By Christy Macy
Halfway up the hill, surrounded by a few thatched huts and a group of excited children, a dozen men from the village are pounding two large wooden stakes into the ground and securing a solar panel on top. Large, blue water containers and a pile of tools, hoses and filters lie scattered around the worksite. At the center, directing the activities, is 25-year-old Ganesh Muren, an engineering student from INTI International University & Colleges in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur (KL). His mud-caked pickup truck, used to deliver the project materials, is the first vehicle in five years to navigate the deeply rutted dirt road through the jungle to this village of Kampung Semol. A two-hour drive from the gleaming skyscrapers and bright lights of KL, this isolated community of 25 indigenous families has no electricity or running water. There is no school.
It took four hours working under the merciless sun for the villagers and Ganesh to build the new water purification system, which is powered by a solar panel elevated high above the metal sink. When clean water pours out of the faucet for the first time to a burst of applause, the children are the first ones invited to take a drink. Previously, the village women would have to climb up a steep hill with buckets to obtain their daily supply of water — which is delivered through a hose from its source in the nearby mountains. To make the bacteria-infested water safe to drink, villagers must gather sticks, build a fire, and boil it. Sometimes there is not enough time — or it’s simply too much effort — to do so. As a result, the villagers, especially the children, often get sick. “People think if the water is clear it’s OK to drink,” Ganesh explains. “They don’t realize it can be deadly.”
The daily struggles of these villagers reflect a global crisis in which nearly a billion people lack access to clean, affordable water. Every 20 seconds, a child dies from the contaminated water he or she is drinking. In Malaysia, the inequities are stark. Reportedly 95 percent of the population, primarily in urban areas, has access to clean, treated water. Yet from 24 to 36 percent of the population in some rural communities, especially the villages of the Orang Asli, Malaysia’s indigenous minority, have no such luxury. Drinking untreated water can result in high levels of water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhea. Eye infections and intestinal worms cause further suffering.
Figuring out how to improve the health conditions of poor, underserved families would become a personal crusade for Ganesh. He was first alerted to the crisis when backpacking in India, where he noticed how many rural communities were suffering from inadequate supplies of clean water. When he returned to his studies in Kuala Lumpur, Ganesh began visiting villages outside the capital to explore how he could use his engineering background to find a solution. In one village, he met six-year-old Mira, a smart and inquisitive girl who became his friend. She ran to greet Ganesh each time he visited the village. One day, Mira’s mother confided that her daughter had a serious case of diarrhea. Mira’s suffering inspired Ganesh to spend even longer nights in the engineering lab, as he worked to develop a water purification system that would be affordable, environmentally sustainable and easy to install.
When he completed his design and the system had been tested and certified, Ganesh raced to Mira’s village to deliver the good news. “I built this for her,” he said. “She was my inspiration.” But when he arrived, Mira’s mother told him, in tears, that her daughter had died the week before. Ganesh felt his heart stop. “I blamed myself,” he said. “I was filled with doubt and a sense of failure.” He threw his prototype into the truck and drove home, and did not work on the project for months. Ganesh’s deep commitment to help others like Mira, however, eventually kindled his desire to get back to work.
Ganesh developed his water purification system as a student at INTI International University & Colleges, which is a member of the Laureate International Universities network. His invention uses solar energy to power the pump that accelerates the output of water, which has been purified by a series of filters. A process that used to take hours now takes only minutes, thus encouraging its use. The extra solar energy the system produces is used to generate electricity for the villagers’ homes and charge mobile devices that connect them to the outside world – eventually opening up greater access to education and health services, among other benefits. Rural households using the system save up to 20 percent of their income as they no longer need to purchase kerosene or firewood.
Ganesh, named appropriately after a popular Hindu deity revered as “the remover of obstacles,” credits his university for supporting him during the research and development of his model. “My lecturers at INTI have always been down to earth, value-driven and practical when sharing their knowledge,” he says. “They made it easier for me to translate what I had in mind into a physical product.” Ganesh benefitted from the advice and encouragement of his mentors, and took advantage of INTI’s cross-departmental approach to work with both the engineering and design instructors.“ Ganesh already had a burning desire to be an entrepreneur who would improve life for people living in underserved communities,” says Rohit Sharma, CEO of INTI. “We helped provide him with some of the resources he needed to realize his vision, including a scholarship, and offered him the platforms, connections and coaching to showcase his work and help take it to the next level.”
