All of us here in Portland can now relate to what a pain it is to boil drinking water. We only had to do it for a few days during the recent E. Coli scare, and we grumbled incessantly. Now, imagine having to boil your drinking water multiple times every single day. Hundreds of millions of people do it, and Safi Water Works believes there is a better way.
In fact, all it takes is a bike and an ultraviolet bulb. Using this elegantly simple, proven technology, Safi Water Works will not only create clean drinking water, but also bring entrepreneurial business opportunities to developing world cities. Co-founder and CEO Amy Doering Smith tells us more:
The spark that inspired the birth of Safi Water Works: As a water systems engineer with more than 25 years of experience, Safi Water Works co-founder and inventor Paul Berg witnessed first-hand the issue of unsafe drinking water while living in Kampala, Uganda. Even though water flowed through pipes laid by a municipality—an “improved” source–boiling water to make it safe was a necessity. Paul knew that there had to be a better way. This was the early spark for what would ultimately become Safi Water Works.
The problem that Safi Water Works solves: Safi Water Works is designed to bring clean water technology solutions to urban environments in the developing world. In reality, we are addressing more than the issue of unsafe drinking water. By pairing the proven technology of UV disinfection with an entrepreneurial business model to create micro-franchise opportunities for developing world entrepreneurs, we are creating employment opportunities for some of the world’s poorest people and providing an opportunity for them to lift themselves out of poverty.
The story behind the name: The word safi is a Swahili word meaning clean or pure. Swahili is a widely spoken language in East/Southeast Africa. We wanted a name for our business that would have some level of universal appeal. With Safi, though you may not speak Swahili, the word is onomatopoeic and when we tested it out with people we found that they assumed it mean safe. Something we have learned along the way is that safi is very similar to words in both Hindi and Arabic that also mean clean.
What sets you apart from your competition: Safi is taking the proven technology of Ultraviolet (UV) disinfection and packaging it in a new way, one that is more accessible to the consumer. Typically, UV is used in large municipal systems or small personal use products. Safi Water Works provides a community-based solution where multiple vendors serve entire communities through micro-franchises.
The best thing about being an entrepreneur: The best thing about being an entrepreneur, for me, is building a team of committed individuals who share a vision—in our case, clean water for the developing world—and have the necessary skills and experience to turn that vision into action. Every day, I am excited about the possibilities and our potential to impact change on a global scale. I go to bed fulfilled and wake up renewed and ready to keep charging ahead.
The biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date: My biggest surprise in my experience thus far has been the number of people willing to talk with me, mentor me, and help me make connections that are helping to move Safi forward. There are so many incredible human resources—in Portland, in the Pacific Northwest, and beyond—who have offered their support, but, as an entrepreneur, you must be willing to ask for that help.
What keeps you up at night: Safi is providing a solution that has the potential to impact millions of lives. This motivates me AND terrifies me—and most definitely keeps me up at night!
Best entrepreneurial advice you have received: I have been fortunate to receive lots of pearls of wisdom from so many different people since we first decided to launch Safi Water Works. One of the things that has stuck with me, however, came from Abby Sarmac at the Lemelson Foundation. She told me to really spend time studying why others working on clean water solutions before us have failed. I appreciated that she gave me some specific examples of companies that the Foundation itself had supported that went on to fail. She stressed that making the same mistakes they made would be a shame when instead we could really learn from them. That advice has guided me every step of the way.
Your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur: My #1 piece of advice is to stick with it. People will tell you how hard it will be and that is an understatement; it will be the hardest thing that you have ever done. You will have days, weeks and perhaps even months where it seems that you are trying to accomplish the impossible and you want to give up. DON’T! Surround yourself with people who believe in what you are doing and make it happen. As Nelson Mandela said, ““The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
What wild success looks like: My vision of becoming wildly successful means that Safi Water Works has impacted millions of lives around the planet and reversed the trajectory of lives lost each year from preventable water-related illness and disease. Simple, right?!
Your favorite local business: My favorite local business is Supportland. I am honored to be a holder of one of the original Supportland cards issued in 2010. The concept of a card that “rewards” you for supporting local independent businesses while simultaneously encouraging you to shop at other local independent businesses—all with one card—is genius. My Supportland card and Android app together enable me to easily support my local community and learn about other businesses of which I may be unaware. Supportland epitomizes so many of the elements that I love about Portland: local, collaborative, and fun!
What you wanted to be when you grew up: When I was in middle school, a Peace Corps volunteer came to my school during a career day event and I pretty much decided then and there that I wanted to drop out of school and save the world. Fortunately, my parents encouraged me to try finishing high school and perhaps even college before jumping into this endeavor, which I did. Although I never did join the Peace Corps, I am certainly using my degrees in African Studies and Cultural Anthropology on a daily basis!
Benefits and challenges of starting a business in Oregon: Oregon is an excellent place to start a business, especially as a social entrepreneur. Oregon—and specifically Portland—embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and has an incredibly talented, supportive community of entrepreneurs and mentors. I am constantly reading about entrepreneurs who have faced a sea of naysayers; that has not been my experience in Oregon. I have received plenty of constructive criticism—and hope to continue receiving it—but no one has ever said to me “That’s impossible!” or “You will absolutely never be able to make this happen.” And, that matters!