Quentin T. Kelly, chairman and CEO of WorldWater & Solar Technologies, located at 330 Carter Road, made a trip to Africa in 1984 that would change his life. Kelly, who then owned a consulting company that advised governments on water projects, was in Africa consulting with the president of Sudan.
On his last day in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, the head of the country’s water system took him into the desert outside the city where tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees were desperate for water and food. When Kelly asked the official whether anything could be done for these people, the man told him, “No. We have no diesel fuel, no diesel pumps, and they’re not on an electric grid.”
But in response to a question from Kelly, he noted that the water table was just 10 meters below ground. Kelly was aghast and said, “You have 100,000 people dying from thirst standing 10 meters over water!”
When the man answered “Yes, but there’s nothing we can do,” Kelly returned to Princeton and invited some engineers to develop a solar pump. In the 1990s, after they had created a prototype, President Fidel Ramos of the Philippines visited Kelly’s lab and invited him to come to the Philippines once he had a good-sized pump available.
In 1996, Kelly got a call from Ramos to demonstrate his pumping system in the rice paddies in northern Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. After showing up at the Malacanang Palace at 5 a.m., Kelly was packed into a helicopter and told he was first on the president’s very long agenda for the day. Starting to worry that the sun’s rays would not be available to fuel his pump, he said to the science and technology secretary at his side, “I need sunshine,” and the man responded, “Mr. Kelly, if it doesn’t work, we will have to leave; the president has other visits he needs to make.”
About a thousand farmers were waiting for his demonstration as well as the president, the first lady, and an entourage of about 35 people. Trying to kill time until sunrise, Kelly walked them around the equipment — the long way — but when the sun had barely crested the horizon and shadows were 50 feet long, he had to show his stuff. Luckily, the pump worked, and about 50 yards from it water flowed at 100 gallons per minute into the canal that provided irrigation for the rice paddies.
Kelly will speak on “Ideas Without Borders” at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Business Before Business Breakfast on Wednesday, January 18, from 7:30 to 9:15 a.m. at the Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street. Cost: $25 for members, $40 for non-members. Call 609-924-1776.
After that early morning test in the Philippines, the president ultimately ordered 25 of Kelly’s systems, and today more than 50 are at work pumping water into the rural Philippines. WorldWater’s current system, a 7-foot cube that pumps and produces 30,000 gallons of purified water per day, is at work in villages in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur; it also served as the first and only clean water source in Port au Prince, Haiti, following the earthquake; and two were shipped to Japan right after the tsunami.
Drawing from his experiences in developing countries, Kelly offers a few tips to companies thinking of doing business in emerging nations:
Make sure there is a niche for your business. When it was brought home to Kelly that no businesses were supplying water to rural areas in developing countries, he realized he had found the niche for his business. The only suppliers in the country were big utilities in urban areas and some nongovernmental organizations that would supply one or two villages and then stop.
Businesses operate in a different way. “If you are in a business, you want to produce and sell as many as can. That makes you willing to go and do things where your product and technology is a requirement,” says Kelly.
Help customers secure financing. A village on the island of Cebu in the Philippines has all of its power and water delivered through a WorldWater system, and for this clean water they are paying about 25 percent of what it had cost them for problematic water brought in by trucks and donkeys.
But to make this happen, Kelly had to talk a commercial bank that had never before lent money to a rural community into financing the project.
What Kelly did was set up a system where water stands were placed within 100 yards of each home, and residents used a debit card that turns on the water flow and measures water usage. To recharge their cards, people must go to the town council. Kelly explains, “Sixty-five percent of the money collected automatically goes to pay off the bank. The rest is used for infrastructure for the community: they are able to start building roads and do little community services that they never would have been able to do otherwise.”
Given the level of need out there and the small size of WorldWater, with only 10 employees, the company is also trying to get international banks involved in financing its projects. Davinder Sethi, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of WorldWater, notes that a billion people worldwide live in small villages where clean water is not available, and there is a lot of interest in solar-driven water systems.
