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.” [click to continue…]