Episode 14

Safe Drinking Water with Mark Matamisa

Published on: 21st July, 2021

Mark Matamisa is an entrepreneur based in Cape Town, South Africa. After discovering in 2008 that not everyone in his home land of Zimbabwe had access to clean drinking water, he and his friends put their savings together and set up an enterprise, Project Oasis, to provide safe, treated drinking water to a number of families in the country. In this eye-opening and, at times, emotional interview, Mark explains:

  • how an outbreak of cholera affected him emotionally, and set him on this journey
  • the importance of clean water for good health and prevention of illness and disease
  • the challenges faced by many in accessing water in Zimbabwe and South Africa
  • the criticisms he faced in providing a public good via a private enterprise 
  • the conflict between running a profitable business and making a positive social impact
  • why the greatest success of this project would be the point when it’s no longer needed

More details about Mark’s enterprise can be found here: https://maokosolutions.com/project-oasis-powered-by-puma/

The film Helen mentioned in this episode is secretofwaterthemovie.com

And the video Maribel mentioned about rich and poor countries can be viewed here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEe_QTNPffU 

Related episode: Altruistic Capitalism with Lynn Yap

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Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcript
Maribel:

Thanks very much Mark for agreeing to having a conversation with us. I was really looking forward to listening to your story. So for our listeners, could you just briefly tell us who you are and what your audacious goal was?

Mark:

Um, well, still is. I’m Mark Matamisa. I'm based in Cape Town, South Africa, but originally from Zimbabwe, I've been in South Africa since 2005. And I've made this my home, you know, without ever losing contact or touch with what's going on in Zimbabwe, and it's the biggest part of my life, you know. And that's what kind of drives me. And the audacious goal that I found myself, I can't say it's something that I set out to develop or, but it's something that actually came out organically out of a group of friends that I had. And our goal ended up being to provide an alternative source of treated good tasting water to a group that we felt was greatly underserved. Yeah, that developed from... it came up in 2008, when I went back home, during my December holidays, I arrived there during the peak of the 2008 Zimbabwe cholera outbreak. And it was a very trying time, you know, there were many reports in South Africa, were asking people not to travel to Zimbabwe or to travel there with, you know, with a lot of precautions, pretty much like what's happening now with the Coronavirus and COVID-19. And there were high case fatality rates in excess of 5%, which wasn't the norm for cholera outbreaks. But what you found was that the outbreak from a urine report was traced to there having been a breakdown in the potable water and sanitation systems, which led to contamination of drinking water sources. And that gave rise to conditions that made the outbreak occur and become worse than it should have been at any other time in Zimbabwe's history.

Helen:

So what made you decide that you were going to be the one to deal with this, Mark?

Mark:

Oh, it wasn't me, per se. I’d come together with a group of four friends of mine. And we had started a savings club, where every month we’d put in a portion of our income, and set it aside and hopefully grow it into something bigger, you know, because the way our financial service is structured here is that if you deposit a certain number of money, you get a higher interest rate. And the more the money you deposit in the interest bearing account, the higher the interest rate you get. So we thought that let's combine our savings, so that we can put in one saving instead of five different small amounts, we can save one big amount every single month. And in that way, take advantage of the system, as it were. But you know, when we started this, one of the guys did say no, but guys, we're getting a little bit of interest, but there's definitely an opportunity for us to do something more. And that will now give us a higher profitability because the interest rates will, they never really exceeded 6%. And we wanted to get a bit more growth. And so in those talks, then, and trying to find a business that we can start, you know, one of my friends had gone home and just came back and said, Guys, there’s a water problem in Zimbabwe. Could that be something we can tackle? You know, because the market is there. And if we can develop a product that works, we just might be able to make an enterprise that is profitable, and also do some good while we're at it. So that was where we started. And that's how the goal developed.

Helen:

So was it important that the enterprise had to be profitable? I mean, you said there's two things, you're thinking of it with your business head and your friend who came back said that this is a profitable business that we can run. I'm just wondering what is the balance between, we need to do good for our people and we need to make money for ourselves. I wonder if you could say something about that.