He says, “We are sending them proposals making the case that they will improve the health of your people and their economy. The challenge we face, while there is strong interest, is that all emerging nations are strapped for cash and want a financing mechanism.” As a result, WorldWater is now seeking to involve the Export-Import Bank and the World Bank in financing its projects.
Develop contracts within the United States. WorldWater has sold its product to the U.S. military, which is using it in the rebuilding of Iraq and in Afghanistan. The defense department is also funding a project for WorldWater to develop a waste-water recycling system that can make gray water potable using a mobile solar platform. Sethi notes that the greatest risk to the armed forces is the vulnerability of convoys delivering water and fuel to operating bases.
“The greatest security risk to the armed forces is delivering water and fuel to forward operating bases of the U.S. military. By delivering water and sewage treatment where it is needed, this risk can be eliminated,” Sethi says. WorldWater also has a contract with the State of New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities.
Develop partnerships with major corporations for distribution. As a small company in a global market, WorldWater is finding new ways to connect its product with potential customers in emerging economies. “We are selectively entering into relationships within countries with major corporations that can adopt our product and represent us,” Sethi says.
WorldWater has what is possibly the largest solar irrigation system in the world in California, which can pump, purify, and desalinate water, and the company has already signed an agreement with Bosch Solar U.S. to provide a water-application for them, notes Kelly. The company also has a partner in Cairo that has secured a client for a pilot project in Jordan. Finally, Worldwater is working with Gamesa, a company headquartered in Spain that produces wind turbines and is also a major stockholder in WorldWater. With Gamesa India, it is talking about how to distribute its product in the Indian subcontinent.
Take selected risks. In 1997 President Ramos requested that Kelly bring one of his water systems to the island of Mindanao, where talks were being held with a rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. A general promised Kelly’s safety, and despite being surrounded by rebels pointing AK47s, all went well and business opened up for the company in the Philippines. Kelly adds, “The only way to get business is to go places where other companies will not go.”
Sethi adds, “We are very wary of security risks when we travel; we are Americans and in many parts of the world an American is a sitting target.”
Stay away from corrupt regimes. Governments that are not on the up and up stand in the way of bringing hope and water to poor villages, says Sethi, who says that WorldWater will not work with untrustworthy regimes. “Many of the regimes and governments move very slowly and are not far from corrupt practices,” he says. “We just walk away from them.”
Kelly grew up in New Orleans, where his mother was an elementary school teacher and his father was founder and president of Globe Construction, which paved the sidewalks and streets of New Orleans and other parishes in Louisiana. His brother Kerwin’s company, Kelly Construction in Pennsylvania, built water-treatment plants in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
After graduating from Kenyon College with a degree in English, Kelly hitchhiked across the country and secured a job as a young writer at MGM, where he got to know Grace Kelly. As a Russian linguist, he then went into the intelligence business in Europe. He became a newspaper reporter and editor for the Berkeley Gazette and the San Francisco Examiner, and then a writer-producer for Westinghouse and ultimately speechwriter for the company’s president. His first business was Pressurized Products, but he calls WorldWater his “first real company.”
The original incarnation of WorldWater was very successful. When it was bought out in 2008, it had over 100 employees and its business had quadrupled in a year.
The group that bought them out was primarily interested in a Texas company that WorldWater had acquired, Entech, for the solar work it was doing for space exploration and space shots. As a result, Kelly was able to buy back the patents and technology for using solar energy in the pumping, purification, and distribution of water and also the company’s original name.
Sethi graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and he earned a master’s and a doctorate in applied mathematics from Berkeley. He taught applied math at UCLA, then went to Bell Labs as a research scientist. He worked for AT&T in finance and then Barclay’s as director of mergers and acquisitions. His next ventures were a couple of small entrepreneurial companies, and 10 years ago he joined WorldWater’s board of directors, eventually becoming the lead director.
When Kelly invited him to join the reorganized company, says Sethi, “I couldn’t resist the temptation. The vision, the mission is so compelling, and as the years march on, you want to do something meaningful in your life that brings you happiness.”