Fresh water makes good neighbours

by Sarah Bird
Cambridge, Massachusetts - "You're back, and you're in one piece!" is a phrase that I have been welcomed with alarmingly often over the past two weeks. In Cambridge, it is apparently normal to imagine that I might not survive three months in Pakistan. In fact, it is surprising that I have returned from Pakistan healthy but not because of terrorism or religious extremism. The leading killer in Pakistan is diarrhoea, and this is what took me there, to found a transnational start-up: SaafWater.

SaafWater is a social enterprise, a for-profit business that tackles a social problem. In our case, the challenge is a lack of access to clean drinking water. "Saaf" is the Urdu and Hindi word for "clean", and like our name, our business straddles the East-West divide.

Dr. Aamir Khan, a Pakistani public health specialist, approached my lab at MIT in April 2006 because we had developed a technology called PortaTherm, which he was interested in using in his vaccine trials in Karachi. A few months later, I travelled to Pakistan to investigate the possibility of a partnership.

On my first trip to Karachi that August, I was blown away by the diversity and energy of the city. I was surprised by how easily different cultures lived next to one another in this bustling cosmopolitan mega-city of 15 million people. The most visible sign of this is the diversity in dress. On any street, you can find men and women wearing jeans and t-shirts alongside those wearing the traditional shalwar kameez, a knee-length shirt over loose trousers, or the burqa, a garment that fully covers a woman's body, head and face. It was a fascinating change from the halls of MIT.

SaafWater harnesses this diversity by using women as a direct selling force: they go door-to-door in their own communities educating people on clean-water issues and selling the SaafWater product to their friends and neighbours. The SaafWater product is an ultra-low-cost, daily dose of chlorine that is sufficient to treat a family's water for a day. This technology has not only already been used for more than a century in the developed world, but has been effectively re-modelled into a household product called the Safe Water System by the United States Centers for Disease Control.

The idea for SaafWater evolved over time with Khan and his team at InterActive Research and Development in Karachi at one end, and at the other, MIT's "entrepreneurial ecosystem", which is comprised of myself and Khan's cousin, Khalid Saiduddin, who was completing his MBA at MIT's Sloan School of Management. (Pakistani families tend to be large and the networks extensive!)

This setup gave us the opportunity to bring fresh perspectives to a persistent problem and to quickly try ideas out on the ground. Our efforts paid off when we won $10,000 in MIT's $100K Entrepreneurship Competition enough to get the company off the ground and begin our pilot in Karachi.
Much like the American surprise at my safe return, when in Pakistan, people often seem equally surprised that I'm there at all. They often ask, with understandable curiosity, "Why Pakistan?"

I have found that starting a business in Pakistan makes good sense. Pakistan has the sixth largest population in the world with 160 million people, two densely populated mega-cities (Karachi and Lahore), and an acute need for clean water products. Also, English is the language of business and government, the regulatory environment is foreign-business friendly, and the economy is booming with 7% growth last year. As Ken Morse, the Managing Director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, put it, "[Pakistan] is a seething cauldron of opportunity."

Ken and colleagues at MIT and the MIT Club of Pakistan have been working across the East-West divide in collaboration with the Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs (OPEN). They have started an Entrepreneurship Network in Pakistan which has hosted a series of workshops and have brought together the forces of MIT OPEN and the Enterprise Forum of Pakistan to launch a Business Acceleration Competition aimed at enabling the countless technology entrepreneurs already doing great things in Pakistan to achieve their full global potential.

Everyone involved in these events sees the benefits of transatlantic collaboration. For those of us on this side of the pond, it opens up exciting opportunities and new markets; on the other side, it brings new ways of doing business, improved access to capital and markets, and a renewed sense of optimism and fun.

And so as I return to life in Massachusetts, the beauty of the Pakistani mountains and the bustle of Karachi call me back. For me, and for SaafWater, having your feet in two cultures is not only fascinating and rewarding, it makes great business sense.


* Sarah Bird is a research assistant at MIT's D-Lab and a co-founder of SaafWater, Inc. ( This article is part of a series on joint Muslim-Western business ventures distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 6 November 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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