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Reflecting on the Ola Filter Journey

We believe that social enterprises benefit from cooperation and sharing of information across sectors dedicated to the public good. Through collaboration, progress becomes a cumulative process where teams build on past results and benefit from community knowledge. For the last three and a half years, we organized a social business venture focused on making water filter products available to the people who need them most at a price that they could afford to buy for themselves. Here we share a detailed account of the initiatives and projects we undertook in the hopes that future entrepreneurs can learn from our mistakes and successes.

Our Approach

Our goal when we started Ola Filter was to empower people who need it most with clean drinking water through consciously designed products at affordable prices.  We felt that current humanitarian efforts to donate filters in select communities are too limited to address the global need for clean drinking water and that the solution must lie in an enterprise model that would allow for massive scaling. The elevation of basic needs provisions into the realm of commerce would increase the long-term product adoption rates while working within an established market-based framework. As a social enterprise, we would seek to balance profit with compassion while building a model that was self-sustaining.

Because we were focusing specifically in communities that already face numerous challenges, having limited education and minimal experience with technology, our products had to be thoughtfully designed.  The filters must be intuitively easy to use, requiring very little instruction or maintenance, and fit easily into existing behavior patterns of the users. They must remove biological pathogens – at a minimum bacteria, but ideally viruses and heavy metals as well.  And finally, they must provide a drastic reduction in household water expenditure, making the case for their usage a no-brainer. We would focus initially in Central America, but we would strive to develop products and processes that could be adopted by communities throughout the world.

Activities

Our story starts with an idea born in Guatemala and weaves through a series of ventures.  For three and a half years we lived and breathed water filters.  Throughout this time, our product line evolved as we learned, struggled, and adapted.  We kicked off quite a large number of distribution initiatives–which we list later in more detail–but unfortunately, we spent way more time on product development, troubleshooting and repair rather than on selling.  Our reality was that very little time existed when we were in the position of having a product ready to sell that we were confident in.  In this report we will be open, honest, and detailed about the challenges we faced and how we responded. 

Choice of Making in Guatemala

When we told people we were planning to build our company in Guatemala, we got a lot of raised eyebrows.  In our minds, though, the decision was the logical choice.   Not only was Guatemala the place where our idea originated, a place where one of our founders and our target consumer market was already living, it also represented the embedded nature we envisioned for ourselves and our company.  We wanted to be on the ground, learning directly from our water filter users, and building products that fit their lifestyle—with them as partners, staff, and team.  

Cost was an additional factor in our decision.  Manufacturing in the US is expensive.  We knew funding would be an uphill battle and that we would have to be strategic with the money we raised.  We hoped that the lower cost of producing in Guatemala would help us to stretch funding farther.

Before we began, we tried to anticipate the infrastructure we would need and how readily we would be able to tap into it in Guatemala.  We researched what we could on importing and exporting rules and rates, business and tax structures, manufacturing capacities, transportation routes, labor rates and regulations, water filtration standards, housing options and so much more.  We learned of a wonderful social business startup called UTZ dedicated to providing lower cost end-to-end export services for products made in Guatemala.  We were bursting with ideas and potential partnerships that we would make when we arrived.  

Reality hit pretty hard once we got there, though.  As women, as foreigners, as inexperienced business owners, we tripped over multiple challenges including language and culture barriers, trust, travel, sexism and corruption — and, most significantly for our purposes, manufacturing limitations.  Eventually we did move back to the US before ultimately shutting down, although we continued throughout to send filters back to Guatemala and we continued to keep in touch with the friends we made there.  The remaining inventory is being donated to humanitarian organizations in Guatemala.

Choice of Technology

0.1 Micron Hollow Fiber Membranes

We chose to build our first water filter using potted hollow fibers.  Because hollow fiber filters block contaminants mechanically by pore size rather than bonding chemically, the filters can be cleaned and reused multiple times, giving them the longest (theoretical) lifespan of any filter technology.  Companies such as Lifestraw and Sawyer use hollow fiber water filters in humanitarian aid contexts and in retail sales to backpackers and other off-grid users.  These filters are compact and lightweight, making them ideal for transporting to remote areas. The long lifespan rating of hollow fiber filters give users an excellent return on their investment – the amortized cost of a filter being just pennies per day.  There are two common pore sizes for hollow fiber water filters, 0.01 micron and 0.002 micron.  Both are small enough to block virtually all species of bacteria, protozoa and cysts.  The 0.002 micron fibers also stop viruses, although the water flow rate is slower through the smaller pores.  We used fibers with 0.01 micron pores.  Since waterborne illnesses are predominantly caused by bacteria and parasites rather than viral infection, we felt that size offered the best balance of usability, protection and flow rate.  

