Interview with Agua Pura Natural founder Joana Bacallo
If you take a flight with Emirates Airlines, you might find your cabin supervised by Joana Bacallo, a Phillipina expat who has been living in Dubai for the past seven years. What you might not know, is that the same woman who is making sure you have a comfortable flight also holds an MBA in Aviation Management and is a successful social entrepreneur. A few years ago, Joana made the challenging lifestyle choice of becoming an entrepreneur while pursuing her full-time job at the airline. Prompted by the difficult clean drinking water situation in her homeland, she founded Agua Pura Natural, a water refilling station in Manila providing clean drinking water through advanced purifying technology. Joana told us all about her venture in an inspiring interview.
Tell us about Agua Pura: What is its mission?
Agua Pura natural was built to provide clean and pure water to communities. We take the lead in alleviating the number one health problem, which is unsafe and inadequate water supply in the community we serve. Agua Pura Natural uses advanced technology of reverse osmosis to provide high-quality supply of purified water for a very affordable price as compared to others in the market.
What motivated you to start the company?
A few years back while on a trip in Manila I realized that the only way we could get drinking water was to buy overpriced purified water from the big grocery store or wait around for the whole day to have it delivered. I asked myself the question that would symbolize the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey: “How come we still have to go to the grocery store to buy a bottle of water to drink, and it is relatively expensive! The water guys around the street corner that deliver pure water take forever to come by. You just can’t win! How come we still can’t drink tap water?”
I spent that holiday walking around my community, on hot afternoons, taking the tuk-tuk or tricycle to ask neighbors around on their consumption of drinking water getting first-hand experiences and talking with the community to get a better understanding of the lack of service in this area.
At this point the first people I consulted were my friends, they live in different parts of town and they played a huge part in my continuous research. Without hesitation, although from a different industry, they have given me insightful feedback to push through with the start-up idea.
When I went back to Dubai, I found myself requesting for work flights to the manufacturing capitals of the world. Trips to China were my way to look for machines to purify water. The next few steps were holidays and days off spent back and forth between Dubai and Manila. Many sleepless nights of planning and pulling resources were needed to start a shop that will house an industrial machine to purify the tap water and sell it for a competitive price.
After obtaining the reverse osmosis machine, I composed a team of young boys and girls in Manila that would be responsible for the set up of this shop. One of them is assigned to coordinate all the permits needed to operate and other legal paperwork. I assigned some construction to dismantle my own apartment and attach pipes for my tanks connecting the tap to make a line of faucets that will deliver the pure drinking water.
How does Agua Pura work and how is it operated?
Agua Pura Natural is proud to have successfully installed and operate a fully operational 21 multi-stages of automatic water purification. From the connected tap water stored in a raw tank, the water, which is not yet drinkable, is pumped through a series of filters as the first step of ensuring that water flowing through these pipes is absolutely pure to drink. The filters are called multimedia filter, activated carbon filter and water softener filter are responsible for the backwashing process. This is the machine’s way to maintain the filters to be reused all over again in the purification process. It also filters the chemicals and heavy chlorine present in the raw water from the tap.
Once the water goes through the filtering process, it is stored in a separate stainless water tank (can hold up to 775 liters) and then pumped into another line of micron sediment filters that will prepare the water to pass through an ultraviolet sterilizer. This is a disinfecting stage to kill the bacteria and microorganisms so they won’t multiply. The pure drinkable water is considered the finished product and is then available to be funneled in faucets in the shop.
Compared to the other water companies in the town we cater to, the pricing for Agua Pura Natural’s product is highly competitive. Community members do not have to go to big stores in the center to carry and buy bulks of bottles of water to drink for the week. We receive orders and deliver regularly, promptly and efficiently either at small or big scale even in the steepest street corner in town since we use different modes of delivery with our tuk-tuk, trolleys, motorbike and a mini truck.
Quality is paramount in our operation and everyone is dedicated to this commitment of high standard despite being a small shop. We subject and follow strict standards of the Philippine Department of Health for Water and Sanitation.
