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Thirsty Planet and Pump Aid: A partnership for innovation

Thirsty Planet. One of the UK’s most successful charity water brands, dedicated to encouraging positive action through drinking well and doing good. A donation is made with every bottle sold; inspiring the power of positive drinking.

Pump Aid. The award-winning British charity that’s brought improved water, sanitation and hygiene to over 1.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

On World Water Day in 2007, a partnership was established between Thirsty Planet, sister brand to Harrogate Spring Water and Pump Aid, the British water, sanitation and hygiene charity. To date, Thirsty Planet has raised a phenomenal £2.3m for Pump Aid, supporting thousands of communities in rural southern Africa to gain access to clean, safe water and sanitation, enabling them to flourish. So far, 1.5 million people in Malawi and Zimbabwe have directly benefitted as a result of this long-standing partnership.

Now 13 years old, the partnership is stronger than ever. Over the years both organisations have grown from strength to strength and in their different ways, developed innovative approaches and solutions to the challenges they face and the opportunities, to create lasting and real social and economic benefit. The basis to the longevity of this partnership is a shared and solid commitment to have a lasting, positive impact amongst some of the poorest communities in the world. The ability to evolve and innovate, combined with a commitment to sustainability, is part of the DNA of both organisations.

In this conversation, Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor CBE, the Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship at King’s College London and Chairman of Pump Aid, sits down with James Cain OBE, the CEO of Harrogate Water and its sister brand Thirsty Planet, to reflect on the partnership, current trends within the water industry and future plans for growth.

Firstly, could you talk me through the thinking behind setting up this partnership back in 2007?

Well Stefan, worldwide, there are currently over 785 million people without access to clean, safe drinking water, 400 million of whom are living in sub-Saharan Africa (JMP, 2019). Over 40% of community pumps don’t work, large percentages of the populations are food insecure and undernourished, and aid dependency is created through approaches taken in response.

Since Pump Aid was established in 1998, they have been driven by a desire to deliver aid in the most innovative and sustainable ways possible: ending water poverty, food insecurity and creating independence and self-reliance. We partnered with Pump Aid because they are the best at what they do and created a brand whose sole purpose was to raise money towards water projects in the most disadvantaged parts of Africa.

Thirsty Planet was created because we wanted to inspire and encourage positive action.  We wanted to give our customers the opportunity to drink ‘water for good’, but at the same time give good water to others and make a positive difference. Through Thirsty Planet we’ve made it possible for everyone who wants to support those most in need of safe, clean water, to do so.

What does it mean to the business, and why do you think customers of Thirsty Planet like to support Pump Aid?

Good question. Both our business and our customers are increasingly socially aware of issues around water poverty and food insecurity, wanting to do more to help those without access to safe, clean water and help in the provision of reliable and convenient water sources.

We wanted to provide a way for customers to help in achieving this. Our rebrand in 2017 focuses on the huge power of positive drinking; our customers know they have made a significant contribution and a measurable difference to the lives of so many in sub-Saharan Africa.

Our primary considerations within the partnership are transparency and value for money. From the start, we wanted Thirsty Planet to be the most transparent charity water brand in the country. We give a fixed donation with every bottle of water we sell, so our customers know exactly how much of the purchase price they are contributing. Pump Aid is similarly transparent and spends less than 10% of its income on fundraising and governance. With many charities spending two or three times that amount, they are demonstrably better value for money, highlighting to our customers how far their money is going in supporting people in Africa.

A guaranteed, fixed donation also enables contributions to be accurately forecast, which in turn means Pump Aid is able to plan ahead, ensuring efficient delivery and allocation of resources.

What does it mean to you personally?

It means a tremendous amount to me, Stefan. In 2015, I received an OBE for services to impoverished communities in Africa, delivered by Pump Aid, for which I am hugely proud. From the start, we wanted to create a brand which would make a real difference; one which was transparent and enabled customers to be part of something incredibly positive.

To be involved in the partnership between Thirsty Planet and Pump Aid and to have seen the growth and innovation that sets us apart has been amazing. I am thrilled with what we have achieved and to have raised over £2.3 million to date is phenomenal.

Sustainability is increasingly crucial in today’s world with enhanced environmental and social consciousness. How central do you find sustainability to your business?

As you’ll know, sustainability is a core component of the business model of Thirsty Planet. Most markets are competitive, bottled water certainly is, and as a result, every organisation needs to adapt and change. We’ve demonstrated this at Thirsty Planet through our use of 100% recyclable bottles and increasing our use of UK sourced recycled plastic content. We have also partnered with Keep Britain Tidy to encourage a responsible approach to litter disposal and the promotion of recycling.

Our flagship production facility houses one of the most environmentally efficient lines in Europe. In addition, we source our raw materials as locally as possible, all are found within 110 miles of Harrogate. We do our best to avoid unnecessary transportation; being ideally positioned in the centre of the UK ensures we keep our ‘water miles’ the lowest they can be.

Pump Aid has similarly over the last 3 years focussed a lot on sustainability through the development of its water entrepreneurs programme – supporting the development of financially viable small-scale business to repair and sell low cost water pumps. The impact has been phenomenal, improved reliability of water points and people investing in their own water sources. It’s a different approach to charity and aid. A hand up not a handout. Do you think this type of approach resonates with your customers?

Definitely. We’ve been greatly impressed by how Pump Aid has reacted and adapted to the crisis in pump functionality through the launch of its entrepreneur training programme. The scheme promotes independence, self-reliance and working together to help towards ending aid dependency. The notion of making a sustainable difference through empowerment and providing choice and opportunities, sets Pump Aid apart from other organisations. Sustainability is crucial to our business and it was Pump Aid’s approach to sustainability that attracted us most.

Our customers see how charities are reported in the media and they recognise that many of traditional approaches to aid are simply not working. Pump Aid’s radical approach, working to end aid dependency rather than entrench it, really resonates with those who want to see tangible impacts for the money they help contribute.

I have to tell you, James, it is Pump Aid’s sustainable approach that really motivates me. Pump Aid sources its materials locally and by making their pumps in Malawi, Pump Aid not only contributes to the Malawi economy, it ensures that if its pumps break, spare parts and the expertise to fit them are readily available.

By supporting the development of financially viable small-scale businesses to repair and sell low cost water pumps, Pump Aid is changing the relationship between the charity and those it works to support. Where other charities see beneficiaries, we see customers; where other charities employ staff, we create businesses and, perhaps most importantly of all, we are giving people a hand-up not a hand-out.

Finally, how do you see Thirsty Planet and this partnership growing?

Thirsty Planet and Pump Aid are unique and innovative organisations, both daring to do things differently; our partnership is testament to this. Both organisations continue to evolve in response to challenges, continuing to provide lasting positive social and economic benefits.

Pump Aid is piloting ground-breaking approaches and changing the way traditional aid is being done. They are harnessing the power of business and inspiring entrepreneurship to create lasting and positive change, demonstrating that even very poor communities can and will invest. I cannot think of a better way for our customers to support the developing world than that.

Going forward I see greater engagement with our customers and even more opportunities for them to support and inspire change.

I totally agree, James, and together we can empower even more communities in sub-Saharan Africa to gain reliable and convenient access to clean, safe water; transforming lives and helping end aid dependency for good.


James Cain OBE is the CEO of Harrogate Water Brands, home to Britain’s No1 premium water brand and sister brand Thirsty Planet.

Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor CBE is the Chairman of Pump Aid; a charity providing affordable and sustainable water and sanitation solutions in sub-Saharan Africa since 1998.

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