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In Tech As In Infrastructure, Localized Is Harmonised How localized water solutions can keep communities self-sustainable

By Robert So

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To say Asia loves localizing well-loved Western trends is an understatement. It's apparent in pop culture, in the fashion trends its locals follow, and even in business. Just look at the business models of some of the region's most popular unicorns. Indonesia's Gojek and Singapore's Grab may have both adopted US-based Uber's clever solution to taxi-hailing, but they made it their own with localized features and user experience.

Instead of cars, Gojek offered motorcycle-booking, as two-wheelers are the most common form of transportation in Indonesia. As it grew, Grab made transport-hailing options that cater especially to local commuters. In selected cities in the Philippines, GrabTrike, or a tricycle-hailing service, is available. China's Mobike was able to bring back the glory years of the bike as the main means of transportation in the country, as it made bike rentals more efficient through its app.

It's a trend that has largely caught on in tech startups, showing that a thorough and even a personal understanding of consumer woes are keys to create impactful business solutions.

When e-commerce platforms forayed into Southeast Asia in the early 2010s, for example, operators knew they had to launch with a payment option that didn't necessarily require a credit card, especially as these were the emerging markets. Save for Singapore, the majority of the countries in the region have very low credit card penetration rates. In the Philippines, it's at 5 per cent. So operators introduced a payment solution that was never introduced in more affluent markets: cash-on-delivery.

This gave all markets, across classes and demographics in the region, a chance to enjoy e-commerce. To this day, a majority of online shoppers in the region prefer to pay in cash. It's safe to say that without this innovation, e-commerce would not have grown into a resounding success in Southeast Asia, reaching $23 billion in market value in 2018.

As most successful multinational brands and startups have proven, localization is one business strategy that ensures they capture the hearts of a new market, specifically because it helps them solve the locals' most pressing needs. But in other industries, especially in infrastructure, employing localized solutions isn't always the preferred route.

In the Philippines, there has been a long history of contracting foreign vendors and service providers for big projects, at the possible expense of overlooking local capabilities. The public-private partnership projects on airport expansion or establishment, for example, almost always require construction partners to have had previous experience in building one. The requirement limits the project to international firms, leaving the rest of local companies, who may have the same capacity, but not necessarily the same experience, from participating in bids. No matter if they may have more innovative localized insights.

The water supply and sanitation industry in the Philippines experiences something similar.

For example, sound sewage treatment technologies that come from abroad have proven impractical and incapable in the face of certain elements of the developing world: consider the latter's population density, lack of laws, and regulations, and the difference in the makeup of sewage. These are important factors to consider for a country like the Philippines, which also endures an average of 20 typhoons a year, according to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

Localized Water Tech Solutions

On the other hand, a tailor-made water tech solution - one that understands the environment it will operate in - can be impactful.

The sewage systems in urban cities in the country, for example, would not be functional without the localized approach of Philippine water tech companies. Unlike developed countries that had the long-sightedness to pre-install sewage pipes for entire cities before the influx of high-rise buildings and neighborhoods, cities in the Philippines have taken a more "do-it-yourself" approach, especially as water utility companies are not required to treat the sewage of all commercial establishments.

This has led private structures and buildings to employ sewage treatment plants of their own, right underneath their properties.

Clear Water Year In, Year Out

Areas dependent on surface water sources for drinking water are highly susceptible to heavy rains, as well as typhoons, which place them in dire need of water tech solutions that assure a clean supply of this most vital need.

The bulk water treatment solution through Taguibo Aquatech Solutions Corp. (TASC) developed for Butuan City, for example, helped its 200,000 residents to be regularly provided with clean water after a decade or so of insufficient water supply during the rainy season.

The turbidity level of Taguibo River, the body of water the city relies on for their clean water, is known to reach a turbidity level of 2,000 NTU (Nephelometric Turbidity Units), especially during the typhoon season. Turbidity is the measurement of water's transparency or clarity. The higher the turbidity, the dirtier the water. The bulk water treatment solution can handle up to 10,000, a huge improvement from the 50 NTU limit the previous water tech solution.

Conventional approaches would have led to building extra water storage units, or extra sedimentation tanks, neither of which directly address turbidity, and result in more concrete structures and more reduction of the forest cover in the watershed.

These technologies prove how the eyes and experience of a local could bring in a more effective and practical solution to problems that, chances are, they've had experience solving. It doesn't just apply in water technology solutions, but in various industries that are in dire need of specialized approach to solve local pain points. It's time to trust the expertise and technologies of those who know their local environment best.

Robert So

Founder, CEO of Ecosystem Technologies International Inc

Dr. Robert Y. So is the Founder and CEO of Ecosystem Technologies International, Inc. (ESTII), the Philippines’ premier environmental technology solutions company by water projects portfolio.  He is a polymath, with achievements in technology development and applied science, engineering and design, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy. So is a holder of more than 10 patents in water and wastewater related technologies applied in the domains of uninterruptible drinking water production, and wastewater recycling and reuse for non-potable purposes.

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