For inventing—and continuing to iterate—an affordable water purification system
Brazil boasts the biggest economy in Latin America. But it also has a serious water access problem. In a country of more than 212 million people, nearly 10 percent lack modern sanitation, and 1.2 million people don’t have safe potable water. Almost a decade ago, Anna Luísa Beserra set out to find an effective—and affordable—solution.
At age 15, the changemaker invented Aqualuz, a novel technology that uses sunlight to purify water in cisterns. Two years later, she founded Sustainable Development & Water for All (SDW), a social impact startup focused on developing technologies that can make water access and sanitation a universal right.
Beserra’s work has earned her a spot on the global stage: She has won the U.N. Young Champions of the Earth award and was one of the first Brazilian finalists for the global Green Tech Award.
We talked with Beserra about her journey and what’s next (although she’s pretty hush-hush about her next top-secret project):
How did you first get interested in water access?
I always wanted to become a scientist—that was my dream. In 2013, which was the U.N.’s International Year of Water Cooperation, I was studying water and sanitation in my region of Brazil, and I became curious why this problem was still happening. With my dad’s help, I created a prototype of Aqualuz for a competition for young scientists. I didn’t win, but I became fascinated with the Aqualuz technology because it’s perfect for rural areas.
How did you develop the technology so it could be market-ready?
After the first prototype, I tried to get support from government agencies and universities, but no one trusted the technology. So I continued developing it by myself until I got into a college biotechnology course at 17. With access to professors and laboratories, I continued to develop the technology, and in 2015, I launched SDW to make Aqualuz available on the market. From 2015 to 2019, I developed several prototypes to make the technology more user-friendly and more effective. We’re now about to release version 14, which we hope will be produced on a large scale.
How do you measure the project’s impact?
Aqualuz has reached more than 4,000 people in about 60 communities. Before and after we implement the technology, we collect data on people’s health, education and economic conditions—for instance, the number of times that family members got sick or had to miss school or work because of the water.
What other technologies have you been developing?
During the pandemic, we developed Aquapulvi, a handwashing station, and made it available in public spaces. We’ve also developed a solar desalination device that will go on the market later this year. And we’ve created two sanitation products: a dry bathroom that doesn’t require water so it can be used in areas with water scarcity, and a system that uses plants to treat rainwater. Altogether, our technologies have reached about 15,000 people.
What are the challenges to scaling up these solutions?
Our biggest problems are finding good quality suppliers and securing funds. We see a lot of global institutions financing water sanitation solutions in Africa and Asia, but there are just a few here and they’re not really available to early-stage entrepreneurs.
What has been the main lesson you’ve learned?
I thought Aqualuz would be enough, but then I understood how complex the water sanitation problem is. And I saw the need to create more technologies and have a more complex approach, so we can really make a difference.
What moonshot project would you most like to work on?
The one we’re doing right now. It’s a new technology that will be cheaper and have fewer limitations than Aqualuz and will generate income for communities. We’ll also be able to export the methodology to other countries. So it will solve a lot of different problems. But for now, it’s top-secret.
Listen to Anna Luísa Beserra discuss how her company partners with organizations to deliver value to communities in need.
"I had several challenges of develop[ing] the business model that basically would make possible to have the product on the market. It took me until 2019, so it wasn’t that long ago that we found a business [model] that could be sustainable. There is the CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility projects. With this business model, we basically sell for huge companies that [have] a direct impact in some communities that [have] problems with water access, and the community gets the product for free. We also have social methodology, so it’s not just the product. We collect some impact data, we do environmental education and also the monitoring process so we can deliver the impact data showing how much we could improve of this region by delivering our products."
"Usually, we work with organizations that [are] already in those communities that has the profile that could be attended by us. We give training for those organizations—most part of them are NGOs. Most part of this time also remote, not physically being there, we help them [learn] how to implement and monitor using our methodology for the communities. We also have a project team that is responsible to go to the places and install by ourselves. So we kind of have these two options—partnering with organization or doing it by ourselves."