News | Published July 10 2020

Keep rolling on: Digimax founder Shaz Memon on a mission to change lives one water wheel at a time

Shaz Memon is the multi-award-winning entrepreneur behind Digimax and Digimax Dental, of which he is CEO and founder. A designer, marketer and business leader, Memon has been active in his industry for over twenty years.

Among his most recent accolades is the Corporate Social Responsibility award for 2019, and his stock in the corporate world is very much on the rise. However, Memon is also an up-and-coming philanthropist, and is behind one of the world’s most unique charities: Wells on Wheels, which has been changing the lives of thousands of girls and their families across rural India, thanks to a unique invention known as the water wheel. Speaking to the Leaders Council of Great Britain & Northern Ireland, Memon opens up about the Wells on Wheels story.

The Covid-19 pandemic has once more laid bare some of the real hardships faced by swathes of the world’s population who do not have access to clean water via basic plumbing. Roughly 11 per cent of the world’s population, equating to around 790 million to 844 million people, do not have clean water near their homes. Around 1.8 billion people, equating to 25 per cent of the earth’s population, are thought to not have access to appropriate sanitation.

Among India’s population of 1.3 billion, this translates to almost 163 million people that lack access to clean water near their home, equating to one in ten members of the country’s population, according to WaterAid. This lack of access leaves people often having to travel long distances to collect water for themselves, water which is likely not to be safe to consume, and the responsibility for collecting and carrying often falls upon the shoulders of women and young girls.

Addressing this issue, Memon said: “Lack of clean water and sanitation has an ill-effect on the lives of women and girls. We’ve seen first-hand girls as young as seven tasked with the responsibility of collecting water, which is both a time-consuming and physically demanding task.

"Often having to travel long distances alone to collect water, these women are at a greater risk to abuse and sexual assaults. Furthermore, these women should be able to practice good hygiene during menstruation and pregnancy, and it is hugely important in maintaining good health. The lack of running water and toilets in schools also sees women excluded from education or being late for school due to having to collect water first.”

It is somewhat galling in light of this fact that in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, health authorities in India instructed that citizens wash hands regularly with soap and water as a precaution. The lack of access not only leaves people from rural communities vulnerable to coronavirus, but many other diseases too. Furthermore, all of that need for water only places additional pressure on the young women and girls expected to collect and carry it.

Bewildered after experiencing firsthand the burden that water-carrying placed upon women, Memon felt driven to do something about it. From this desire to make a difference, Wells on Wheels was born as Memon's latest brainchild.

Opening up about his experiences in India which lead him to form the charity, Memon said: “Going back a couple of years, I was discreetly trying to ‘do my bit’ in a philanthropic way via a relative in Mumbai, while also running my busy marketing company, Digimax Dental.

“Bringing a child into this world is tough. As a father of a three-year-old daughter, I know the challenges only too well. Caring for a baby whilst living in poverty can be devastating so, I asked my relative to help me to get key essentials to families with new-born babies struggling to cope. My only caveat was that I requested regular video call updates to show me who we were helping. One day, as we talked, I noticed a parade of young girls in the distance walking with barrels on their heads.

“I quizzed my relative about it, only to discover the terrible plight of women and girls burdened with the task of carrying heavy buckets on their heads to transport water back to their communities, often over distances of two miles in temperatures of 40°C. Risking their health daily and missing out on vital education, I felt it was a huge injustice and gave myself the task of seeking an alternative to help give these young girls in rural India a fairer chance at achieving a more prosperous future.”

Besides the impact that water-carrying responsibilities have on their life chances, young Indian women are suffering from physical consequences of their endeavours through conditions such as chronic neck and back pain, and sometimes more severe musculoskeletal disorders which lead to a whole host of other complications.

The act of establishing Wells on Wheels proved simple. It only took Memon the effort of sharing a handful of videos from his iPhone to get the new organisation up and running, and it has been on quite the journey since that fateful day.

To date, it has supplied 2124 of its unique water wheels at a cost of £28 each. For every family or school with a water wheel, two girls have been able to attend school and enhance their life prospects.

In just its first thirty days of crowdfunding, the charity mustered £20,000 of funds and distributed 714 water wheels which influenced the lives of 3,570 people and allowed 2,142 children to go to school. His work has also gained national media attention in India, with the Times of India reporting on a recent water wheel distribution in the country.

Of course, this begs a number of questions, mainly: what is a water wheel, why does it help and where did Memon get his latest bright idea from?

Lifting the lid on his source of inspiration, Memon told of how he came across a story about how carts were being utilised to reduce the physical burden for water-carrying women and children. Following further research into the issue, he came across Cynthia Koenig, who founded the Wello charity which manufactures water wheels.

The water wheel is essentially a portable barrel which carries 45 litres of water, five times the capacity of water than more rudimentary containers which women carry on their heads. They can be rolled on the ground with a light, metal trolley, which reduces the physical burden on women and girls. Inspired by this idea, Memon set about the task of designing and building his own.

Memon explained: “As a designer and problem solver, I took a fresh look at our office water cooler and it dawned on me that it would be far easier to roll large volumes of water rather than carry it.

“Made of high-density polyethylene and able to handle the wear and tear of gravel roads for up to 7,000 kilometres, these water wheel cars are leak-proof and fitted with a food-grade cap. What was once three trips to a well based miles away is now one trip and what musculoskeletal disorders caused by the practice of carrying 19.5 kilos of water on the heads of girls and women, is now a thing of the past.”

Backed in his endeavours by dental practices across the UK, Memon has been able to focus his attention on his charitable work of supplying water wheels across India. Its mission of “easing the burden on our mothers, sisters, and daughters” is very much ongoing, having lined up the ambitious aim of positively impacting the lives of one million people by the year 2025.

Memon adds: “In the next 15 years, I would like to empower girls to turn their futures around by gaining access to education that they would have otherwise been denied due to water collection duties.”

The very idea of having several litres of water to spare for simple hygiene practices in rural India has seemed an insurmountable luxury before now. There is still much work left to do to make this basic necessity a reality, but Memon is relishing the challenge.

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