Ecofiltro: A thirs...

Photo: Ecofiltro Guatamela PlantEcofiltro Guatamela Plant

Ecofiltro: A thirst for social enterprise

Ecofiltro CEO Philip Wilson talks about the company's new Guatemala plant

In an exemplary showing of what a sound business model can do for a social mission, Guatemala-based Ecofiltro - a supplier of green, affordable household water filtration systems- opened a new manufacturing plant last week, employing over 110 people and clearing a path for future international expansion.

Ecofiltro’s first foray into the global spotlight came at infoDev’s 4th Global Forum in 2011, where the company was chosen as a Top20 SME winner. In the rest of 2011, Ecofiltro added 43 permanent employees and 73 catalog saleswomen; it closed the year with revenues upward of USD $1 million and its inventory sold out through the end of March—which led to the opening of the company’s newest plant.

The company uses sustainable, low-cost materials like carbon and clay to make filters that deliver clean drinking water with minimal infrastructure needs. The new plant will ship 120,000 filters in 2012 and 240,000 in 2013.

For Ecofiltro CEO Philip Wilson, the tools of private enterprise are often the best suited to driving social change. In 2009 he took the helm of the company and transformed it from a modest family-run nonprofit into a thriving business venture with a streamlined national distribution chain.

“NGOs work when there’s a disaster, to get funds and bring help where it’s needed,” says Wilson. “But when you deal with sustainability, I have serious doubts about them.” Instead of tying clean water to future aid, Wilson has devised clever distribution schemes to make his filters accessible even to the poorest customers.

Notably, the company secured an agreement with BanRural, a 1,000-branch Guatemalan bank which primarily serves low-income people, to sell Ecofiltro products and provide financing for each filter purchase. As the filter slashes the monthly cost of drinking water from $15 to $3 per household, the $30 units effectively pay for themselves over time, which makes them a hit with homes and businesses.

Beyond expanding access to clean water and curbing infectious disease, Ecofiltro also applies its weight to the problem of gender inequality—all of the company’s part-time employees are women who, Wilson explains, often have a personal stake in the product.

In Guatemala, “when a child gets sick, the mother is the most affected,” Wilson says. “Safe water is very important to them.”

Ecofiltro and Wilson have earned a number of industry accolades since the Top20 award. Most recently, Wilson was named Central America’s and the Dominican Republic's Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

The firm plans to develop a presence in El Salvador and Honduras by the end of the year.  The ultimate goal of Ecofiltro is to build 100 factories in 100 countries by the year 2020.

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