Mark:

It was definitely, look, when we started this enterprise, we wanted to make some money. And when we looked at it, we thought this could be something that could be profitable. But I don't think the profit line was the driving motivation. The profit was a driving motivation to our earlier iterations. I think you're familiar with the entrepreneurial journey, you know, you start something, but that's not where you ever end up. So we never actually started looking at a water project in our minds, we did some bit of consultancy, we did business development for other people where we would put suppliers and the customers together and make commission on that. And that's where we started and going on from there, this idea came up. So you know, the practice that we've been doing, we're very, very small. But in the scale, they created a big opportunity to get a profit, because there were low costs, there were no overheads, you know, other than our time that we involved. And then all of a sudden, we moved into, let's build infrastructure to get water to a community. And the minute you're talking infrastructure, that becomes cost intensive, you know, it's capital intensive, you need to put something on the ground before you can do anything. And to me, it spoke volumes of the character of the guys that I was involved with, because they were willing to go and put themselves out there and put the savings out there. And we are not by any stretch of the imagination well-off, or people with excess resources. We're literally working off the little savings that we can, that come out of our salaries and that our families are able to do without, as it were. So it's definitely a sacrifice on the part of our families, because we've asked them to cut back a few things. But once we started, it was very difficult to stop. Yeah.

Helen:

I understand. Where are you right now then? Can you say a little bit about what is the infrastructure? How many people are you reaching? What impact have you had?

Mark:

We went live going into the COVID lockdown, because it took some time developing the infrastructure, getting systems in place and processes that would actually make this work. And by the time we finished, I think we were in April, March to April 2020, which was when the lockdowns took effect on this side of the world. And so you didn't have a lot of foot traffic that we’d anticipated. But what we did do is we said, Guys, we can't stop developing this because of the lockdown. People will need water regardless, whether they're allowed to go to work or play. It's something that people need. So we set that up. But we only got our billing system up and running in December 2020. And so before then, there was water, we call them, our water kiosks, we have set up our water kiosk, our first water kiosk, where we're testing the viability of the project. And that was up and running. But it was actually just almost water for free, because there's no way for us to bill for it. But when one of our members was a water engineer and then went up to Zimbabwe, he was able to then set up the whole system. So at the current point, I think we have in excess of 50 to 80 families that are making use of our water kiosk. And that number is indicative of the market we're trying to reach, because we put in a capital outlay. So we can't give the water at the prices that the city council would sell water for, if it was available. It is available, but sometimes it isn't. And what we found in our market research was that there were NGOs within the area that were providing water to people for next to nothing, you know, it's just you know, give us a token and you can have water as much as you need. But then what we found was that there were limitations to when that water was available. It could be only two hours a day during specific times, and you had a lot of working people either working for themselves or working in informal industries who could not make those times and actually would have benefited from having access to a 24-hour station where they can come and collect the water anytime that they wish. And that became the focus of our marketing and our engineering of our product. So now that it's on the ground, we’re finding that every week, we get two or three new families that come in and buy our tokens and join the product. And what we do make available to them is access to 5000 liters of treated water, which is very good tasting, because it's carbon filtration. And it's magnitudes better than just getting water down from the borehole, which isn't treated, which isn't filtered. And at the same time, it's accessible to you whenever you want it. As long as you have our... we have an electronic tagging system that you can use to access your water credits and the like. But for those that don't have those, because we've sited our initial site at a fuel station, in partnership with Puma Fuels, who run a string of fuel stations in Zimbabwe. Because the forecourt is always open, there's always somebody to assist people who come in. And that has been one of the best strategic decisions that we made in partnerships. And I’d like to thank the guys at Puma for agreeing to take the leap to work with a group of untested 30-something year olds and try and put this out in the community.

Maribel:

That sounds amazing, I think this project is fantastic. And I would like to come back to something that you told me when we had our first conversation, which is related to the emotional connection that is there, and I have the feeling that that is the driving force, why those 30-something guys are willing to do this and use their own savings into this. Remember you told me about going back to Zimbabwe, and what is it that you saw there?

