We are extremely proud of Dr Phil Souter, a Senior Director working in our Laundry Research and Development (R&D) team at our Innovation Centre in Newcastle, who has received an OBE for his services to Medical Research. Some 24 years ago, Phil discovered the technology which enables a 4g packet of powder to transform 10 litres of dirty, contaminated water using only a bucket, a spoon and a cloth – rendering it drinkable. Here, he shares his experiences.
“I started working on the P&G Purifier of Water in 1999. It was what I’d describe as a ‘blank piece of paper assignment’, with a brief to develop new products that were outside our business units. It was totally new to both me and the company, which meant I was starting from scratch. I was keen to explore projects related to water, which was partly based on my personal experiences. I’d been fortunate enough to travel during my university years and had seen some of the challenges associated with lacking access to clean, safe drinking water first-hand. I felt that there must be a solution, but the difficulty lay in finding a one-size-fits-all, easy-to-use product, as many of the challenges facing communities around the world vary hugely from place to place.
“We qualified the product via extensive field and clinical testing (in partnership with the CDC), because, whilst it’s all well and good to have a product that works in the lab, proving it can both deal with the wide diversity of waters found in the community, and that people can use it effectively in-home using a wide variety of containers and storage conditions, is a very different story. Two years on from our first experiment, in September 2001, we launched in our first test market, Guatemala. Being able to travel and experience the warmth of so many different communities is an experience I’ll never forget. Days in the field were long as we were trying to source as many different, highly contaminated, water sources as we could, which often involved trekking through forestation to get to remote areas, conducting analytical and microbiology tests in temporary shelters or huts, all while keeping things sterile. It was an incredibly interesting challenge.
“Whilst Guatemala was our first test market, we also conducted tests in other communities around the globe, including the Philippines and Morocco. We also sought to test the product in areas with unique challenges related to water. I remember working in Kenya where the water was so thick and dark through soil erosion that it resembled gravy; or in Bangladesh, where well water was contaminated with arsenic. It was so important that we tested the product in as many different conditions as possible – we ended up testing over 2,000 waters around the world – to make sure that the P&G Purifier of Water worked across the full range of conditions.
“Testing the product wasn’t the only challenge we faced. We also struggled to implement an effective business model, driven by challenges on education and distribution – not least because many of the communities most in need of the P&G Purifier of Water were in incredibly remote corners of the globe. Most people were unaware that it was the water they were drinking that was causing illness in their family – ultimately, while uptake and repeat was high in the areas where we invested in education, we could not find a scalable model. And so, in 2004, the Children’s Safe Drinking Water (CSDW) programme was established as a charitable endeavour. It’s a brilliant example of how P&G has always, and continues to, strive to be a Force for Growth and a Force for Good: an innovation originally inspired by some work on our laundry business ended up becoming a non-profit initiative. Since then, the vast array of partnerships the Children’s Safe Drinking Water team has leveraged, often with non-governmental organisations that work with local communities to provide the needed education and distribution, has been truly amazing.
“Fast forward to today, and the Children’s Safe Drinking Water programme continues to achieve incredible things. We’ve provided 20 billion litres of clean water to over 90 countries around the world – predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. We work with 150 amazing organisations, including UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, whose 2020 Joint Monitoring Report stated that 771 million people lack access to clean drinking water. This demonstrates that, whilst our work has been ongoing for almost 24 years, there is still more to be done. And that’s why we continue to challenge ourselves, targeting to deliver 25 billion litres of clean drinking water by 2025.
“Discovering that I’d received an OBE was incredibly unexpected, and provided an important opportunity to sit back and reflect on the work that we have done. When you work in R&D, it can often take a little while for the impact of your projects to filter through. So whilst my involvement in developing the P&G Purifier of Water packet feels like a very long time ago, seeing us reach key milestones makes me realise just how much we have achieved. Witnessing the real-life impact of both my work and that of my colleagues is what truly gives me the greatest pleasure.”