Enrique Lomnitz is the CEO and founder of Isla Urbana, a social enterprise based in Mexico City, who together with a multidisciplinary team has created and installed rainwater harvesting systems to provide low-income and water scarce populations in urban and rural areas of Mexico with a sustainable alternative to clean water access. To know more about Isla Urbana, Enrique shared key insights about their work, motivations, and challenges.
This is the third of a series of interviews about the various critical aspects of the ecosystem of social innovation and social entrepreneurship in Mexico from the viewpoint of practitioners.
What is Isla Urbana about?
Isla Urbana is a social enterprise that focuses on developing sustainable water access in Mexico City specifically, and in Mexico as a country more generally, which focuses principally on rainwater harvesting as a method of improving water access in peri-urban parts of Mexico City that are the most underserved in terms of water infrastructure.
Our larger aims are to contribute to a shift towards sustainable water management. Mexico City has a very complex water scenario and we focus on developing rainwater harvesting to improve access in underserved parts of the city, and also to start shifting the conception of water infrastructure towards a more direct relationship between water use and the immediately available water cycle; we are trying to make a contribution towards figuring out how to supply water sustainably to the most underserved.
Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?
We (me and my first co-founder Renata) were in Rhode Island studying industrial design, and we were both interested in industrial design applied to sustainable development, and we wanted to do something that was both related to sustainability and to low-income populations. We are both from Mexico City and had the intention of moving back to Mexico City and working on problems that affected that particular place, so we started doing open-ended research and projects on sustainability issues that affected low-income populations in Mexico City.
We did a lot of on-site work, we visited peri-urban neighbourhoods in the south of Mexico City, suburb neighbourhoods and low-income communities, and interviewed people pretty extensively about how they have built the neighbourhood, how they have built their houses, what kind of issues they have faced within the context of marginalization and peri-urban low-income realities, and people started talking to us about water problems.
We started noticing very quickly that water was the most common, recurring subject that people will bring up, and that brought us to do a lot of research on water in Mexico City, the history of water management in Mexico City, and projections for the future. Mexico City is in the list of top-ten cities most likely to run out of water in the world; it’s a brutal case study in unsustainable water management, so as we started learning more about this, we just became more interested in water in the context of peri-urban low-income communities.
As we started thinking about it and bouncing ideas around with people in these communities, we came to the conclusion that harvesting rainwater just made a lot of sense, on different levels: in terms of improving people’s access immediately, but also in terms of what we see as a larger strategy in Mexico City, and shifting course into a more sustainable management model.
When we finished school and we kept talking about it and thinking about it, we decided to put up a first rainwater harvesting system. So, we went to one of the people that we had interviewed a lot on the southern edge of Mexico City and proposed to install a rainwater harvesting system in her house. We put up this pilot rainwater harvesting system, which was our very first iteration model and it worked really well. It filled quickly, and even with this simple system, the water was pretty clean, and she was very happy, so that sealed the deal for us, and we decided to build an organization trying to do that on a much larger scale, to promote rainwater harvesting and develop technology for more effective rainwater harvesting, and do whatever we could do to try and get Mexico City to start harvesting rainwater on a large scale. And that’s how all started.
How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?
I think it’s all been a very collaborative process. After we installed that first rainwater harvesting system, I moved out to that community and started putting rainwater harvesting systems with the immediate neighbours. Within months, a core team of co-founders had come together, and we were all working together.
The first maybe fifteen rainwater harvesting systems we put up in a three to four-block radius, while I was living up in the mountain, and everything was a very iterative and collaborative process between me and my first co-founder, the other co-founders that joined us very soon after, and the people in the community, because our idea was that we needed to do rainwater harvesting systems that are truly adapted to the context of the people that are suffering the biggest water scarcity in the city.
It was always an open project, so a lot of people started joining, finding us, and moving in with us and helping us; people with a lot of different backgrounds, engineers, and designers, but also urbanists and people that were interested in social work. People just started joining in the effort and contributing to a project that combines technological development and design with developing social change processes, we teach people to harvest rainwater, we transfer the knowledge we are developing to people that we thought could really use it, so this is very much a collaborative and iterative process, and we get inputs from the users of the systems, but also from people working on the projects from different disciplines, adding ideas and knowledge to it.
What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?
I don’t remember feeling much fear at the beginning. I knew that it might not work and that we might not be able to do much, but I was not particularly afraid of that. We in general have very much of a strong sense of adventure and the experience of the whole thing. We really were hungry for throwing ourselves into projects that we thought were good ideas, and which could do something to help people, and just keep moving forward in the sustainability field. I speak for myself, I just felt that I wanted the experience of channeling all of my strength into an idea I believed in, and if it didn’t work, then whatever I learned from it would be enough. So I don’t particularly remember feeling fearful when I started, just very eager to do things and to work on this.
What were the beginnings of social innovation? (i.e. how did you build your initiative, business, NGO from zero?)
We just wanted to learn how to harvest rainwater effectively and put up as many rainwater harvesting systems as possible, get better and better at it, and talk about it to anyone who would listen. We just started putting up one, and then two, and then three, and four rainwater harvesting systems, and tried to draw some attention towards what we were doing, and trying to show and teach people that this was a good idea, that this is something that really helps people, and that’s all we were doing, we were just putting up systems and looking for ways to put up more.
