OfferZen is based in the heart of Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but unfortunately also the first at risk to run out of water. This is something that would have affected all of us at OfferZen, both at home and at the office, so it was clear that we needed to do something. We came up with a plan to supply our entire 35-strong team with water. Since other startups are probably dealing with similar issues, we wanted to share our approach and what we learned.
1. Do the basics: minimise consumption
Early in 2018, it became clear that we needed to reduce our consumption as much as possible. We had always made an effort to use water frugally, but the drought required us to do more.
In the bathrooms, we:
- replaced the hand soap with waterless hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes,
- put up friendly posters from our design team that remind everyone to avoid washing their hands with water and
- set up a “wee wiser” system to help us minimise the number of times the toilet has to be flushed:
In our office kitchenette, we:
- initially put up a poster to remind people to reuse cups and glasses to minimise dishes and then decided to
- replace our dishes with locally-made biodegradable ones.
The next step was to design a plan to deal with the possibility that our office water supply could be interrupted.
2. Appoint a team to own the mission
In order to effectively see this through, we needed a dedicated team: Together with our co-founders Malan and Philip, our Ops head Lindsay and Product team lead Gys took charge of the water mission. They would decide on a plan, communicate it to the rest of the OfferZen team and take responsibility for its implementation.
Before deciding on a strategy, they analysed the data on the wider situation to understand for how long we might face severe water shortages. They looked at the City of Cape Town’s data on dam level estimations (particularly the “Water Dashboard” document), annual rainfall patterns and the likely start of the rain season.
The “danger window” turned out to be a couple of weeks following “Day Zero”, after which the winter rains would replenish water supplies. The water team also realised that it was unlikely that the inner city, where we are located, would lose water completely.
3. Weigh up your options
Instead, the bigger risk was intermittent water supply. At first glance, this seemed to leave us with two options:
- We could either trust that our water supply wouldn't get interrupted or
- make minor provisions to keep our office taps and toilets running in the case that it would.
However, neither would do anything to alleviate our situations at home. Once Day Zero hit, all of us would have to start queueing for water daily. This would severely impact OfferZen's operations. The extreme way to solve the problem would have been to temporarily relocate the entire office to Johannesburg or enable those with family outside of Cape Town to live and work remotely. Given how disruptive this would be, we shelved it as a backup option.
The solution was to have water provision at the office. Come Day Zero, it would be a huge time-saver if we could get our emergency water supplies at the office instead of the city’s queueing points. We would need large water tanks (that could be topped up periodically), as well as smaller 25ℓ containers for each of us to take home. We also considered buying an air water generator and connecting the water tanks directly to our office taps. However, both of these options ultimately proved too impractical/expensive. That's why we went with the simpler water-tanks-and-containers plan.
Then, we had to implement it. That turned out to be easier said than done!
4. Execute hard and fast
First, we had to get water storage tanks: Initially, we wanted to have the capacity to store 20kℓ, so that our supply could last the entire 35-strong team for longer than a week. However, by the end of January, all the builder’s stores and large suppliers in the Western Cape had run out of water tanks.
After a long search, we managed to buy three tanks off Gumtree. When the date for Day Zero got pushed back, we settled for a total capacity of 10Kℓ (one 5Kℓ and two 2.5Kℓ tanks - the only sizes still available). 10Kℓ would roughly be enough water to supply all of us for a week and we kept a backup order to get another 10Kℓ tank by the end of March.
Secondly, we had to figure out where to place the containers: OfferZen is located in a multi-storey building. We have parking bays on the third floor of the same complex and further spaces in a parking lot down the street.
Initially, we wanted to install our containers in the building itself to guarantee easy access. However, we quickly calculated that placing a couple of water tanks in our parking spaces could actually compromise the structural integrity of the entire parking garage (each of them weighs a couple of tons when full!). That's why we opted to install the containers at our ground floor parking facility down the street.
Thirdly, we had to buy enough 25ℓ containers. We bought 50 of these (one for each person on the team and enough extras for general use) from Plastics for Africa in Montague Gardens.
Fourthly, we had to get water. This was super hard. After a long search, we opted to use a private contact. We had to check that they (i) provided potable water, (ii) were legitimate and wouldn't scam us and (iii) sourced their water ethically, by not adding further pressure to drought-stricken areas.
Finally, we wanted to independently check that our water is safe to drink. To this end, we sent a sample to Bemlab to check the water's quality.
5. Be ready for action
Now that everything is in place, each OfferZen member will be able to take home at least 25ℓ of safe drinking water per day, should things come to the worst. Excluding water delivery, the whole plan cost us less than R20K in total to execute.
The City of Cape Town has since rescheduled “Day Zero” well into June, which is much closer to the winter rains. Whilst we are at a far lower risk of having our office and home water supplies restricted, the water shortage seems here to stay. That's why we are really glad to have a solid backup option in place.
If you want to look into your options, here are the resources we used:
- The City of Cape Town’s water data; also see their “Water Dashboard” document.
- The waterless hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes that we put in our bathrooms.
- PDFs of our “Wee wiser” and water-saver posters.
- The water storage tanks we chose; we opted for a 5Kℓ and two 2,5Kℓ tanks.
- 50x 25ℓ containers from Plastics for Africa.
Tip: Be careful of scammers. We heard a few horror stories of people paying for tanks upfront only to find out that their suppliers had vanished into thin air. You will likely have to pay a deposit to secure a tank (we did), but try to negotiate for the bulk of the payment to be completed on delivery.
- Bemlab for water testing.
Share your approach!
In addition to our own measures, we are keen to find new smart ways to save water. How do you approach the situation at your office? Please share your hacks with us below.