Two UEF PhD students embarked on a quest to solve some of the problems of getting access to clean water in their home country Nigeria. The project started on business course for doctoral students, but quickly expanded and the duo were accepted to the Draft Program.
‘Tomi’ Ikotun, Phd student, University of Eastern Finland
Segun Akinyemi, visiting doctoral researcher, University of Eastern Finland
- Taking a business course at the university can grow in to a real business project
- Developing product for a market that you understand is important
- Willingness to learn fast and understand “mini-MBA’s” worth of business skills can take you to the next level
- You can read the Draft entrepreneurship commentary on the EnviroVesi project here
From business for doctoral students course to a real project
During the 2020 spring session, we attended a Business for Doctoral Students course organized by the University of Eastern Finland. Students were instructed to develop and pitch business ideas during the course. After the pitching exercise, we were advised on the merit of the idea and were encouraged to pursue innovation development. At the time of taking the course, one of the co-founders was working on a water-sector-related assignment in Nigeria. After discussing the water supply sub-sectors problems, the Team researched similar products developed by other countries; the Team then came up with a trio of products, theoretically, best suited for the Nigerian market and conform with the needs and preferences. Thus, our proposed company, named EnviroVesi, is developing household-level water quality treatment solutions.
Networking with North-Karelia area expert organizations
Following the course, we approached Kuopio Water Cluster (KWC) (otherwise called ‘the Cluster’), a foremost water research organisation in the North Karelia region, and registered our proposed company with the Cluster. Such registration aimed to take advantage of the Cluster’s services to test the business idea’s potentials. Simultaneously, we reached out to Apila Group, a small but ingenious team of professionals renowned for recycling and circular economy projects in Finland.
Afterwards, we scheduled appointments with Business Joensuu (BJoe) to discuss the business registration and company formation modalities. Under BJoe’s guidance, several meetings have been held with the Team, KWC and Apila Group to thoroughly discuss the potential of the Team’s idea. Following several meetings with the Team, BJoe has found the potential of establishing a new company and is coaching us on the proper steps to establish a strong, failure-proof worthy company.
In Nigeria, good quality drinking water still not available for all
Nigeria, a country in West Africa, is blessed with abundant water resources for various purposes. The country’s total rainfall decreases from the coast northwards, with the south having an annual rainfall ranging between 1500–4000mm and the extreme north between 500–1500mm. The main rivers flowing through the country are Niger and Benue and their tributaries. Typically, groundwater is tapped and used widely used for domestic, agricultural and industrial supplies.
Present-day Nigeria has a population of 200 million, comprises 36 States, a Federal Capital Territory and 776 local governments. These states’ creation served to accommodate the different heterogeneous tribal groups’ needs forced to amalgamate under the name ‘Niger-Area/Nigeria’ by the colonial masters. Seven years after independence, a civil war broke out and raged for three years. Following the resolution of the civil war, the process of rebuilding began. However, with Nigeria’s successive military regime, multiple states’ creations occurred to satisfy the agitation of the people who wanted democratic rule, amongst other reasons. The creation of states led to chaos, especially in infrastructure dependent sectors like the water sector; thus, only 3.7-19 per cent of the Nigerian population have access to safe drinking water.
Most water pipes were laid in the 1970s, and the rising costs of infrastructure development have meant that the country has to contend with burst pipes and water wastage. Thus, the drinking water supply sector is in an utter mess. People show their resilience by digging wells, boreholes and buying water from vendors in the face of seeming governmental nonchalance to provide water supply access.
There is a need for water filtration and disinfection systems
As a result, Water filtration and disinfection facilities do not meet any standards set locally or internationally; bottled water and any water in containers sold for drinking have high contamination levels. The MICS study published in 2017 concluded that 90.8% of Nigerians’ household drinking water contaminated by E Coli bacteria, and access to piped tap water from the authorities is at an all-time low. Pathogens are, however, the biggest issue in water supply from the water authorities.
UNICEF and WHO, in recent reports, state that bacteria pollute households’ drinking water of seventy-seven per cent of the country’s population at source. However, contamination levels between the source and the household have increased, suggesting that contamination occurs during the storage or transportation of water. This pollution leads to a high prevalence of waterborne diseases, jeopardises the country’s competitiveness, and harms the environment. The use of contaminated drinking water and poor sanitary conditions result in increased vulnerability to waterborne diseases, including diarrhoea, leading to deaths of more than 150,000 children under five annually.
With the deficit in supply from the water supply authorities, people have thus resorted to own-sourcing supply via unregulated groundwater abstraction. Unfortunately, groundwater which many depend on for drinking water is heavily polluted in many places with chemical pollutants and contaminants4. These poisons include heavy metals, which are causative factors in debilitating diseases like dysentery, typhoid, dracunculiasis, hepatitis and cholera. UNICEF and WaterAid have stated that water boiling alone is not adequate in purifying drinking water, as this only kills bacteria and does not eliminate the metals, pesticides, nitrates and other toxins.
