With New Partner, Wello Rolling Down ‘the Fastest Path to Scale’
Editor’s note: Throughout 2017, NextBillion is organizing content around a monthly theme, dedicating special attention to a specific sector alongside our broader coverage. This post is part of our focus on the environment for the month of March.
Social enterprise Wello today announced it will license sales and manufacturing of its main product, the WaterWheel, to Mumbai-based Nilkamal Limited in India and Sri Lanka. The publicly traded Nilkamal is one of Asia’s largest manufacturers and sellers of injection mold plastic furniture and other plastic home goods. The agreement paves the way for significant scale for Wello, whose WaterWheel product is designed to ease the burden of rural water collection and transportation, a task often relegated to women and girls, with an easy-to-push barrel. The WaterWheel will join a new line of Nilkamal “social impact” products, which includes low-flow toilets and school desks, catering to low-income or vulnerable customers.
The WaterWheel has been widely covered in the media, which apparently caught the attention of managers at Nilkamal. Wello sells the WaterWheel in Pakistan, Malawi, Zambia, Bangladesh and Haiti, but the company’s ambition to scale up as an independent enterprise met with distribution and logistical challenges.
I spoke by email with Cynthia Koenig, founder and CEO of Wello, about what the deal means not only for the for-profit firm, but also other social enterprises facing the perennial struggle of scaling their products. (Disclosure: Wello has previously partnered with the William Davidson Institute, the parent organization of NextBillion, on WDI’s summer internship program).
Anderson: For those who don’t know about Wello, can you briefly describe the company and how it got started?
Koenig: Wello is a social venture focused on the goal of making clean water more easily available. We co-create solutions that people not just need – but want. Our flagship product, the WaterWheel, is a 45-liter rolling drum that easily “rolls” a day’s supply of drinking water for a household.The vision for Wello was born out of years of personal experience living and working in water-scarce environments. While living and working in remote villages in Latin America and Africa, I personally struggled to haul enough water to meet my daily needs, and I saw firsthand how the time, physical, health and emotional burdens of water collection disproportionately affected women and girls’ access to opportunity, ultimately trapping them and their entire families in the cycle of poverty.
A few years later, while pursuing an MS/MBA at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainability at the University of Michigan, I took advantage of university grant funding to better understand the underlying factors driving the global water crisis and explore the feasibility of business approaches to poverty alleviation. What was supposed to be a three-month trip became what is now Wello when the feedback I received on our early concepts met with a lot of interest from potential consumers.
Anderson: Before you reached this deal with Nilkamal Limited, how would you classify Wello in terms of its reach and scale? That is, would you say it was still in startup mode or beyond?
Koenig: Wello was just entering growth mode when we began negotiations with Nilkamal. We had commercialized the WaterWheel in mid-2015, and had a year of sales experience behind us and enough capital to support our plans for growth.
Anderson: How did the discussion with Nilkamal take shape? What was attractive about partnering with them?
Koenig: Nilkamal reached out to Wello after seeing a news story about the WaterWheel. At the time, our team was laser-focused on validating our sales and distribution assumptions and raising seed funding to support our future growth; I assumed it would be a few years before Wello would have enough traction to be interesting enough to attract the attention of a huge corporate like Nilkamal. So, I didn’t take them seriously until we’d had a few meetings. But in fact, Nilkamal was the top of my list of potential scale partners for the WaterWheel long before we ever had a conversation. As an unknown company entering the market with a new product in a new product category (rolling water containers), I knew we had a long, slow road ahead of us. On the other hand, Nilkamal is a household name in India, one that consumers associate with durability and good value; by teaming up, Wello is able to leverage their reputation and manufacturing expertise to amplify the impact of the WaterWheel.
Anderson: Were negotiations with Nilkamal complicated by the fact that Wello is a social enterprise? If so, how?
Koenig: Not at all. In fact, I think Wello’s double bottom line made the question of whether to license to Nilkamal twice as easy. Their potential customer base for the WaterWheel is orders of magnitude greater than Wello’s – it was clear that this was the fastest path to scale.
Anderson: What does this deal mean for the WaterWheel in terms of distribution and overall impact in India?
Koenig: Nilkamal Limited is the world’s largest manufacturer of molded plastic furniture, and Asia’s largest producer of molded plastic products. Their extensive manufacturing infrastructure is supported by a wide and strong sales network, operating through 39 regional offices and 41 warehouses spread across India.
Wello has licensed our WaterWheel design to Nilkamal, granting them the exclusive right to manufacture and distribute the WaterWheel in India and Sri Lanka. Most immediately, this means that we’re able to better respond to demand and fill larger orders much more quickly.
Anderson: Is Wello a fundamentally different company as a result of this agreement in terms of the staff or other factors?
Koenig: Yes! As a result of licensing the WaterWheel to Nilkamal, Wello has been able to streamline our operations. We’re able to focus more of our time on new product development and expanding to new markets, rather than on operations and logistics.
Anderson: What lessons did you take away from this experience and do you have any advice for social entrepreneurs who might be going down a similar path as you did with Wello?
Koenig: My experience is a good example of what sets social ventures apart from the mainstream. More often than not, we’re addressing unmet needs in a new way, which means that there aren’t tried and true models to follow or experts to consult. In this case, there aren’t many examples of early-stage social ventures like Wello forming partnerships with multinationals. So, one lesson I’ve learned many times over is to trust my instincts. From my earliest conversations with Nilkamal, it was clear that our incentives were aligned, which gave me the patience to persevere.
Top image: A warehouse containing the WaterWheel, Wello’s flagship product. All images courtesy of Wello.
Scott Anderson is a contributing editor to NextBillion.