We decided to found a company soon after because we believed there was at least some market potential maybe in wealthier areas, and we thought we might be able to sell rainwater harvesting systems there, and maybe use the profits from that to found systems in low- income communities.
We soon saw that there were other potential business models that we could pursue to go directly towards the low-income population, and a lot of that happened very organically like we started getting approached by the local governments, who came to look what we were doing, who got excited about it, so we started to sell rainwater harvesting programs to local governments in very water scarce parts of the city, and kept building and building up from there, looking for opportunities.
We didn’t have an initial plan that was super clear about how we would do it. We just had a couple of things very clear which included that we needed to be installing rainwater systems however we could, and we needed to get people talking about it. We really were convinced that this was something that has a lot of value, and so if we just could do it, and keep on doing it, and figure out how to do it better, people would see it, and then the actual value of it would speak for itself, and things would grow and start developing their own inertia, and that was what we believed. The more we worked, the more people started noticing, and the more people started approaching the project, and that’s how the whole organization started to grow; very much based on people responding to the work that we were doing and asking us to do more work. We kept on going and going trying to find areas of opportunity.
How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
I think that people were already becoming very conscious of the fact that Mexico City was on the verge of a very profound water crisis. So people already have the sense that we needed solutions for a water problem. There were already people who cared when we started. It was already in many people’s minds and consciousness. I mean rainwater harvesting is pretty intuitive on a certain level. There is all this water falling from the sky and we don’t have water in our houses, and connecting those dots made sense to people when we told the story, and we put a lot of enthusiasm into building a narrative on this and trying to find ways to talk about it.
We did a lot of “let the work speak for itself”. I mean, don’t ask me, ask this woman who is harvesting rainwater in the neighbourhood that has this huge water scarcity, and let her tell you whether it works or not. And that was very effective because in the beginning there was this resistance from conventional water authorities and they kept on pointing out that rainwater harvesting was not a solution, but a lot of them would have really nothing to say when a person that was actually harvesting rainwater would say “well, it has helped me a lot”. So the more rainwater systems we put up, and the more people installed rainwater systems in water scarce neighbourhoods, we did a lot promoting it and talking about it, and trying to get people to look our way.
Don’t ask me, ask the people that are harvesting rainwater whether it works or not; they would say that it works and that the water situation was very much improved since they started harvesting rainwater. Rainwater is perfectly capturable, harvestable, and usable, and when you get a family that gets water from the grid one day a week or one day every two weeks, it really makes sense and it really works. Now, ten years later many people would say that this is an obvious solution in Mexico City, but back then it may have been obvious, but nobody was doing it.
How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?
Putting up rainwater harvesting systems and really being in touch with that system and talking to the families, visiting them during or after a rainfall to see what’s happening, and people tell you what works and what doesn’t, this is an iterative process.
We didn’t design a rainwater harvesting system trying to get it perfect and then deploying it. We put up the first most basic rainwater harvesting system that we knew at the time, and we watched it work or not and tried to fix the parts that didn’t work. And what we really achieved was this part of being constantly in communication and contact with the users, because they can see what works and what doesn’t. It’s a process of developing the technology very closely with the people you are designing for. You can then identify the things that work and the things that don’t, and then you can address them.
How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DIY fundraising?
We didn’t really have any money when we started. We had very little money from our families. They supported us this way, maybe with three or four thousand US dollars at the most, in the beginning. We were living in a very low-income community. We would go around the neighbourhood and ask people if they had spare PVC pipes we could have and we’d recycle them, we did a lot of asking the neighbours to donate spare bits and pieces of material to put up a rainwater system, and we slowly started looking for other things.
We wrote the first grant for a government office in Mexico City through the Institute of Youth. We got like three thousand US dollars from them. That was the first grant we ever got. We just stretched that money enormously. It lasted for four to five months and we installed five or six rainwater harvesting systems with it. We were very cost effective and we really worked on getting the most work out of every single dollar.
And then, when the second wave of partners arrived, the group of co-founders that joined the project very much at the beginning, they borrowed and brought in some money, like fifteen thousand US dollars, which was amazing, and we eventually paid that money back. That was maybe a year into the project. And it’s pretty much the only investment we ever took.
The rest was just work, selling rainwater harvesting systems and using the money from that to live on and to put up more. We just started landing contracts. We started getting hired by people to install rainwater harvesting systems. As I mentioned, the district government was one of our biggest breaks, maybe like a year and a half after the first system was up, we got hired by the local government to install a bunch of rainwater harvesting systems, and since then we just built the organization up with its own revenue, we just put it all back into the project and built it up just with work itself. That’s not a model that always works, but it worked for us.
On the other side, from the very beginning, we have done many collaborations with other organizations. Other organizations hire us, and we hire them, we recommended each other and do things like that. We have been approached by potential investors, but we have never said yes to any of them, mostly just because we felt they were not a hundred percent the right fit, and we were kind of reluctant or didn’t want to have to answer to someone who was not directly working with us, shoulder to shoulder. We were very idealistic and very much wanted to be able to decide what we do and make decisions on the ground.
