As he crisscrossed African cities and villages to market the Tecno smartphone, Zhong Yanxiong, 34, came face-to-face with clean drinking water challenges rampant in the continent.
Zhong has lived in Africa for six years and it was during his interaction with both rural and urban families that he realized that access to safe drinking water remained a mirage, and only novel innovations could offer a respite. The co-founder and chief executive officer of iClear Wellife Service Limited, a start-up company based in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, is on a mission to revolutionize water treatment by leveraging Reverse Osmosis (RO) for households and offices.
In many areas in Kenya, a high density of minerals in water leads it salty and hard to taste. RO can remove 90 percent of the minerals and 99.99 percent of bacteria, purifying the salty and hard water into refreshingly pure drinking water.
During a recent interview with Xinhua at his company office in downtown Nairobi, Zhong said that his six years sojourn in Africa as an employee of Transsion, the parent company of the Tecno smartphone, opened his eyes to the clean drinking water crisis in the continent, thereby motivating him to be part of the solution.
"I have been to a lot of countries and cities in Africa to push the name of my phone and I found the water crisis, especially for clean drinking water which is a common problem for most families in Africa," said Zhong. "So, I thought of what I can do to help customers solve the problem and ensure each and everybody had access to clean drinking water."
Zhong has already adopted a local name,"Otieno," which is a common family name in western Kenya, that has made him jell easily with colleagues and potential clients of the water treatment innovation he is promoting.
It was during his numerous visits to African households that Zhong learned that water sourced from boreholes was laden with minerals like fluoride hence the need to explore cost-effective and locally appropriate technology for treating the commodity and minimizing incidents of fluorosis and water-borne ailments.
He said iClear's business model is unique since it is anchored on leasing out water purifiers equipped with Reverse Osmosis technology to clients including households instead of selling the entire equipment, whose cost is prohibitive.
He noted that RO purifiers that are sold in the local market cost up to 50,000 shillings (about 423 U.S. dollars) to 80,000 shillings per piece, and customers should keep buying filters every half year. Leasing them, however, could cut down on expenses incurred by poorer households to treat contaminated water.
Zhong said that through leasing, clients only pay an annual fee of at least 10,000 shillings, an installation fee of 2,000 shillings besides benefitting from door-to-door after-sales service twice a year for free, including filter replacement and after-sales service, water system pipe disinfection and equipment maintenance.
He said that his firm has also encouraged households with humble budgets to pay the annual fee of leasing purifiers through installment, as a means to boost water treatment and reduce the burden of diarrhea diseases.
At present, iClear has chosen Kenya for piloting the water purifiers leasing model before plans to venture into other African countries, said Zhong, adding that more than 200 local families who have tested the gadget have given positive feedback.
When he paid a visit to a family in Nakuru, located about 200 km northwest of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, Zhong said the hostess, a mother of three, spoke of a fulfilling experience with iClear purifiers. The hostess said her one-week experience with iClear gave her inner peace, no longer worried about her children contracting a water-borne disease since the gadget removed every pollutant from the commodity.
Turning to the hostess' seven-year-old daughter to gauge her experience with iClear purifiers, Zhong said he received an encouraging response from the minor.
"She told me she would like to keep the purified water in the fridge and while taking it out, it tastes cool and sweet," said Zhong, adding that from the sentiments of the young girl the iClear start-up came up with the slogan "Water is Sweet."
The purifiers are manufactured in China, and can have a lifespan of up to five to ten years when properly maintained, said Zhong, who stressed that iClear aims to link directly with clients and educate them on the proper use of the gadgets.
Zhong said his marketing team has zeroed on Nairobi's densely populated working-class districts to market the water purifiers in hopes of reaching 1 million families in the near term.
"We also intend to establish an assembly plant for our water purifying machines here in Kenya and make them affordable to customers," said Zhong.
Walter Wamae, a middle-aged resident of a middle-income suburb in Nairobi, said the iClear water purifying system has spared him the cost of purchasing the commodity from vendors.
"Before it was hectic because I used to spend a lot of money in terms of going to buy water from the water points. But with the water purifier, it is convenient since I get water directly from the tap and purify it," said Wamae.
Wamae said that courtesy of the purifying machine, his entire family is now consuming safe drinking water, cushioning them from the risk of contracting amoeba and other pathogens that are costly to treat.
Since its founding, iClear has fast-tracked localization of its workforce and has recruited a diverse professional cadre including plumbers, after-sales specialists, marketers, and human resource specialists, said Zhong.
Flossy Cheruiyot, a human resource and administration manager at iClear Wellife Service Limited, said the start-up has hired a talented workforce to support the deployment of affordable and quality water purifiers to local clients.
"We have a team of around 30 members which is the back office and field team. We intend to have a team of around 100 staff before the end of the year so that we can reach the households effectively," said Cheruiyot.
She added that the start-up has leveraged social media besides partnering with local e-commerce platforms to expand its outreach to retail and corporate clients.