A difficulty we struggled with from the start was to determine the actual average lifespan claim that we could appropriately make.  There is a vast range of lifespan ratings claimed by the various manufacturers that produce hollow fiber water filters. For example, Lifestraw rates each filter at 1000L with no expected cleaning, while Sawyer rates theirs for up to 100,000 gallons with regular cleaning. There is anecdotal evidence of Sawyer filters remaining in use in the field for up to 10 years.  We wanted to err on the conservative side since our product was relatively small in size and would be used in areas with turbid water, especially during rainy seasons.  We settled on two years/up to 10,000 gallons.  

First Reports of Problems

To our shock, we began getting reports from our trial users of filters becoming irreparably clogged in a matter of just months, even weeks for some users.  We were unable to replicate clogging that quickly in our internal testing in the US and decided that there was likely a user error component in these failures and that we needed to improve our messaging or clarify our instructions.  We put tremendous effort into producing and trialing dozens of iterations of printed and video instructions, ranging from detailed written instructions to entirely pictorial step-by-steps. We translated instructions into local languages with the help of friends, Fiverr contractors, and Google Translate, producing content in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Haitian Creole, Tz’utujil, Kaqchikel, Nigerian English, and Nigerian Pidgin.  We were eventually forced to admit that communities plagued with extremely high turbidity in their water would need to either expect to have to clean their filters after every single use or use a multi-stage product with pre-filters to clear out sediment.

Throughout our time with Ola Filter, we reached out to hundreds of individuals and organizations to talk about our filter, attending dozens of meetings where we discussed the water needs and conditions in their communities and possible applications for our product.  These conversations introduced us to even more limitations of existing hollow fiber filters that made people hesitant to use the Ola Filter.  Those two biggest ones were breakthrough contamination and additional contaminants of concern.  

Breakthrough Contamination

As the filter ages and the pores of the fibers begin to clog, some clogging becomes permanent even after cleaning and each subsequent cleaning restores less of the flow.  Under high water pressure in a clogged filter, it is possible to burst the fibers.  Since the filter cartridge is completely contained within the housing, the user would not necessarily know if a breakthrough has occurred and untreated water could outflow from the filter.  

Additional Contaminants of Concern

Proximity to agricultural and industrial runoff, aging infrastructures, inadequate sanitation and other factors all introduce contaminants to the water supply in addition to bacteria and parasites.  We could not advise communities with arsenic and lead contamination to use our filters.  Nor the community we met with that was experiencing a polio virus outbreak.  To really be a solution that people could put their trust in, we needed a more comprehensive technology.

Luckily those same meetings that brought us these problems, also produced a solution. 

Introducing Electro-Adsorption Technology

We were introduced to a technology called Disruptor, a nonwoven membrane sheet of electrostatic nanofibers made and patented by a European company called Ahlstrom-Munksjö.  Disruptor uses electro-adsorption to remove and retain a broad spectrum of waterborne contamination including bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, chemicals, PFAS, trace pharmaceuticals, and endotoxins. The membrane sheets are pleated into cartridges.  The contaminants that are removed from the water chemically adhere to the filter permanently.  Once a cartridge is fully saturated, water will stop flowing through and the cartridge gets replaced.  Each cartridge lasts a few months depending on the usage and the quality of the source water.  While this is significantly shorter than hollow fiber in theory, we had already seen that hollow fiber didn’t always achieve those longer lifespans.

We had a concern with introducing a technology that required frequent replacement due to the potential to create dependencies that could not be supported with adequate replacement part infrastructure.  This is a valid concern that must be investigated prior to recommending its usage for a community and depends on the distribution pathway.  A hub with local warehousing is necessary.  This could look like a retail outlet or an ecommerce fulfillment partner, for example.