The journey had its vulnerabilities but we have been able until now to finance our own growth, and we have done it just entirely on the back of the revenue that the project self generates. So far, we’ve worked a lot like a family business, only we aren’t related, and we’re extremely mission driven, rather than purely business focused. We’ve had enormous amounts of sweat and work put in by everybody that is actually involved in the project. At some point, if we find an investor that feels really in line with us and that really gets what we are trying to do, we are very much open to it, but only if we think they’re the right person for us.
How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?
We started up very much as an urban Mexico City project, but pretty soon after we started working with indigenous communities, and we got to work throughout Mexico and we’ve worked in most of the country. We have installed at least one rainwater harvesting system in most states of the country.
We also have from the very beginning this kind of hybrid structure, we have an NGO and the company, and so we have always had some projects that are pure not for profit, donor and grant based work, and then we have a company, which moves forward through sales. It’s has given us a pretty wide net: we can sell systems, we can write grants, we can receive donations, we can do direct government collaborations, so we have a diverse revenue stream, especially because Mexico is an economically complicated place to work, so we always thought that we needed to have a bunch of different options so that if one thing dried up or didn’t work, we would have another way of continuing to advance our mission. It’s been effective for us. It’s been amazing to do such a diversity of projects and to collaborate with all kinds of different people.
What is the one advice you can give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?
In terms of advice to inspire other social entrepreneurs, I would say that to me the most important thing has been to really think about your idea and be self-critical about your idea so that you can really be very confident that what you do makes sense. I think that’s a really crucial thing. Being almost obsessive looking for the flaws in what you are doing.
And the other thing, which is maybe the most important, is just partnering with people that you really like and trust, and that bring skills and ideas different from what you already have. Allow other people in and let them own it too, equally, so that there’s more people really giving it everything they’ve got and building together, this brings an amount of energy and horsepower you could never bring by yourself. So I think who you partner with maybe the most important decision you’ll make.
And also adding to what I said, make it an adventure. Don’t be obsessed with the end goal. Ride the waves, take the experience and look for the joy, the adventure, and the thrill in the actual experience of building it, so that every step of the way is rich, alive, and full of things that keep you going and renew your motivation. You face a lot of incredibly frustrating moments when you build something, anything, worthwhile, and you need to be able to face those frustrations, you need to be developing your capacity to find the opportunity in the crises, and finding fulfilling moments even amongst the hard work that is involved in building, and keep ongoing.
Most projects, organizations, and companies are built through an enormous amount of persistence, so keep going, reimagining, reinventing yourself, and just getting up every day and moving forwards. Your capacity for persistence is one of the things that matter the most when you are trying to build something, and so this is something that you cultivate.
How do you change the whole system?
When we first started ten years ago rainwater harvesting was a completed niche subject that was not at all taken seriously or considered like a tool for sustainable urbanism at a large scale. It was seen as a hippie eco-technology that maybe would be used at eco-villages, or maybe in very disconnected rural communities, and there was no real sense of how rainwater harvesting could be a significant part of Mexico City’s water management strategy.
I think we have been instrumental in advancing rainwater harvesting in that sense, and right now is a very different situation. Right now rainwater harvesting is very much on the public agenda and is active public policy. There are regulations, requirements for new buildings to have rainwater harvesting systems, there are government programs to install rainwater harvesting systems throughout the country, including Mexico City. Four of the candidates for mayor of Mexico City ran with rainwater harvesting as part of their platforms and the installation of rainwater harvesting systems was included in their campaign speeches. Rainwater harvesting went from an idea to Mexico City’s policy agenda, and I think we have been key players in making that happen.
This all happened, I think because rainwater harvesting really is a sort of low-hanging fruit for sustainably improving water access in several areas. It just needed proof of concepts to happen and get visibility. Not just proof that harvesting rainwater is technically feasible… that was already known, although really robust systems, designed for the context of the city, did need to be designed and developed. But it’s a lot about implementation. Even if someone agreed, ten or twenty years ago, that the city should harvest rain on a mass scale, nobody had a demonstrated method or strategy to bring this about. It’s not so simple to install thousands of custom systems and even less so to really teach populations how to use them well. That is what we brought, together with a few other great organizations that have been working on rainwater capture here for about as long as we have.
So in my experience, if you want to change the system, a good strategy may be to just start building whatever it is that you would like to see instead and let that grow and take over.
Durdana Prado is an International Cooperation professional and Social Innovation and Sustainable Entrepreneurship enthusiast with formal studies, work, and research experience in local development, international education, public policy, internationalization of healthcare services, and the cooperation between Latin America and Europe. She has solid experience working as a project manager, area coordinator, and consultant in different sectors namely public administration, CSOs, private sector, and academia in Mexico, Germany, and the United States of America. In recent years, she has paid considerable attention to the study of social innovation ecosystems and sustainable entrepreneurship initiatives in Mexico and Latin America. She currently works on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, at the Ministry of Planning and Citizen Participation.
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