Mark:

Well, that's a very difficult place you’re taking me to. In 2008, when I went back, when the cholera outbreak occurred, my mother, who was very active in the community, took me to one of the treatment centers, the temporary treatment centers that were erected in my hometown. And because of the magnitude of the outbreak, the hospitals didn't have sufficient capacity to treat people that were coming in. So they had to set up temporary treatment centers, through the Ministry of Child Health and Child Welfare, and some UN assistance. And, you know, when my mom took me to the center, I was aware that there was a problem, and that people needed help. But when I got there, you know, what I encountered was nothing that I could imagine, it was a really desperate situation where you can, I actually couldn't bring myself to get to the treatment center. So I drove my mom there, and I left her at the gate. And I went and I parked away. You can smell the desperation, it really affected me. I can say, you know, it's one of those things, one of those times in my life that I really wished that there was something that I could do. Back then there was nothing I could do. And, you know, a few 10 years down the road, you know, this opportunity presented itself and we had to get it. I'm sorry. This is difficult, it's difficult.

Helen:

Definitely. So you said that at that moment, you saw the desperation of the situation and you felt, and this is my word, helpless? Would that be the word, that you felt helpless in that situation? How long, then, did it take you, would you say, before this vision appeared as to how you could actually do something in order to remedy this situation?

Mark:

I don't think that we actually ever went out to try and remedy the situation, because that's such a lofty goal, it's huge. There's no way we could start it and finish it. But leaving there, I wanted to do something. But I couldn't. And when we started this investment club with my friends, and one of the founders was an engineer, and a water engineer in particular, he has wonderful ideas around water, he can't understand why it's not available to everyone who needs it. His passion and his drive and his expertise in this field really drove the rest of us and gave us confidence that we can actually do something. It might be small, but it will be something. And the UN in their assessment of the 2008 cholera outbreak actually said that the only reason why the fatalities were as high as they were - it was 2008 to 2009 period where the outbreak really wreaked havoc - was because there was an unavailability of clean water. And that contributed to people's failure to make use of oral rehydration solutions. Now, growing up, you know, my parents were teachers, and we knew, if you've got diarrhea, or cholera, mom is going to make a salt and sugar solution. I'm not, I don't need to go to the hospital for that, I don't need to go to the clinic, because you got clean water coming out of the taps, or you should boil some water and mix salt into the solution. And that was how we treated these things. And for a lot of the people who perished during that time, the reason they perished was because they weren't getting access to that very simple treatment option at the start of the symptoms. And doctors have been saying this about COVID as well, that people who get treated quicker are more likely to recover, especially those who you know, who have extreme conditions. And so there not being clean water became a driving force was to say, let's make some water available. It's complicated when you try and provide the whole city with water. But if you say, look, let's focus on this one community. Let's give them clean water. Let's treat it because the water treating process on a small scale is not expensive, you know, there are solutions that have been developed by... and been available for many years, where you put, I'm not sure what the concentration is, but you've got a 5000 liter tank of water. If you put some tablets in there to disinfect that water, then that water is available for drinking and people can know that they won't get sick from that water, as long as the infrastructure is maintained. They can use that, you know, with some sort of confidence. And that's sort of where we came from. I think I've gotten lost from your question.

Helen:

No, another question actually, which is coming up for me is, I mean, this is obviously a huge goal that, you know, you're saying here that we just wanted to get clean water to these people is, it's obviously a huge, huge goal. I'm interested in what challenges you were facing, you know, as a private individual feeling that you needed to do this because, you know, the NGOs or the state was failing the people. So what challenges were you facing in that respect? And also, how easy was it to get other people on board with your idea as a private enterprise?

