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Madhavi and her two daughters standing next to their water filter.

A household water filter means less work boiling contaminated water over a wood fire for Madhavi and safe drinking water for daughters Mani (left) and Anjana.

A clever collaboration in rural India means Madhavi’s family has safe water to drink

Mani holds the stainless steel cup firmly in two hands, gives her mother a big grin, and downs the clean water, every gulp loud enough to make everyone around her laugh. Then the four-year-old runs to the sari that is tied to the rafter of her new house, sits inside, and swings.

Mani was not in such impish form when she was two. “She was so sick, I was scared,” her mother, Madhavi, says. The toddler was struck with diarrhea, vomiting, and a high fever, a combination that can kill small children. The likely cause: the family’s drinking water, which comes from a shallow well and contains bacteria, viruses, and fecal matter.

A doctor advised Madhavi to boil her children’s drinking water to keep them safe—and Madhavi did for over a year, but it was challenging. She couldn’t afford the extra cooking fuel, so she boiled the water over a wood fire behind the house. It was time consuming, and her kids didn’t like the smoky taste.

Clean water and sturdy walls

Then one day, an object unlike anything she’d ever seen before was brought to her microfinance group. It was a household water filter. Madhavi knew immediately she had to have it.

It’s expensive for water filter companies to create distribution networks to far-flung villages like Madhavi’s. As it was, the 1,350 rupees (US$27) price tag was almost one-third of Madhavi’s monthly income. If sales reps had to go door-to-door to market the filters, it would drive the price even higher.

But Madhavi was part of a PATH pilot project to get water filters into rural homes through microfinance groups. PATH linked water filter companies with local microfinance organizations, the sales reps gave demonstrations during microfinance meetings, and group members could take out low-interest loans and pay them back in installments.

An ideal customer

Madhavi was the first of the ten women in her group to take out a loan to buy a filter, and she paid it back in six months. She was clearly an ideal first buyer.

Just look next door. What appears to be a barn—the crumbling building has cows in it—is the family’s old house. With microfinance loans and a lot of labor, Madhavi was able to dramatically improve the production of the family’s fields of cotton, rice, and lentils. With the extra income, they were able to build the new house with its stone floor, tile roof, and sturdy walls.

“Being able to take loans feels good because you’re able to plan and repay slowly,” Madhavi says. As for her investment in the water filter, she says it was a sound one. “I don’t have the work of the wood fire, the taste is better, and the water is cleaner.”

Spreading the laughter

Madhavi is a microfinance success story, and her success has radiated, just like PATH hoped. When other women in her group saw how much Madhavi liked her filter—and how healthy her children were—they were inspired to make the investment, too. The model has clicked, and more families in this Indian village far from any city have clean drinking water.

When Mani grins, she is, for the moment, the most important clean water drinker in the world. She owes a lot to her hardworking mother, but right now she just wants a push on her swing and to make everyone laugh again.

Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.