Sharma says a key role for the university is to encourage students to have a social impact. “Ganesh is a great example of a student who develops practical solutions to serious problems while generating jobs and benefiting the community.”
The son of hardworking Indian immigrants, Ganesh grew up in a poor neighborhood outside of Kuala Lumpur. Neither of his parents could afford to go to college, but they both placed enormous value on their children’s education. “My father, who struggled so hard to support his family of six, believed education was the only way out of poverty,” says Ganesh. His mother, who was similarly committed to educating her children, would take whatever odd jobs she could find. When Ganesh needed to enroll in extra classes in secondary school, she took a job cleaning toilets to defray the cost. At age 11, Ganesh began accompanying his father to the repair shop where he worked. “Something was always being fixed or disassembled,” Ganesh remembers with a grin. “It was hot and cramped, but fascinating.” That experience helped spark Ganesh’s dream to become an engineer. “Engineering gives you the liberty to build something from scratch that others can benefit from,” he explains.
Even at an early age, Ganesh was thinking up schemes to earn extra money, demonstrating a keen entrepreneurial mind. At one point, he sold his friends grasshoppers in glass jars as pets; later on he cut down trees to sell to his neighbors. “I always hated following the rules,” he admits. “When I was young, I wanted to be a billionaire; I never wanted to work for anyone else.”
Ganesh’s entrepreneurial flair, coupled with a sharp intellect, won him prestigious internships and prizes. In 2013, he won INTI’s “Most Innovative Engineering Project” award. Yet through his work in the villages, Ganesh’s early ambitions to become a wealthy businessman began to evolve. “Doing what I do best would be good, but giving back to society would make a change in the lives around me. Even if it is one person at a time,” he says, “I know that this has to be the way.”
Not surprisingly, Ganesh developed his own innovative outreach strategy. Refusing to simply “drop in” on villages and install the water purification structure, he and his small staff spend weeks getting to know the villagers — talking with them about his plans, sharing their traditional meal of cooked tapioca root, and assessing their water and other needs. “We work hard to design each system so that it fits the unique needs of that particular village,” he explains. Ganesh enlists villagers to help build the system so they gain a sense of ownership and also know how it works, in case it needs repairs. Regular follow-up visits track the program’s impact and ensure everything is working well. “For me,” says Ganesh, “it’s all about building long-term relationships and empowering local residents.”
Seeking to expand his work, Ganesh turned to INTI’s network of entrepreneurs and business partners in 2014 to help launch his own organization, called Saora — taken from the Sanskrit word for “sun.” In addition to installing water systems, Saora’s activities include a variety of services, such as conducting needs assessments and water tests, and leading community engagement training. While funding remains a challenge, Saora is supported through a combination of corporate sponsors, NGO partners who pay for its services, community volunteers and individual donors. “Early on, people like Brahmal Vasudevan, who owns a private equity firm, took a chance on investing in us,” says Ganesh. “He pushes me forward and has been an amazing mentor.” Ganesh is currently developing a microfinancing framework to help sustain the organization’s expanding programs.
Saora’s goal is ambitious: to benefit 10,000 households by the end of 2018 through the installation of a wide range of water purification systems and related environmental projects. Next year, Ganesh plans to expand his work to reach underserved communities in the Philippines and Cambodia. “Everyone, not just the rich, deserves clean, safe drinking water,” he says. “It’s a basic right.”
When the villagers at Kampung Semol finish assembling their new water system, they invite Ganesh to join them for their traditional Sewang dance at the community hall down the hill. After the village elder formally thanks his honored guests for their gift of clean water, Ganesh and his team put on headdresses decorated with flowers and skirts made of palm leaves woven by the villagers. They then join the ever-expanding circle of dancers. As the rhythmic sound of drums and bare feet pounding on the bamboo floor grows louder, two young girls grab Ganesh’s hands, delightedly pulling him along. Even in the near-darkness, people could see his signature radiant smile. “I knew the odds were stacked against Mira,” Ganesh recalled later. “At that moment, during the dance, I was thinking perhaps these two girls will have a better shot at living a full life.”
About Christy Macy
Christy Macy is a freelance writer and communications consultant. From 2000-2015, she was the Director of Publications at the International Youth Foundation (IYF), where she co-authored Our Time is Now, a book profiling young social entrepreneurs around the world who are leading change in their communities. Before joining IYF, Macy served as a White House speechwriter for First Lady Hillary Clinton.