Is this plant the key to sustainable drinking water?

BARCELONA -- A billion people worldwide lack clean water. One start-up looks to use plants to provide an affordable, chemical-free alternative to the current costly market.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor on

BARCELONA -- "Access to water cannot be a luxury," said Pedro Tomás Delgado, founder of Agua Inc. "Our philosophy is water for everyone."

About a billion people don't have access to clean drinking water. Agua -- formerly known as Aquaphytex -- looks to use macrophyte plants to provide accessible, clean water to all the corners of the earth. This chemical-free, sustainable solution utilizes these plants that grow on or in water to attract bacteria to the roots and up into the plant, while the potable water filters out in about five days.

Bio-technical engineer and entrepreneur Delgado has spent the last decade cultivating his passion for turning inexpensive, clean water into a business, determinedly focused on changing the market of water, which he describes as currently limiting, complicated and expensive. He simply doesn't think it's fair that so many people -- about a seventh of the world's population -- don't have access to potable water and that so few people are up in arms about it.

In 2007, in cooperation with his home province of Extremadura, Spain, Delgado held his pilot project in Techarene, Mali. For the village of about 8,000 people, the result was water that exceeded drinking water standards and led to the reduction of child mortality by 75 percent. It also completely eliminated cholera in the area. Now, the project in Mali has grown to two million people having clean water daily for irrigation and drinking water.

"We need more people to change the market and the idea of clean water to solve problems for local communities," Delgado said.

Agua applies its process of using plants to purify, or phytodepuration, to ensure that people have access to clean drinking water every day in five different countries, including Kenya and Brazil. The communities hire the Agua team to perform research into the contamination levels and what plants work there. Then, the team provides and resupplies the plants and trains locals to run the purification farms. Although Delgado assures that his method of accessing clean drinking water is much more affordable than conventional methods, Agua has generated more than $4 million in revenue over the last three years.

Agua was one of two Spanish projects on the Unreasonable at Sea voyage (the other being the IOU Project), which took 11 tech-based, world-changing start-ups around the world in a 100 days to accelerate and expand their businesses.

Many tech-based start-ups would use a world tour to look for investors in the financial capitals of the world. Of course that's part of the Unreasonable project, but many of the companies, including Agua, used it as an opportunity to connect with the local communities and to do research in their target markets.

Pedro Tomás Delgado (right), with two other Unreasonable at Sea participants and founder of Unreasonable Daniel Epstein (left.)

Delgado ventured out into the wetlands of each country, to find the specific Agua macrophyte or its family to study it. He walked around the often remote villages surrounding wetlands with his Macbook Air, asking strangers "Do you know this plant?" until someone recognized what he was looking for. At one stop in Vietnam, after hours of searching, he actually found the plant family in the water flowing from the public toilet he had just used. Knowing that similar plants can survive in such polluted conditions means that his specific kind of cattail should be able to thrive and filter in the same place.

Delgado is passionate and heartwarming and gets you rooting for him immediately. The round, energetic 27-year-old started his final Unreasonable presentation by saying "My English is bad, but my idea is good, so here today I tell you in Spanish," instantly endearing the packed auditorium to him, who ended with a standing ovation.

This infectious enthusiasm is crucial because he has to ask the elders from small villages who have had limited contact with the outside world to not only trust him but to help him to find the specific plants. His project took his team hours away from the Unreasonable boat into the marshlands of Africa, Asia and South America, knee-deep in water where he hoped to locate and pull up the plants, which he could use as examples to the locals. Sometimes, he even used the search like a scavenger hunt for dozens of village school children.

"This is our solution, to replicate this plant for different countries to create an army to clean the lake, clean the river and provide clean water for the people." He said they only need his research and the plant.

The next stage of Agua is to create an open-sourced digital platform that allows the Aqua team to replicate its model around the world, including a database where more than 80 locations that have the macrophyte plants have been added. Delgado and Agua are also building facilities to reproduce the plant, including an Asian pilot in Ho Chi Minh with the collaboration of the Science and Technology Academy of Vietnam.

Unreasonable at Sea: Episode 11 - The Agua Experience from Unreasonable Media on Vimeo.

Photos: Agua Inc.; Video: Unreasonable at Sea

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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