A twist of the tap is all it takes in Singapore for access to clean, drinkable water. So the idea of a local water entrepreneur strikes one as a little odd at first notice.
For 25-year old Lim Chong Tee, however, a community outreach trip to Cambodia in his younger years made such an impression that he started seeing this everyday resource in a starkly different light.
“I saw villagers and children drinking water that was murky and green. It really left a mark on me. Although we talk often about saving water and not taking it for granted, it struck me then that clean water is such a precious resource.”
Along with a group of like-minded schoolmates, the engineering graduate took part in a competition to design water filtration products for humanitarian purposes in 2014, and won. Not wanting their design to go to waste, the team built a prototype and introduced it to communities in neighbouring countries without ready access to clean water.
Their trips to Indonesia and Cambodia were not only an opportunity to test out the portable water filtration product, they also came away firmer in the belief that their innovation could change lives for the better.
“We saw how happy these people were to have clean water and realised that this was something that we could do to change the way people were living.”
Mr Lim observed that the villagers’ lives were transformed in significant ways. Having clean water to drink, they became healthier. With easier access, the women no longer had to travel long distances for water of dubious quality, and could devote this time to more meaningful activities like supplementing the family income.
Armed with a newfound conviction in the social impact of their water filtration technology, Mr Lim, along with his co-founders Mr David Pong and Mr Vincent Loka, started WateROAM, a social enterprise that provides easy access to clean water in disaster zones or rural communities.
The ingenuity of their products lies in the simplicity of use. The ROAMfilter Lite is a foldable membrane bag filter that is compact and easy to carry around. Its nondescript aesthetic belies the power of the device to purify dirty, sand-riddled water in a matter of minutes. Rural villagers who find it difficult to adopt complicated technology can simply pull out the device and after a quick set-up, filter enough water for a family of seven over a span of three years.
Being lightweight, large quantities of the filter can be transported to disaster-hit areas in a single trip – a property that has come in handy during the Myanmar floods, Vanuatu cyclone and the earthquake in Nepal that happened in 2015.
Working with relief organisations on-ground enables the WateROAM team to understand the needs of the villagers better and to provide consultation on how to improve water quality in the local area. In a year-long collaboration with World Vision Malaysia in 2015, the team lent their expertise to help alleviate the critical situation in the flood-ravaged Gua Musang region, making a few trips to the disaster zones to understand the villagers’ needs more closely.
Through these collaborations with non-profit workers, Mr Lim has also met kindred spirits who inspire him to push on amid the many challenges that come with social entrepreneurship. On one of his first trips to Cambodia, he met a local aid worker who has devoted years of his life to finding ways to improve the livelihood of villagers in the rural community.
Mr Lim mused, “In the field of social development, it can be quite daunting at times because things don’t move the way you want it to go, and it takes a long time for change to settle in. But what I’ve learnt from him is the patience to see that it’s not about the immediate result, but about how the act of giving can really go a long way in transforming the lives of people on the ground.”
To date, more than 15,000 beneficiaries have enjoyed access to clean water using WateROAM’s innovations.
Not content with just providing water solutions to those who need it most, WateROAM has grand plans to work with rural villagers to create sustainable microeconomies, leveraging their heavier-duty innovations that can pump out clean water for larger communities.
“We’re looking into sustainable ways to allow villagers to get clean water, at the same time monetise it and be able to distribute water to even more people. This process will allow young people to become water entrepreneurs.”
To learn more about WateROAM’s work in disaster relief and rural development, and possibly support their cause, visit their website.