The Two-Product Dilemma

The security electro-adsorption technology offers against a broader array of contaminants led us to develop a second product using this technology.  Initially we offered both the hollow fiber filter and this new filter together, highlighting their features and benefits and helping people choose which one would fit their needs better.  Unfortunately, each product shines where the other is weak. By contrasting them, they are presented in competition, where the positives of each technology highlight the negatives of the other, making neither appear ideal.  The chart below is an example of this challenge when marketing the two products side-by-side.  Eventually, we separated the two products onto separate websites and marketed them individually.  Since we were a very small organization, this separation caused a burden on us that led us to choose a single technology (electro-adsorption) and we stopped producing the hollow fiber filters after a time.

Filter design

In total, we designed, developed and brought to market four Ola Filter products – an initial version and upgraded version of the hollow fiber faucet filter, and an initial and upgraded version of the electro-adsorption pump filter.  Several additional filter product ideas were also investigated, but weren’t brought to market due to limited funding and capacity.

The Hollow Fiber Faucet Filter (Faucet Filter 1)

This was the idea that got the whole thing started. It was the filter we pitched to initial investors. It sprang from the experiences of our founders during the distribution of hollow fiber bucket filters in Guatemala.  The inefficiency of sourcing and lugging buckets to remote Highland communities when these families had access to piped (but not potable) water frustrated us and inspired the hubris that we could make something better.

The pila-style sink is a staple in rural Latin American homes.  It generally serves an outdoor kitchen area and water comes from a threaded garden faucet style spigot.  For many families there, this is their only sink, the one they use for all cooking and cleaning.  By making a water filter that twists onto these ubiquitous faucets, we could make their tap water potable — saving ourselves, and the other humanitarian groups around the world delivering bucket filter systems, a lot of logistical struggle and costs.  And, if we could make it cheap enough (under $20), it wouldn’t have to be just for donations – people in Guatemala and similar countries could buy a filter for themselves.  

The Design

The threaded faucet attachment was a key aspect of our design. Indoor kitchen faucets come in dozens of shapes, sizes and designs.  But the garden threaded faucet is as close to a “universal” or “standard” faucet as one could get. We could serve a large population with a single design.  Also, since many US homes also have a garden faucet, these could potentially be used here, or at the least, our prototypes could be tested and evaluated by our team members working remotely from the US.

The product's beauty was in its simplicity.  It consisted of a hollow fiber filter cartridge inside of an injection molded plastic housing.  The garden threads were molded directly into the housing.  Both ends, the inlet and outlet ends, were threaded.  This allowed the filter to be cleaned simply by flipping it upside down on the faucet and running water backwards through it.  Other filters on the market used a separate cleaning tool, usually a catheter tip or Luer lock tip syringe.  The syringe is larger than the filter, thus more than doubling the packaging size, introduces an accessory that could be lost, and creates an ergonomic problem for users struggling to hold and pump the syringe while holding the filter.  The Ola design eliminated those issues. We addressed the concern of running untreated water through the outlet by instructing users to disinfect the filter by soaking it in a bleach or vinegar solution after backflushing.

The housing was produced in two halves and sealed once the cartridge was installed.  Our first faucet filter used a clip design to hold the housing closed.  While this seemed like a good idea at the time, it proved disastrous (more on this later). The clip style closure allowed the product to be openable. With an openable housing, customers could buy replacement cartridges and extend its useful lifespan. 

Because we were manufacturing in Guatemala, we were sensitive about keeping the assembly process simple. The process of inserting the filter cartridge, applying a rubber o-ring, and snapping the filter closed required no specialized equipment or training. We could (and did) assemble filters by the hundreds in a simple, pleasant, open-air office with a handful of local team members.

We sought a patent for our faucet filter design.  In 2021, we won a local award for free provisional patent filing support.  A year later when the provisional expired, we paid $6000 to file a nonprovisional utility patent.  Eighteen months after that, in the fall of 2023, although some of our method claims had been rejected by the USPTO, we were eligible for a PCT application for international filing.  However, the additional cost of continued filing balanced against the loss of some of our key claims, led us to elect not to file the PCT and allow our application to expire.