How does Agua Pura’s work benefit society and promote social entrepreneurship?
This start-up was built for and operated by the people from the community it serves. The team employed are young people from the town, and it provides them with a livelihood. They are continuously empowered and trained to succeed.
Since the establishment of the start-up, the team has been involved with relief operations in the South of the Philippines. This is one of our biggest projects during the devastating typhoon season. We gave emergency relief water through the power of crowd funding. I was in different parts of the world traveling for work when it happened and the only way for me to reach people back home is to use technology. We have sent thousands of bottled water relief for a remote community in Leyte, before the government help arrived during that difficult time.
The very basic human need for water is WHY we do what we do. This keeps us grounded and moving all at once. We want to take this social responsibility of community involvement and even adopt more communities in some water-stressed area in the Philippines in line with our scaling up in the next few months or year in operation.
What were the greatest challenges you faced getting to where you are today?
The greatest challenge working in a developing world and its lowest communities are always going to be related to the human aspects involved. There are often people in public policy and government that act as barriers to causes such as ours, especially if it is of novelty and not the usual norms. Corruption is a big issue for entrepreneurs setting up their operations. It is also a challenge to hire the right team, especially when I decided I wanted to involve the local youth in this start-up.
The community itself also represented a challenge to us introducing a new concept for sustainability. There was distrust at first and they didn’t believe that a small community water shop could provide cheap good products and efficient service. On a personal note, one of my greatest challenges as an entrepreneur with a full-time job overseas was that my other commitment of funding my sister’s university education and my business overlapped. Financing and capital were very tight and in the initial phase, I really did struggle to make ‘ends meet’.
What does it take to succeed here and what are the challenges and opportunities?
People whom we transact with find it difficult to grasp the idea that a young female millennial entrepreneur like me can dare to move around and about and get things started. To build successful enterprises in the Philippines, there is still a stereotype that one inherits it from a family business or one has to have a great amount of capital to start with.
Despite the frustrating part, I see sparks of optimism that things will get better, one community at a time, even in the smallest possible way through my start-up. I use this as an opportunity to speak the language that the youth will understand as I challenge them and inspire them to maximize capabilities to affect and uplift communities.
I feel that there is so much potential to create change in how things work if we can effectively look back and contribute to the place we came from.
The company is relatively young. What are the things you have learned so far and how do you plan on achieving growth going forward?
I have learned that it is hard to maintain my unconventional lifestyle. But when I feel irrelevant or ignored at times, I repeatedly reflect on the WHY I started this venture and it makes me smile
Operating this water refilling station start-up and earning through this venture is not just about the money. Our commitment to the quality of the water product we provide for the community which is our priority and non-negotiable. The great opportunity here is the need of the community for water to drink and the purpose of this start-up will continuously serve them and help them grow.
What is your vision for Agua Pura?
I aspire to expand my operation to other locations in Manila and eventually to the provinces, where small communities suffer from water stress. I want to build and enterprise that has an enormous social impact on the community. Expansion of our business will mean that people can access clean and affordable water. The startup could be franchised and could multiply in any location that experiences these troubles. But the social commitment to communities will always go hand in hand with this business model.
What advice do you have for other business leaders looking to grow and succeed with their enterprise?
The only way an entrepreneur can achieve success in starting, growing and maintaining an enterprise is to run in a holistic way. They should not forget the ideals that made them start the business is in the first place. An entrepreneurial journey is a lifestyle choice. It is only you who can answer the WHY behind the creation of this business. The motivation in growing a business should align with the solution to a problem that you and a wider community face. Also, maximize the use of technology wherever you can and where it makes sense.
My definition of success drastically evolved after the years of running this enterprise and providing clean water to people. People should come first (the employee or the customers served) and as a leader, you should lift them up because they are the vital factors that make the enterprise succeeds. No one does it alone! The entrepreneur is there to delegate and to empower people. That is the real return on investment.