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More than a wheel

By Maryanne George

Cynthia Koenig knows that by reinventing the wheel she could change the world. In a few months, she hopes to make a difference in India.

Koenig (photo right), a graduate student at the University of Michigan, created the WaterWheel, a 20-gallon rolling water barrel and Wello, the business that distributes it in developing countries, where clean water is scarce.

After graduation this spring from U-M’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, Koenig plans to launch a pilot program in Rajasthan, India to test the WaterWheel’s social impact and health benefits. Her goal is to sell 5,000 wheels in 12 months, positively impacting the lives of 40,000 people. She is working with an Indian company to manufacture the wheel.

The 20-gallon rolling barrel provides enough water for drinking, personal hygiene and household cleanliness to meet the daily needs of four people in a single trip, according to United Nations guidelines.

Koenig’s project is receiving recognition throughout the world. On Feb. 18, Koenig and her teammate Colm Fay, both graduate students in the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, a joint program with the Ross School and the School of Natural Resources and Environment, won $10,000 in the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“This is a great honor and the competition has been a great experience,” Koenig said.

Students competed for prizes in the international social venture plan competition, where interdisciplinary student teams from around the world proposed creative, commercially viable businesses designed to reduce poverty in the developing world. The semi-finalists were selected from 100 teams in 24 countries.

In 2010, Koenig’s team was one of three with winning ideas in the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge. The graduate-student competition is now underway for 2011, with the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute accepting breakthrough sustainability ideas through March 5.

Wello’s goal is to effectively deliver clean water to a thirsty world. By reframing the water crisis as an opportunity, Wello has developed an innovative business model that empowers individuals to use the WaterWheel as an income-generating tool to lift their families out of poverty, according to Koenig. Women and girls, for example, could be freed to pursue and education and avoid the injuries related to carrying the water jugs.

One in six people in developing countries access to water means hours of walking and heavy lifting. Five gallons of water weighs 44 pounds and women and girls, often the household water carriers, stand in long lines and carry heavy water jugs on their heads up to eight miles a day.

“In recognition of the fact that the people who need products like the WaterWheel the most have the least ability to afford them, we’ve developed a business-in-a-barrel model,” she said. “It enables our customers to finance the purchase of a WaterWheel with a microfinance loan and use the tool to deliver clean water door-to-door, earning income in the process.

Wello has also been selected as one of 45 finalists from over 300 organizations in 60 different countries to have the opportunity to attend the Unreasonable Institute, an intensive six-week boot camp in Boulder, Co. that helps social entrepreneurs develop their ventures, working with top-notch mentors, funders and practitioners. The first 25 to raise $8,000 through donations will earn a spot at the institute. To vote for Wello:

For more information on the WaterWheel, visit:

For information on the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge underway, visit the U-M Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at:

U-M Sustainability fosters a more sustainable world through collaborations across campus and beyond aimed at educating students, generating new knowledge, and minimizing our environmental footprint. Learn more at

Maryanne George is a public information specialist at the University of Michigan’s College of Literature Science and the Arts.

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