A thirst for change
Retching over a toilet bowl in India, Katie Alcott wasn't exactly feeling inspired. Instead, she was deeply regretting that evening's language barriers. "I asked my host if it was OK to drink the water. I meant was it safe — they thought I was asking if it was polite.
"No matter where I was travelling, I saw the same issues," she says. "It's a human right to have access to clean water at a reasonable price." She took a job in a small company that dealt with social network analysis, but the idea of dealing with the problem wouldn't leave her.
"The idea was to create a UK social enterprise where lots of people are making a difference, not just me, to long term sustainable impact." The end game was to improve access to water and the quality of water in developing countries. "Water for water", Alcott eventually concluded: one bottle of her water would provide 200 litres of safe water for someone in a developing country.
In 2005 she founded FRANK water: open and honest. But as Alcott discovered, the realities of sticking to that stricture made the start-up remarkably difficult. "We had to make sure that we were making a profit almost immediately," she explains. "We couldn't say on our bottle that we were not for profit, and then recoup our losses."
It was manifestly important that their business was conducted in the most eco-conscious way. "We had to find a water source that was reliable and environmentally friendly." Rather than using a bore-hole, which takes down the water level, she was looking for an artesian spring, which forces the water to the surface naturally.
They eventually found a suitable spring in Devon and negotiated that they would buy their water palette by palette, sell one, and put half of the profit aside to donate to a project using the other half to buy three more.
Finding the right way to donate the profit was also much more complex than Alcott had envisioned. Nothing satisfied her criteria until she read about Ashok Gadgil, an Indian working and living in America, whose UV water filtration system was revolutionary; light, sustainable, with all the parts easily replaced in developing countries, and it didn't require the water to be pressurised.
Alcott visited one of his pilot projects in south east India, where the villagers had an old government hand pump, contaminated from monsoon flooding, which was a daily 3km walk into the desert. "Seeing the villagers' reaction when they heard about the clean water project, made me realise on the flight home that there was no going back," Alcott says.
They sold their first bottle at a festival in May. "In the first year and half I had a lot of sleepless nights," Alcott admits. "Because it was a social business I wasn't responsible to shareholders, but to every customer and every villager."
When FRANK had £4000 to donate a year later, it was difficult to accept the red tape that twisted itself around the business. "It was turmoil," Alcott remembers. "I wanted to cut out the middle man, and donate to local NGOs."
However, donating to a foreign charity, tax efficiently, was blocked at every turn. Alcott had to take the decision of setting up a sister organisation with charitable status, so they didn't run into such problems in the future.
Ethical enterprise is seen by big brand organisations as the "current market sweet spot". Volvic have just launched a campaign whereby they donate 10 litres of water for every litre bought. "They're planning to install 22 wells in Africa, which would cost us £150,000," Alcott says, "but they're spending £3m telling people about it.
"That's hard in one way, but at the same time, they're doing good. If companies like us can encourage or inspire big companies, then that's only a good thing."