Mark:

Well, I think once we decided to go on this route, a key question became, where do we start? Where do we put our first site? Because Zimbabwe’s a big country, and each part of that country needs some water to different levels. So where do you put your first site and how do you ensure that that site is accessible to people, the community you want to serve, and that the infrastructure that you put will be safe, while ensuring that, you know, you can give people 24-hour access? And then the other thing that we had was, can we find the technology that works? Because it's all well and fine, you know, putting a tank in the middle of nowhere and putting water in it. But how do you make that into a product that generates then? How do we stock, you know, the tank with water? How do we ensure that it doesn't run out? Or that the pipes don't foul and the water becomes undrinkable or even a hazard? How do we guarantee that we will get buy-in from the community, because you know, when you're dealing with issues, like with social issues, they are very challenging. Yes, the community needs the service but you cannot assume that because you think that the product that you have will be good for people, that everybody in that community will be happy that you brought it there. I think after we went live with our media, and and our marketing, some of the criticism that we got on our social media platforms was quite eye-opening, you know, I think there are things that we had never ever thought, where people were questioning why we, as an entity, felt that we could charge somebody else money for water. It was something that we never considered, because like I said the project arose organically, you know, out of our shared experiences, you know, others would call it a vanity project, you know, here are people who are outsiders being not based in the country who have chosen to do a project to make themselves feel good and raise their profile. It's quite challenging managing those perceptions, you know, where we were just, you know, a group of people that wanted to serve other people like ourselves, we just lacked the organizational capacity and resources in the drinking water community.

Helen:

And how did you respond to those criticisms?

Mark:

What became the message was that the infrastructure that we're developing is not free, we do not have unlimited pockets. And we aren't funded by anybody. This is entirely a self-funded enterprise. And so we need at the end of the day, to be able to go to our families and say, guys, you know, we're not throwing away what little money that we've saved as a family, think of it as an investment. It's not something that's going to generate money for you tomorrow. You're not going to become a millionaire from it today. But it's something that if we can make work, it will help people who actually need it. And if there's enough traffic and need for it, then we can recoup our investment. And I think, at this point, that is the driving force for the project. If we're fortunate, we will recoup our investment. We won't make money on this. Because our projections are that, within the next three to five years, the city should be providing water to all the communities that are within it. This is a local government issue, this is something that they should do for the people. And so we're not going to be doing this for 20 years. We don't want to do it for 20 years, because doing it for 20 years will mean that something has fundamentally failed. And we don't believe that things cannot be fixed, and that the city can’t come and provide access to clean water, dependably, as you said Maribel. We stay in societies where water is a given, it's not something that we think about. You go and you open the tap and there’s water. I've now had two different situations where you had a collapsed water infrastructure in Zimbabwe, that has caused failure for people to get water. And I've also experienced the day zero concept that we in Cape Town were grappling with over the last two years, where all our dams were going empty, we had a massive drought and there was no water, not because the infrastructure has failed, not because the city has failed. But because the climate has changed and the droughts are becoming more severe. And so you have to be positive. You have to be positive. I feel that things will come right, and there will be no need for our project. And on that day, that will be a happy day.

Maribel:

That's beautiful. I wanted to ask you what the vision is but I think you've already... what the vision is that you're looking for, because the need of something like this to take place, of a project like this, just means that society lives in huge differences. I'm assuming that there are people who, like us where we live, don't think about whether there will come water or not, and others where that's a dilemma for each day?

Mark:

Yeah, that's quite true. And unfortunately, we conserve the most desperate in the situation, because we can't afford to, we can't afford to give away our money, our water indefinitely. And that's what has driven us to put a price on access to our water facilities. But in the community, where we are, there are NGOs that do provide water and do cater to those that are literally on the fringes and require that help. We've toyed often about the idea of making it a fully social enterprise, where if we had the backers, and we had the funds, we could literally go into communities and set these kiosks up and run them as a social service. Knowing that, you know, the capital outlay has been taken care of by some other party, but it's very difficult to come across those opportunities, because we're not in that line of work, we're not affiliated with any NGOs. And, yeah, we’re just a group of friends who like doing what we do. And I think the biggest thing that has come out of this for us is that this is the first big project that we have done. And the lessons that we've learned, we could not have gotten them anywhere else. There are many entrepreneurs who are starting for-profit businesses, who go into market with rose-tinted glasses. And I think that was us when it began. And we have learned through this many iterations that we've gone through one needs to be realistic, and one needs to understand the market and the community they're going into. Because unless you do that, whatever you’re providing is not really for the market. But it's actually for you. And that is a vanity project. And that's not what we're trying to do.