Journey to Faucet Filter 2

Problems with manufacturing quality plagued the debut of our faucet filter in the field.  The injection molding quality of our housing was poor.  There were some sinks and scratches and, most troubling, an incomplete fill of the polypropylene material that left an air bubble in the clip, creating a weak spot.  This issue was overlooked by the Guatemalan factory producing the housings.  

We believe this oversight is partly due to lenient production processes at this factory that primarily produces large parts with loose tolerance standards like plastic buckets and stools, and partly due to a disdain for our endeavor.  As foreign women without injection molding backgrounds, we were not taken seriously and the product we were asking them to make was tiny and unknown to them so they were not inclined to put a lot of effort in for us.  

This poor quality led to catastrophic failures of the clips in the field, with some filters bursting open during use.  Even when the clips didn’t break, the housings leaked.  By design, the only defense against water leak was a single rubber o-ring.  Uniform contact and compression of the o-ring is what creates a watertight seal.  However, we could not count on high precision uniformity in the parts we received.  The dimensional tolerances needed to ensure complete compression of the o-rings was not achievable in our production environment.

To make our products more robust, we investigated a change in design to remove the clips and the o-ring.  By ultrasonically welding the two halves of the housing all around their seam, we could create a fully hermetic seal that was significantly stronger than the clips, easily withstanding over 100 psi.  However, there were no ultrasonic welding factories in Guatemala City.  We could import equipment from the US, but without local service technicians to maintain the equipment nor skilled local craftsmen to support our production, it was too risky to attempt to weld the parts there.   We made plans to move our manufacturing to the US, securing a US injection molder (friends who assisted our early part designs a year before) and an ultrasonic welder.  While we may have been able to salvage and modify our existing tooling in Guatemala, institutional corruption made it impossible for us to export our tool so it was rebuilt in the US.  In June of 2023, production was complete for Faucet Filter 2 in a US factory run by people supportive of the project and with the technical capacity to produce high quality parts.

Pump Filter 1: Electro-Absorption Technology

During the six months between stopping production in Guatemala, and having the new faucet filter ready in the US, we worked on other ideas.  Out of a handful of ideas that we brought to the drawing board, what emerged was a pump style water filter that paired with a garrafon (5-gallon Primo-style jug) and used the electro-adsorption technology we had recently discovered.

This product was more complex and thus, was more expensive to produce than the faucet filter.  The target market were people with slightly higher incomes than faucet filter users who were currently buying jugs of purified water for drinking and cooking.  The broad spectrum contaminant removal of the electro-adsorption filtration media meant that users could refill empty garrafones, purifying their own tap water to produce bottled water quality at home.  Having access to tap water, however, wasn’t a necessity.  We also hoped that we could support applications of this filter in off-grid situations including refugee camps and other nomadic or temporary settlement conditions.

The design we brought to market first was a manual version and a compilation of off-the-shelf and customized parts.  We used caravan hand pumps made for DIY RV and boat sinks that we could buy from Amazon in small quantities and in bulk at a third of the price through Alibaba.  We designed our own filter cartridge working with a cartridge maker that was recommended to us by Ahlstrom.  However the cost of custom tooling was too high so we used existing cartridges and made small custom silicone fittings to adapt them to our application.  In total we had seven components sourced from six suppliers and the cost of each filter assembly was nearly $15 USD to produce and import.  That made the retail price of each filter well over $40 USD – practically a luxury good in low income regions.

Pump Filter 2

A hand pump is not a highly aspirational product.  The filter needed more perceived value and/or a lower price for people to adopt it.  Plus, the complicated supply chain made scaling this product a fearsome prospect.

We were able to address all three of these concerns by evolving from a manual to electric version. The key was in realizing how interconnected the manufacturing market is in China and that the supplier we were using to produce our electro-adsorption filtration cartridges could just as easily produce or source the entire product start to finish including customized instructions and packaging.  The cartridges we were using were designed for the smaller tubing size of the electric pumps.  By switching to an electric pump, we didn’t need either of our custom silicone adapters.  With a consolidated supply chain, we weren’t paying logistics costs for each component separately.  As a result, we dropped $4 per unit off our cost to produce, we could easily order complete kits by contacting one single supplier, and our customers could get purified water “at the press of a button”.

