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Getting cheap, simple, clean water into the hands of those who need it most — WateROAM’s unit for Disaster Response

Lim Chong Tee is the Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of WateROAM, a Singapore-based startup that designs portable water filtration systems for use in disaster relief operations or rural communities without access to clean water. Winner of the Shell LiveWIRE Awards and the “Most Investment Potential” at PUB’s Singapore Water Innovation Week, WateROAM’s award-winning products have benefitted more than 15,000 people, including communities in Indonesia, Cambodia, Nepal and Myanmar. We chatted with Chong Tee this week about understanding rural end-users’ behavior, overcoming difficulties working in hardware, and WateROAM’s future partnership program.

Tell us a little about yourself and what led you to found WateROAM?

WateROAM came about in 2014, when David, Vincent and I (co-founders David Pong and Vincent Loka) met at the National University of Singapore (NUS) through Hydropreneur, an accelerator program started by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and NUS enterprise. The lack of access to clean water is a serious issue plaguing many developing countries, and their water issues are exacerbated by natural disasters.

Going without clean water can prove to be fatal, especially in rural areas, where a vast number of people are forced to drink water straight from potentially contaminated sources like rivers and lakes. This fact struck David, Vincent and I. Despite coming from different disciplines in University, we realized that we were like-minded with a common objective in mind. We all wanted to do something about the global water problems faced by so many. So we founded WateROAM and since August 2014, we’ve built water filtration systems that cater for disaster zones and rural regions.

At what point did you decide to turn your idea into a business?

After the Hydropreneur competition, we pooled our resources and built a working prototype that was deployed in Indonesia and Cambodia. We received positive responses on the ground, and we set about building the business to allow us to scale the impact of the systems. In August 2014, we incorporated as a social enterprise and decided to become a water innovation start-up that will further our cause in the field and achieve our vision of building a world without prolonged thirst.

What’s unique about selling into rural market?

As a social enterprise based in Singapore but answering the water needs of those in rural areas, we faced challenges such as geographical, cultural and habitual constraints. Developing an efficient infrastructure is no easy task and cultural habits are deeply entrenched amongst the villagers, making it especially hard to change habits since the people have been drinking from the same water source their whole life. It is also a challenge to fully understand the needs of these rural communities. Speaking directly to beneficiaries, being in their shoes, and walking the ground was vital to understand our business, especially the problem we were solving and the parameters of the solution required to solve it. Early systems were too complex to operate and insufficiently portable, so we went back to basics. We spent a long time out in the field across Southeast Asia, getting to know the people, experiencing what life was like for these villagers and continuously modified our prototype to one that was eventually built to integrate well into their lives.

Where were your initial challenges starting WateROAM?

As a hardware company, we face hard challenges. Manufacturing set-up and raw materials costs are high and skilled manufacturing is hard to come by. It took time before we found the right mentors and advisors to help us come up with better and more innovative solutions. With most of us coming straight out of university, we knew that there were a rather large variety of functional areas that we didn’t have a lot of experience in. These include specialized skillsets which may not have been taught in school, such as investment fundraising, manufacturing, product development, legal and patents, setting up and managing distributor networks, managing sales channels, etc. We were thankful that there were many advisors who helped us wholeheartedly along the way. They’ve become our friends, our sounding board, and some of our greatest cheerleaders.

What is your larger vision for WateROAM, and where do you see yourself in 5 years?

As it stands, WateROAM filters have provided clean water to about 72,000 people, and our goal is to hit 33 million in the next five years. We are scaling up and improving our manufacturing processes to increase production capacity. We are also building the WateROAM Partnership Program (WRPP), a network of ‘Sponsors’ (Individual donors or foundations who would donate and contribute funding to specific ROAMfilter Plus™ deployment projects) delivered by our ‘Champions’ (Local deployment partners who will implement the program on the ground).

Sum up your IH2O experience so far in 3 words.

Inspiring, Fascinating, Enriching.

Check out what Chong Tee and the WateROAM team are doing here. You can contact him at chongtee@wateroam.com.