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Paul Polak – developing products for 'the other 90 percent' of humanity

He listened first, then designed products for the world's poorest people long before the term 'social entrepreneur' came into use.

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Polak has devised a new design to reach those who have no affordable supply of clean water. His testing ground is the eastern state of Orissa in India, which he recently visited, to work with his Indian colleagues and partners. The model here relies on local kiosks, or store fronts, that are centralized locations for locals to pick up a liter of water, cleaned through a chlorination process. And with the help of a branding campaign, they'll be able to create a uniform approach to the kiosks and the home delivery system.

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Polak's created another bargain here. For 2 Rs (four US cents) you can purchase 10 liters of purified, safe, clean drinking water. And that's certainly in the price range for many. For those who can spend a bit more and would like it delivered to their homes, Polak has provided that option as well.

The necessity of delivering water originated out of Polak's experience in the field and wasn’t just about a matter of convenience. He learned that some members of this community may not want water from the source because it has been used by an untouchable.

Untouchables sit at the bottom of the Hindi caste system and are considered unclean; according to such beliefs, physical contact with an untouchable and his belongings should be avoided. Polak was surprised and quickly realized that if the source was going to be a central purifying plant, this could be a cultural challenge difficult to overcome.

So, for those individuals, Polak and his colleagues devised a delivery system, which would be a better option than not having access to any water. Such social details, Polak explains, can only be determined if you're deeply involved and understanding of the community that you're working in.

That’s why he urges young entrepreneurs to step beyond the classroom. For him, early travels in Bangladesh and Nepal disclosed the struggles of the millions of one-acre farmers in the world and led him to build pumps and irrigation devices custom-designed for their needs. Those first-hand accounts have been the driving force of Polak’s work and what, he says, will be the focus of his life in years to come.

To learn more about Polak’s most recent venture in water and his thoughts on market-based solutions, check out his speech at TED.

This article originally appeared at

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