The Alumni Interview
Tabitha Wacera: Solving the water crisis
Growing up in Kenya, Tabitha Wacera (Sustainable Energy Engineering, 2016) walked miles in search of water, carrying hundreds of litres on her back for hours at a time. Today, Tabitha is providing water for thousands of people in off-grid communities through her innovative approach to solving the water crisis. Globally, over two billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, while its estimated that by 2040 one in four children – some 600 million – will be living in areas of extremely high water stress [UN Water]. Solving the water crisis requires solutions to ensure the problem does not recur – which is where Tabitha’s company, Sustainable Water, comes in. Having walked the water walk, Tabitha is on a mission to solve the water crisis, once and for all.
An innovative solution
“When you see a water aid campaign, it often features a girl or a woman walking a long distance in search of water, often at the expense of her education or her future,” says Tabitha. “I can simply say, that girl is me. I too have carried more than 120 litres of water in a day, making six trips of 1.5km each laden with water in a yellow jerry can. When the drought would persist, this scenario would recur over several days a week. On weekdays, I had to fetch water for two hours after school before doing my homework. Luckily, I had a mother who valued education. Two decades later, it’s unsurprising that my Master’s thesis was on solar water pumps. This motivated me to do something about the water crisis.”
Using her engineering expertise, Tabitha developed a sustainable solar water pump that could be affordably installed for communities in need.
“My career in engineering began in marketing for a Dutch energy company which sold solar-powered water pumps,” explains Tabitha. “These pumps cost thousands of pounds, with the poorest villagers who were in the most need of water unable to afford them. Off the back of this experience, I designed and made water pumps that could be payable in instalments for poorer communities. They are 90% cheaper than others on the market, and every pump is embedded with a data chip that tracks its performance and functionality over its lifetime to ensure sustainability.”
From idea to reality
Keen to take her pumps from an idea to reality Tabitha founded her own business, Sustainable Water, and in 2019 entered the University’s Ingenuity programme.
“Ingenuity pushed me to bring my best and leave all my cards on the table,” says Tabitha. “I felt fear and pushed on anyway. I won four awards at Ingenuity 2019, including the Vice-Chancellor’s Impact Scholarship, Santander Enterprise Award, The Brenda Dean Ingenuity Scholarship and the Engineers in Business prize. This also led me to win a highly commended award at the national Engineers in Business Finals.
“The relationships, introductions and connections made have given us a conversation starter, and opened doors to people who would have been really hard to reach without Ingenuity. Sustainable Water now has the capital to scale up. This means more people will get access to a constant water supply, and we can offer holistic solutions to solve the water crisis. Through installing just one pump, in a village of 20,000 we can ensure 200 children can go back to school because they do not have to choose between school and water.”
Towards a sustainable future
Like most of us this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Tabitha’s plans for the future of Sustainable Water. But more than ever, the pandemic has highlighted the crucial need of water as a vital resource for communities around the world.
“The pandemic has understandably curtailed a lot of the expansion plans that we had,” says Tabitha. “Restrictions have affected our ability to ship pumps and install them for the communities we work with. We had to pivot quickly, and developed branded stainless steel water bottles which we could sell in our online shop in the UK. The lockdown made us think outside our comfort zone.
“If anything the pandemic has highlighted the crucial need of water as a resource. We want to increase our awareness in the UK market, and work closely with corporates and charities that make decisions about the type of water solutions being deployed in developing countries. Our main advice is: if it’s not sustainable, don’t install it. The pumps will break down in short order. Our plan is to scale the next 1,000 pumps as quickly as we can with remote monitoring capability embedded to each. We’d also like to become thought leaders in the water sector. It’s the only way to change minds towards choosing sustainable water solutions that secure the supply of water for a lifetime towards 2030 and beyond.”
As Tabitha looks to the future of Sustainable Water, this year’s Ingenuity programme is searching for the next generation of change makers, with a focus on business solutions to the big issues we face today and particularly to help drive recovery as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. So, does Tabitha have any advice for would-be Ingenuity entrepreneurs?
“What are you waiting for? If you have any iota of an idea that can change the environment or the world, you owe it to yourself to pursue it and see if there’s something there. Now more than ever we need innovative ideas. Ingenuity equips you with the tools, knowhow and mentors to guide you through this process, and offers you a unique opportunity to work in an environment with other entrepreneurs in the Ingenuity Lab. It is the proverbial net, so to speak, ‘it is those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world that often do.’”
Take part in Ingenuity 2020
Do you have a great idea that could help us to rebuild a better society post-COVID-19? Ingenuity 2020 is looking for bold new ideas that can address four key challenges: build better communities; tackle climate change; improve health; create prosperity. Apply to Ingenuity for your opportunity to set up your own impact-driven business, access business development programmes with the best of industry and academic knowledge, and pitch for your share of over £400,000 to make your idea a reality.
Apply to Ingenuity >
Ingenuity are also seeking mentors to support programme participants and share their knowledge and expertise. If you have business development expertise or are a leader in financial exclusion, community development, improving public health or tackling climate change, sign up to take part in Ingenuity 2020 and help create the innovative business models of tomorrow.
Become a mentor >