it together and make it work in developing economies.”

That’s the challenge facing PackH20. The packs themselves work, and customers like them. They are currently manufactured in Turkey by Greif, at a cost of about $4 to $7 each. Now, what’s needed is a business model that will enable PackH20 to get the packs into the hands of people who need it, at a price they can afford. Eventually, the company would like to make the packs in the places where they are used, to create local jobs.

Tanya Baskin, who joined the company just a few months ago, told me: “We want to work with partners–an NGO, a government agency or even a retailer–to figure out what the right model is for distributing the packs.” She joined PackH20 after working for Voila, a Haitian mobile phone company that, among other things, created a “mobile wallet” for its customers so they could easily pay bills on their cell phones. Like PackH20, that’s a business model designed to serve customers at the base of the pyramid. [See my January 2012 blogpost, Beer at the bottom of the pyramid, for more on business models that serve the world’s 2 billion poor people and create jobs in emerging markets.]

PackH20 now has about 25,000 packs in the field–not bad for a company that’s less than two years old. In Haiti, they are given away through Partners in Health. In Kenya, their NGO partners are Habitat for Humanity and CARE. In Guatemala, interestingly, the packs are being sold by a chain store called Cemaco. On its website, PackH20 “sells” packs to donors for $10, with the price covering the cost of the pack and the distribution costs for the NGO partner.

I’m no expert but PackH20 doesn’t strike me as a long-term solution to the problem of getting clean drinking water to people in poor countries. Shouldn’t people be able to turn on a tap and have access to water, as we do?

Scott Griffin doesn’t disagree, but he says building water systems could take years or decades. In the meantime, he says: “It’s unfair for us to ask women and children to wait.” Good point.

Here’s a short video about PackH20.


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