[Story and photo by Mike Foley: Published originally in the BYU-Hawaii online “Newsroom,” January 20, 2004]
Humanitarian marketing: selling desperately needed
products for people who can’t afford to buy them
The co-founder and partner in a unique water pasteurization equipment company with widespread potential in developing countries faces the challenge of trying to market a desperately needed product to people who can’t afford to buy it.
Will Hartzwell [pictured at right], president of the Honolulu-based Safe Water Systems, told BYU-Hawaii business students in the Jan. 20 Entrepreneurship Lecture Series that he and his partner formed their company about nine years ago with the “very powerful humanitarian mission…to significantly improve the health quality of life worldwide” through clean water.
“Our philosophy is the more we make, the more we can help people…and benefit the entire world,” he said.
Hartzwell shared some startling statistics: “More than five million people die every year from diseases they get from water, 80% of illnesses in developing countries are transmitted through water, and 1.2 billion people lack sufficiently sanitary water.”
He added that while boiling disinfects water, countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras “have already burned off 80% of their forests, and in Africa some people spend six-to-eight hours a day looking for firewood.”
Hartzwell’s partner devised a relatively simple solar Pasteurization system, similar to solar water heating devices commonly used in Hawaii, that effectively heats water to 175 degrees. “We can produce safe drinking water for about 50 cents per person per year. Even people in very poor, developing countries pay more than that right now,” he said.
“We are a classic grassroots entrepreneur start-up company,” Hartzwell said. “We’re not just selling a thing. We’re trying to make meaningful differences in people’s lives.”
For example, Safe Water Systems has installed about 1,400 units, including large ones at the national hospital in Samoa and an orphanage in Cambodia, approximately 100 family-sized units in the Marshall Islands, and also at schools and orphanages in Africa.
“The people who need our products the most are the ones who can least afford them. Consequently, we’re not selling directly to them,” Hartzwell said.
He explained the company uses many channels to get their products to market, including agents, representatives, strategic partners in various geographic areas or markets, distributors, churches, foreign governments and foundations as well as non-government, non-profit, humanitarian and other service organizations.
He admitted it’s a challenge, but a worthwhile one. “Business is about building relationships, and outside the United States, this is even more profound. You have to know your customers and build these relationships before you can do business with them. We spend a great deal of our time educating customers because it’s a new product.”
“Working with marketing agents, we found, is one of the most effective ways to build that relationship. They have that relationship previously.”
Hartzwell pointed out another challenge is motivating customers “to take action. This is especially true of bureaucratic organizations. Actually getting them to take action is really a trick. It requires work and energy.”
Because their products have worldwide potential, Hartzwell stressed planning is critical. “It’s very difficult to be everything to everyone, everywhere, so we must be proactive with the kinds of customers we want.”
“A business plan is a work in progress, that you constantly have to update,” he continued. “Having a plan is one thing, implementing it is another.”
Hartzwell also advised the business students to “love what you do. If you don’t, you’re not going to succeed. There are always going to be hard times and challenges. Business is like a marriage: It’s a long-term commitment.”