Clean Water For A Thirsty World; Cynthia Koenig, Founder of Wello

Written by Kassia Binkowski, Contributing Editor to The Good Trade

Meet Cynthia Koenig of Wello

Wello is a social venture with the ambitious goal: to deliver clean water to a thirsty world. Impacted by how water collection disproportionately affected women and girls’ access to opportunity, ultimately trapping them and their entire families in the cycle of poverty, Cynthia Koenig founded Wello. Wello designs and delivers affordable innovations that save time and increase opportunities for people who lack access to water.  

Tell us your story. What was the inspiration behind Wello and how did you end up deciding to build this organization?

The vision for Wello was born out of years of personal experience living and working in water scarce environments. While based in a remote village Mexico, I struggled to haul enough water to meet my daily needs. During that time, I saw firsthand how the time, physical, health and emotional burdens of water collection disproportionately affected women and girls’ access to opportunity, ultimately trapping them and their entire families in the cycle of poverty. As time went on, I was struck by how this trend was consistent across many different cultures and geographies. I became curious about whether a business approach to poverty alleviation might offer solutions, pursued an MS / MBA at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainability at the University of Michigan, and ended up founding Wello.

Access to clean water is a challenge for millions around the world. Just looking at your innovative product line it is clear that Wello is thinking outside the box to affect global change. How are you thinking creatively about the water crisis and how to solve it?

Wello is a design and innovation company. We aspire to design products and services that people not just need – they want to use; to do so, we actively engage consumers in every aspect of product and business model design. There are a few key principles that drive everything we do at Wello: empathy, efficiency, simplicity, and sustainability. All of our products reflect these values.

Running an international social venture is an enormous challenge. Tell us about the challenges you have faced in your pursuit to improve access to clean water around the world.

The enormity of a challenge entirely depends on how you frame it. Wello’s goal of delivering clean water to one million consumers in our first 5 years of operations may sound impossible... and it would be, if we didn’t break it down into more manageable and achievable milestones! One of the biggest challenges lies in the fact that there are few models to follow when it comes to introducing a disruptive innovation or working with last-mile rural consumers. I’ve learned to be patient, embrace (and learn from) failure, and to trust my instincts.

Wello has seen impressive growth in the past few years. What is your greatest success to date? What is that one moment you won’t ever forget?

The firsts are always the moments that come to mind – first WaterWheel sold (bartered for camel hair rugs after a day-long negotiation in a village in rural Rajasthan); first commercial production run, first repeat purchase. For Wello, these ‘firsts’ are early indications of validation – proof that we’re on the right track.

They say it takes one to know one, and we can sense your wanderlust from a mile away. What do you do on a personal level to reduce your footprint when you travel? How are the values you’ve ingrained in your organization reflected in other aspects of your life?

I once saved all the airline tickets I collected over a few months of travel – major carbon guilt trip! Unfortunately, not flying isn’t a possibility (though I’ve joked with friends who have similar travel schedules that we should all go in on a boat!), so I try to plan my trips as efficiently as possible to minimize air travel. Regardless of whether I’m on the road or at home, I try to avoid packaging: bottled water, plastic bags, etc and choose local, organic and fair trade products when possible.

Navigating the nonprofit space can be very overwhelming for any well-intentioned individual. Tell us, when you look to give back to other nonprofits or social enterprises, what impact do you look for in your investments? How do you choose who to support?

Giving is personal, so the issue or cause has to resonate with me - that’s my main criteria. Next is impact, although impact is relative too. My small Kickstarter contribution probably won’t mean the difference between the campaign’s failure or success, but I know it means a lot to an entrepreneur when one more person validates their dream. One rule I always follow is giving unrestricted gifts; I trust that the organization who I’m making a donation to knows where best to use my funds. And having worked for nonprofits, having a little extra discretionary funding can make a big difference

Kassia Binkowski is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade and the Founder of One Thousand Design. She grew up in Madison, WI and traveled her way around the world to Boulder, CO which she now calls home. Nestled against the Rocky Mountains, Kassia supports innovative organizations from Colorado to Kathmandu tell their stories of social change through writing, photography, and design. Kassia is an eternal optimist and forever a backroad wanderer.