This graph is a summary of the cost of goods (COGs) of each of the four filters.  Our initial product, Faucet Filter 1, could be produced for just $5 USD.  That cost increased when production was moved to the US, the increase due to higher molding, assembly, and packaging costs.  The pump filter was a more expensive product, but we were able to make significant improvement in cost by streamlining both our design and our supply chain.

Distribution routes

Below is a list of the distribution methods we attempted, split by technology.  We were blessed with a gift for inspiring and motivating people to want to jump on our bandwagon and promote our filters.  Various people in the US, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Thailand and Nigeria not only agreed, but in many cases, approached us with proposals to distribute Ola Filters in their communities.  We tried direct sales both B2B and B2C, formal and informal distributor partnerships, and launched campaigns to retail, nonprofit and government clients.  Sadly, none of them were successful.  So many times we were “this close” to getting the lucky break that would shift the tide of our efforts and allow us to grow and scale.  We were fortunate several times to get small boosts that allowed us to keep the project alive well after the initial funding ran out, but fell short of achieving the self-sustaining business model that we dreamed of.

Key Takeaways

We've chosen to write this final report in the hopes that our experience can help inform or shed some insight for anyone embarking on, or currently on, the journey of social entrepreneurship - particularly those in the WASH or BoP sectors. 

While there are many things we could have done differently, the following key takeaways represent the most impactful.

Niche Down

The scope of water contamination is vast, and it was tempting to be led in many different directions, each one valuable. We initially went broad in order to test which segments work. However, we may have been more effective had we narrowed in on a target segment in a target location rather than branching out from the start. 

People put more value on a product that is made just for them.  Good marketing requires identifying the pain points of your specific customer and making the exact product that they need to achieve their dream outcome. The narrower you define your niche, the more value your product will bring them.

Focus Your Energy

At the beginning, we attempted to do everything. We were going to buy an injection molding machine, make our own housings, pot our own cartridges, and assemble everything in house. Molding is a whole industry, potting is a whole industry, selling is a whole industry. Leverage the expertise of others and recognize that you can’t and don’t want to do everything. 

Start in China 

Pick your battles. Choose the one thing you want to accomplish as a social enterprise and do it well. Great technologies already exist, are being manufactured at scale, are available to be purchased and are easily customized. Making them available for underserved populations is an innovation. We would have done better had we focused on marketing and distribution rather than product development. We spent energy and money on seeking a patent and building custom tooling. While that was innovative, it was expensive and tiring.  By the time we had gotten to market, we had run out of resources for the long-haul work of seeding pilot projects and growing a customer base.

Understand the NGO Purchasing Process

Nonprofits and global humanitarian organizations have different requirements when analyzing new technologies. Some require different types of certifications and tests, which can be prohibitively costly (or, as in the case of World Health Organization testing, infrequently administered). In general, donations for pilot projects are a required starting point for NGOs to consider a new technology. Larger organizations require massive infrastructure of their suppliers including multi-country warehousing, a decade of high volume production history, high inventory minimums, and solid and proven logistic pathways. While this is a known barrier to entry and the humanitarian community is working to streamline procurement processes, the problem remains that it is difficult for smaller startups to get a foot in the door of these large organizations.

Consider Intrapreneurship

We believe that these innovations have the best chance when done in conjunction with a larger organization that can sustain the project during the extremely long and expensive journey from ideation to market traction. The longest running and most successful innovations in the water space have been by projects and companies that are spinoff from, or under the umbrella of, much larger companies. This is a long game, and the long game requires a lot of money.

Start Small

In the water and development ecosystem, where the need is so great and the scope so large, it is very tempting to think too big. For us, there was unnecessary stress and pressure to plan for orders of 10k+ before we were ready.  Rather than building out the infrastructure for large operations, we would have done better by first building and proving out equipment and processes for pilot programs and small scale production. 

In the end, there are no small numbers in this work. Every single person is important. Every household that has a filter is important. Every drop of water that is filtered before it is consumed is important. For every step backwards, we take a few forward. 

If you would like more information, please reach out to us at hola@olafilter.com