For nascent innovators who aspire to creatively impress upon and uplift the lives of those less privileged, 'social innovation' can seem like an underground movement in a fascinating new city: complex, inaccessible, and vast. Luminaries speak at the The Skoll World Forum, thought-leaders guide philanthropists and technologists at the Stanford Center for Social Innovation, and angel investors carve out seed rounds on AngelList for impact-minded companies. But, at the root of these healthy discussions are its companies. Science, design, and technology, powered by the fuel of hi-tech talent and entrepreneurial energy, showcase an emerging competitive edge to the traditional startups of the Valley: startups that generate profits that multiply and scale resources to solve our world's most intractable problems. At the heart of these startups, profit-minded and impact-minded, alike, resides the product.
SmartLife is one such impact-startup that takes a human-centered, fast-paced, and high-growth approach to its product. Shocked that 3.5 million people die each year from water related diseases and only 61% of Kenya's population has access to clean water, the early 2013, East African fledgling offers a cohesive combination of door-to-door, retail location, and regular delivery services to provide pure drinking water and wellness products (such as vitamins for kids) to families in emerging economies.
The WASH (water sanitation and hygiene) market in Kenya is porous. Marred by failed business approaches from the past -- near-term treated bottled water or private micro-brands -- these nimble solutions combust in the face of a few consistent problems: trustworthy wellness products are not available at mass, and water prices are still unaffordable for middle- and low-income Kenyans. Thus, doubt is certainly a common reaction to SmartLife entrepreneurs in Kenya. After weeks on the ground, SmartLife offers a key insight: Kenya has not seen one trustworthy water (or vitamins) brand hit the wellness market that communicates quality, community innovation, and access by all income-brackets. They set out to build just that.
The water, its core product, is pure, sourcing from two locations - a connection to the local water utility supply or the local well [borehole]. The on-site filtration system supplies 10 liters of clean drinking water for every 4 liters of wastewater it produces. In a tumultuous climate, these two sources coupled with a 5,000 liter storage tank on the roof of the store, ensure a steady water supply even during water shortages.
But the smart startup knows quality itself does not endow success. SmartLife identified a crucial WASH market thirsting for disruption, but the innovative and efficient tactics that truly inspire entrepreneurial success are bred into the core product. Wastewater is sent to a local carwash that sits behind SmartLife's store, and the distribution service uses returnable, reusable bottles. Customers pay for their water via M-Pesa, or similarly reliable cellphone payment systems -- forms of payment that millions of Kenyans use each week. They forge kinship with peer social innovators to encourage a sense of Kenyan nationality and vitality amidst Kenya's hot startup hopes - SmartLife is testing KopoKopo, a startup based out of the iHub in Nairobi, as their main mobile payment platform, and CarbonKeeper, an information management system that will allow them to collect customer data and manage distribution. Furthermore, when customers need a one-time refill of their drinking water, they simply text their friendly provider, SmartLife. Lastly, yet the most crucial concept, Smartlife is working with local Mkokoteni men (delivery men) who know the intricacies of Rongai roads, to both provide men with an extra source of income and ensure effectively delivered, subscription-based SmartLife water.
The team is impressive in its collective diversity of experience, ideas, and passions. An amalgam of Kenyans, engineers, consultants, seasoned entrepreneurs, hailing from all around the world, ensure empathy and generate hope for product longevity.
In East Africa, many urban dwellers do not have piped water at the fingertips from their faucet. Purchasing clean, practical household water is a daily priority within the leaders of the household. Early traction showcases that SmartLife is not simply a watered down version of a social innovation with a humble cause. This team redefines agile as a young company emerging from an atmosphere of inertia that must execute before gravity pulls it back to the ground - they must ruthlessly prioritize, learn about their target customers, test as many market assumptions as possible, and work with their community. The astute and clean product, community-based innovations, and relevant payment system is SmartLife's hope to solidify people's confidence in an environment soiled with counterfeits and scams. With every sip of pure water, they become a healthier startup drawing capital for future scale to expand to vitamins and other wellness products, with an increasingly proven viable product, that embodies the spirit of social innovation.