Big Dreams, Small (and Clever) Projects

Oliver Kopsch
Sunday, March 25, 2012

DWC helped implement this solar pumping station in Ethiopia.
DWC helped implement this solar pumping station in Ethiopia.

Oliver Kopsch is a clean-energy enabler. His company, DecRen Water Consult (DWC), based in Germany, designs decentralized water systems powered by renewable energies. We talked to Oliver about his approach, and lessons learned from some recent projects.

The business model.

We are a private commercial company, based in Germany. We started about 10 years ago, after a few of us came to the conclusion that we weren’t doing what we were meant to do. We started by selling solar desalination products, but we realized there were so many clever solutions for saving, purifying and supplying water in a sustainable way – but not enough good communication to those in need about the options that are ready to go, and not enough integration of solutions that can address multiple problems. So now, instead of selling products addressing only parts of a problem, we deal in advising on technologies and assisting with execution for integrated and sustainable solutions.

We help clients address all areas of renewable energy and water, such as solar pumps, appropriate water saving and irrigation systems, eco-sanitation, grey water recycling, waste water treatment and reuse, rainwater harvesting, solar desalination, and other things. We offer a one-stop solutions package, from picking technologies best suited to meet specific needs, on site installation and training to developing operations models to ensure the project is self-sustaining. Our clients are demanding professionals, such as foundations doing water projects in the global South, private clients who want to go green in a cost-efficient way, and local nonprofits working with the poor, among others. Although our scale is very grassroots and bottom up, today’s clients demand solutions way beyond current practices.

Ethiopian solar water stations.

Sufficient drinking water is a huge challenge in rural Ethiopia, and reliable electricity sources are hardly available. Surface water sources are scarce and usually contaminated, and bottled water (when available) is often an expensive choice. We worked with a private foundation in Germany that was approached by Ethiopia for donations for well-digging and diesel powered pumps, the usual kind of requests. This foundation was not satisfied to just pay for the wells and then being asked later to cover for follow-up costs for repairs, fuel, etc.. They were in need of a professional and sustainable response to this challenge. We helped them determine the best technologies – two solar-powered pump and water purification stations in this case, which not only pumps and purifies clean water for local people’s consumption, but also provides sufficient green power for a cell-phone charging service. Then we helped them devise a plan to ensure the project is self-sustaining without further financial or moral obligations. In this case, that meant helping to create a local nonprofit organization to operate and maintain the pumping station and receive the revenues from water and energy sales at affordable prices. Now we have an operational agreement with this group, and the foundation gets regular reports (including financial reports) on how well the project is going. They’re filling over 350 20-liter containers of water a day per well. About 15,000 villagers per well now have access to a steady, safe supply of drinking water year-round.

Because the solar filling station is doing well, it’s helping create other social businesses associated with it. The group running it provides local jobs (salaries are paid for by the sale of water and solar charging). The station has also attracted a number of micro-businesses – tea and coffee sales and the like, which cater to those coming for water. And because there are no running costs, no imported fuel, all the money generated by the station stays in the region. The sense of ownership makes it a much stronger project.

The group who runs the station has been great at responding to local requests with ideas for expansion to meet other needs in the community in a service provider role. They want to build a washing station for clothes and personal hygiene next, co-funded by the revenues created locally. Not only does the foundation have no further need to support the well operation financially, it gets professional reports about its development. On top of that, the local community is more and more in the position to pay its own development. The local and regional governments have been very supportive and are interested in the project, and hope to duplicate its success elsewhere.