Maribel:

Our final question is connected with the name of our podcast AudaciousNess. And the word ‘ness’ in that word, means solid grounding. So what we would like to know is, while you were and still are, pursuing your goal, where do you get that solid grounding to continue and persevere, regardless of everything else that is in motion around you?

Mark:

That's a very good question. Personally, my wife has been the solid ground that has permitted me to continue pursuing this goal. For many people, solid ground comes from having answers and being subject matter experts. But I've realized that having my wife as a sounding board throughout has given me the peace of mind to understand that the courses of action that we've taken, and the compromises that we've been forced to take, to enable the realization of our goals, don't take away from the value that we've created, and the provision of the water that we've managed to achieve in a community of need. And that value created is a very fickle thing. I think, as an American psychologist, Stephen Stosny said, you know, a sunset only has value if only we invest time and effort to appreciate it. So if we take the time to appreciate the little that we've done and achieved in a relatively small space of time, I think we have some reason to be happy and some reason to think that we will achieve our goal in full.

Maribel:

That's beautiful.

Helen:

That's lovely Mark, thank you so much.

Mark:

And thank you guys for inviting me to your podcast to discuss a very emotive issue.

Helen:

Obviously, I can feel that coming from you. And I wish you all the best in your project and like you say, I hope you um, how can I say this? I hope you fail in your project, in that the people who should be doing this, i.e. the state, do take this over and provide the much-needed water to the population, which they should be doing.

Mark:

Thank you. I accept that..

Maribel:

Would that be the greatest success, being forced to close your kiosks, because the community and yeah, the government is providing clean water?

Mark:

That would definitely be the greatest success. Yeah, that's the gold standard of water provision. This is a public good. It's a human right. It should be accessible to anyone and everyone. And it shouldn't be, no one should be priced out of the market of access to clean water. And I think failure to have it removes a lot of people's dignity, and it puts societies in very desperate situations.

Helen:

Thank you so much for sharing this. This has been a very powerful conversation, Mark. Thank you.

Mark:

Thank you very much.

Maribel:

Thank you, Mark. Thank you.

Bonus conversation

Helen:

I've got another question which is coming up, which we didn't have time for in the thing, and that is, because I mean, you talked about the, it's really, it's NGOs, and it's the state that should be providing this service as a public service, public utilities. What was it that made you decide to do this as a private enterprise and not to lobby the state, not to go on the political route and lobby the state in order for them to provide the service that they should be providing?

Mark:

The need to give water to people.

Helen:

The urgency of it?

Mark:

The urgency of it.

Helen:

Okay.

Mark:

