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Profile: Two-Time 2016 Tech-I Winner Samina Sarwat

July 05, 2016

We followed up with Samina Sarwat, first place winner of the 2016 Tech-I Pitch Competition Idea Stage and Outstanding Female Entrepreneur awards to learn more about the future of her venture, Astha Purifier. 

Millions of people in Bangladesh are affected by arsenic-contaminated drinking water. Chronic exposure to arsenic is linked to cancers of the liver, kidney, bladder and skin. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called Bangladesh's arsenic crisis "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history".

To help address this devastating health issue, Tech-I winner Samina Sarwat developed Astha Purifier, an affordable water filter that uses rice husk ash. Specially treated rice husk is effective in removing arsenic, heavy metal particles and other pollutants from water. Rice husk is also widely available and inexpensive to harvest, which helps make the purifier affordable to the low-income villagers most affected by the contamination.

How did Astha Purifier come about?

Addressing the ongoing mass arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh has been my long-term goal – personally and professionally. When I had the opportunity to work with some very bright people on a socially beneficial project, I encouraged the group to work on something that could prevent arsenic poisoning. After much research, it became clear that rice husk is an excellent natural purifier. That’s when Astha was born!

Did you experience any obstacles at the beginning? What were they and how did you overcome them?

The initial struggle was deciding the particular direction we should take in addressing arsenic prevention. The decision to use rice husk in our purifier helped solidify our vision.

Another struggle was creating the team. At first, finding the right people and integrating them into the group was not an easy task. But we found people who shared a genuine drive to help the community. That really brought the project together and gave focus to our work.

What was your customer discovery process like? What did you learn?

From the beginning, we knew our main customer lived in areas where the groundwater is contaminated with arsenic. The majority of these people come from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background. During our research phase, we discovered that many in this group had no access to an alternate safe water source. We also found a large information gap regarding arsenic poisoning among the people.

Initially we aimed to make Astha something that can serve a whole community, such as a village, at once. But as the project unfolded, we quickly realized that a much smaller portable unit, suitable for personal or family use, would be a more useful, practical solution.

How did the GIST Tech-I program help take your venture to the next level?

Astha aims to eradicate the problems caused by groundwater arsenic contamination in Bangladesh. Winning two top awards at the GIST Tech-I competition validated our work. It also boosted my confidence. We can achieve our goal.

The experience also allowed me the opportunity to learn from global entrepreneurial experts. Our trainers and mentors provided incredible insights into the operation of successful startups. I will take lessons learned from this experience to improve the Astha project.

The prize money will help accelerate our research and development activities. If all goes well, it could even allow us to start full operations without seeking financial support from investors.

Based on your experience, what advice can you offer aspiring entrepreneurs?

If you truly want to address a need or problem, give it your all. Don't pay too much attention to naysayers. Work with love, passion and dedication and your idea can change the world!

Learn more about all of the 2016 Tech-I Pitch Competition winners here.

[Photo credit: Global Entrepreneurship Summit]

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