Bottled water dominates
Nigerians now depend on water in sachets, bottled water in one-time-use containers or in 19litres for use in water cooler fountains (otherwise called dispensers). However, it has been found that none of these products contains safe-to-drink water. A survey conducted in 2019 by Airaodion et al. on sachet and bottled water quality in one of the states in Nigeria showed no less than thirty per cent of the samples taken from over 200 plus bottle, and sachet water samples contained high levels of bacteria. Water from some areas showed contaminant levels higher than prescribed by WHO Guidelines. The study reiterates the views of Yohanna Audu above that handling, storage, and transportation are contributory factors to the contamination of bottled and sachet water.
There is indeed a plethora of water filtration products in the market, but not many compare to the products planned by our Team. As Nigerians, we are aware of the shortfalls of the existing products in the market. We are developing goods that can be used with whatever current drinking water products people currently have. The plan is not to make them purchase a new product and abandon whatever product they currently use; instead, our products will be used as an add-on to whatever existing products.
Winning the Draft funding
We found out about the Draft Programme from the coaches at Business Joensuu and from application calls published on the University of Eastern Finland Yammer Channel. The application process was relatively straightforward and easy for us to fill out. The pitching process was quite unnerving for us as it was our first pitch for funding; our previous pitches were to garner potential collaborations. The judges’ feedback about our idea helped determine important components like production sites and collaboration potentials.
Agile development and “mini-MBA”
The meeting with the coaches assigned to mentor us during the Draft program was our first experience with our product’s back end. Our coaches, Helena Puhakka-Tarvainen and Iouri Kotorov, have been very resourceful for us and our business processes. They introduced us to Agile thinking and Agile design of product development. Following our first meeting, we were confused about the exact things the coaches wanted us to do. It took us going through a “mini-MBA” to understand what we were to do. Under the coaches’ tutelage, we were able to identify things like our Core Product, the Most Viable Product, and our product’s market potentials.
Understanding user stories, product roadmap and value chain
We developed the User Stories, product roadmap, and Porter’s Value Chain for our product. We were able to identify our core customer and the path he/she would take to procure our product. The coaches helped us put on our business-thinking caps against the innovator caps we had worn before meeting them. They helped us identify the missing components in our pitches and better relate with potential business investors. We also got guidance with other practical steps towards our prototype development, company registration in Finland, and other potential funding sources and the application requirements. Overall it was an exciting process because we realized several innovation ideation steps that we might have missed.
The challenges and uncertainties
Several uncertainties cropped up for us personally and for our business and product development processes. As doctoral students who still have primary research and study responsibilities at the University of Eastern Finland, it has not been a smooth ride combining this with entrepreneurship challenges. However, we quickly realised that when trying to develop a product that is not in our core research arena, we would be juggling a lot to make things work, so we need to be nimble with our thinking and actions.
Two other significant uncertainties that threaten our project are funding and setting up a company. These two issues pose the question of “which comes first? The egg or the chicken?” We require funding to pay for tests being carried out by Kuopio Water Cluster, pay for our products’ circular economy design, pay for product design and prototype manufacturing. However, we cannot pay for these ourselves because we are doctoral students with no access to limited funds. Hence the need to establish a company to access available innovation grants and other possible start-up grants. The Finnish Company Laws state that we need someone with Finnish or EU citizenship to be a member of the Board of Directors. We have been advised that Finnish Citizenship is preferred; however, this requirement has been an insurmountable obstacle for us, as non-EU citizens. We have gone through Suomen Yrityskummit – Business Mentors Finland and Hallituspartnerit ry. We are still in the process of finding the partners and board members who are the right fit for us and our business.
Our plans on taking the business idea forward
We are committed to making this project a reality. At the moment, we have tests running with Kuopio Water Cluster. The results will determine the next few steps we would take. In the meantime, we need to register our company to take advantage of the teeming opportunities available for our product development.
Sources used to write this post were
- Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey Nigeria 2018 https://www.unicef.org/nigeria/media/1406/file/Nigeria-MICS-2016-17.pdf.pdf 3
- Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2017 by WHO https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/jmp-2017/en/
- Africa Water Quality Report 2010 https://www.rsc.org/images/RSC_PACN_Water_Report_tcm18-176914.pdf
- Augustine I Airaodion, Ogbonnaya Ewa, Olaide O Awosanya, Emmanuel O Ogbuagu, Uloaku Ogbuagu, et al. Assessment of Sachet and Bottled Water Quality in Ibadan, Nigeria Glob J Nutri Food Sci. 1(4): 2019. GJNFS.MS.ID.000519.