Because going that route can open up access to greater funds. And, you know, if you, if you lobby NGOs and you get buy-in from a lot of people they can put in funds there. We did do that initially. As I said, there were many iterations to this before we ended up here. And we went into corporates and we spoke with them and gave them the opportunity to take this from us and use it as their CSI initiative. Where we would run it for them, but it would be their branding, their product and their marketing that they would be getting out of it. And while they were all willing to sit with us and talk to us, nobody was ever really willing to say, Okay, then, let's do it. And that's where we found value in the guys at Puma Petroleum, who managed to chat with us. And they were very forthcoming. They couldn't give us any financial assistance, but then they could help us with access to their forecourts. So we knew that then we would have a location that's secure, that's open 24-hours a day. And there are multiple locations like this throughout the country. So should we then find an investor or funds that would enable us to expand throughout the country, you know, Puma Petroleum would be where we’d base almost all of our kiosks, and we also had numerous conversations with local authorities, councillors and headmasters and members of parliament. And they really wanted this product in the community, because they felt that their communities were being held back by not having dependable access. Because this is really an issue that affects the middle income communities. Because the high income communities can afford to drill an 80 meter borehole and have full access to water at their houses. So even if nothing is coming in from the municipality, their lives don't change that much. You know, it's a minor inconvenience of looking for a provider to drill a borehole for you, and then pipe that into the house. But you will have a flushing toilet at the end of the day. And then on the other end of the scale, NGOs were available, like I said. In the community that we were operating in, there is an operation that was donated by Medicines Sans Frontiers, which gives people access to water for Z$15 a month, which is nothing in comparison to the value that they created. But the issue was that it wasn't viable for people who go to work, or you know, who want a certain taste level of their water. And so what we did was we created a 24-hour access, and we put in treating chemicals in our water, and we put in carbon filters to ensure that our taste, the water always came out crisp and good. And what we have found because whenever we onboard a new customer, and we give them their first five liters, we give them 80 litres for free, you know, just onboarding. What they always say is, they can't believe the taste and the quality of the water. And that's something that we want to maintain. Yeah, you should enjoy drinking water. It shouldn't be something that you think about, do I really want to have this water? I'm dying of thirst but this is what it is, and yeah, that's the journey we've taken and how we ended up as a private enterprise because we couldn't get the buy-in from the corporates that we sought. And the governmental route is fraught with challenges. The red tape to get from seeing somebody in the first place and then actually putting something on site, it's a terribly long process that can take in excess of five years to get everything done. And that then defeats the urgency of the matter. So then we just took the route that we were led, basically, because it wasn't our first choice. So yeah, I think this goes down to the fact that we're not saints, we're not saviors we’re just some people who thought they could do something and try and, where we are now is where we ended up, not because we didn't explore other options, but because this was the one that we could make work.

Helen:

Yeah, yes, fantastic work.

Maribel:

I think it's a fantastic example, regardless of the size of what you're trying to do, it is important. And I hope that in Zimbabwe, it makes municipalities and governments ashamed and get them doing something that should be part of their job description.

Mark:

Yeah, well, we pray, and I'm sure it will come, right.

Helen:

Yeah, I've been sipping water all the way through this. And, you know, I couldn't imagine, you know, like you say, not having a glass of water, and not enjoying it, and not thinking, Oh, I don't want to touch that thing that's coming out of my tap, or that I have to go down, walk miles to get, you know, it's just, it's just so far removed from where I am, I just can't even imagine it.

Mark:

One of my colleagues once, when we're discussing this thing, told me that putting something out there that's good is magnitudes better than launching a perfect product, you know, years down the road? And that's what we've tried to do. And you find that the lessons that you learn from customers, no manner of modeling can give you those insights. You know, when somebody comes to you and says, this actually doesn't work for me. Have you ever thought about doing it this way? That is definitely one of the things that drives our innovation. And it's because we have something on the ground, you know? I pray, we all pray that somebody will see our product and say, Can we get these guys to come in, we will fund them to bring water to our community? On the flip side, you've got, there’s people who will say, Just do it. When it comes to things and, it's a pearl of wisdom that is bandied about a lot in sports and self-improvement sites in circles. And it works there, it's done wonders for them. And it's sort of found its way as being a staple for entrepreneurs seeking to start something, anything. But we found that bravado will never replace the hard work of market research and product development and strategy development. Because if you don't have a sound base, your entrepreneurial journey is going to be short. It doesn't matter how brilliant it starts. It will be short, in spite of you having started so it's not just do it. You start.

Helen:

Yeah. Yeah, start on the right foot. Make sure you have a sound base. Exactly.

Mark:

Yeah, be on a sure foundation. Yeah. The walls are for sure. Anyway, Yeah. But I've taken up so much more of the time that you set aside for this.

Helen:

No, that's fine. It's been absolutely fascinating talking to you, Mark.

Maribel:

Absolutely. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Mark:

Well, thank you, guys.

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About the Podcast

AudaciousNess
A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.