Origin Story Interview W/ David Monnier, Fonto de Vivo

Origin Story Interview W/ David Monnier, Fonto de Vivo

Brighter Future

 / 

Dec 6, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #waterpurification #cleanwater #frenchinnovation #watersolutions #purificateurdeau #WaterAccess #WaterCrisisSolution

Brighter Future

We’re here with David Monnier, owner of Fonto de Vivo, a French company producing a manual water purification system for use by individuals and families.

Thank you so much for being here. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your company to us?

My name is David Monnier, and I co-founded Fonto de Vivo. Five years ago, my colleague Anthony Cailliau and I co-founded a startup specialising in developing water purifiers. We collaborated closely with NGOs in this mission. Originally, we focused on creating a purifier specifically designed for humanitarian emergencies, as I have prior experience as a humanitarian worker.

That’s very interesting. Can you take us through some steps before you founded Fonto de Vivo?

Several steps were involved, particularly one significant step that I would consider the most crucial. It entailed spending many years in the field with NGOs, primarily focusing on emergency or post-emergency situations. During this time, I had the opportunity to observe various countries, different approaches, and how NGOs dealt with water-related issues. This experience served as the main foundation for my work. I always kept in mind the fact that many people were not benefiting from NGO efforts due to the simple reason that NGOs couldn't cover the entire population during emergencies. This dissatisfaction was the first step that motivated me.

The second step occurred after my last job as the Head of Delegation for the British Red Cross in Haiti following the earthquake. Subsequently, I relocated to London with my wife, where I worked for DFID (Department for International Development), which no longer exists, but the purpose remained the same. By chance, I was introduced to the technology of ultrafiltration, which I wasn't familiar with before because I had never been involved as a wash person. However, I believed this technology could provide a solution for reaching people who were not covered by NGO efforts during emergencies. This discovery marked the third step in my journey.

I joined a small British NGO/company implementing levelled ultrafiltration. I worked with them for several years, and it proved to be a fruitful experience. Eventually, we had to part ways, but I greatly respect those individuals.

Afterward, I contacted all the NGOs I had previously worked with upon returning to France. I proposed a collaboration to create a water system that would specifically cater to the needs of the population they usually struggled to reach.

How did you meet your co-founder, and when did you decide to turn this idea into reality?

In 2017, I left London and returned to the city where I was born, located about 50 kilometres away from London. I followed my wife, as I always do. So, I contacted various NGOs like MSF, Doctors Without Borders, the French Red Cross, Solidarités international, and Handicap International, among others. I asked them if they would be interested in collaborating on the technical aspects of our idea. Three crucial elements were needed for this project: the support of NGOs (which I managed to secure), some financial resources (which I invested from my savings at the time), and expert technical advice. I wondered where I could find the right individuals for this, and since Nantes is a university hub, I decided to approach the university.

I went to the university and explained my project, expressing my desire to connect with a plastic specialist, a filtration specialist, and other professionals who could contribute to creating the best possible tool. Surprisingly, the person who opened the door at the university happened to be Anthony Cailleau, and is now my business partner. Our encounter was unplanned; it was simply a matter of meeting people and sitting down together. Anthony had just finished a cycle in his previous job, and our meeting seemed serendipitous. We clicked because he appreciated my approach to involving clients and NGOs, something he believed universities should do more often.

We worked together for a few months and eventually realised we needed to face this challenge as a team. That's when we decided to join forces and embark on this journey together.

Where are you currently active in the world?

We operate in over 25 countries, but in terms of volume, our most active area is the Vichada province of Colombia. We're collaborating with the Colombian authorities there to provide access to safe water and autonomy to populations living in remote areas without access to a traditional water network.

Another significant location is Madagascar, where we partner with Doctors Without Borders and other NGOs. They employ our solutions in various ways, particularly during emergencies such as such as heavy storm seasons. We're also involved in Lebanon with Solidarités International, assisting refugees and responding to cholera outbreaks.

We also have an interesting and impactful project in Burkina Faso, where Solidarités International supplies water to the people in the besieged city of Djibo. Our product, originally designed for families, is now used by large groups. People hand pump water for six to eight hours daily because our product operates through manual pumping. It's completely autonomous, requiring no electricity or chemicals. This was not something we had initially planned, but due to the durability and longevity of our product, it has proven effective in this unexpected use case.

That’s impressive— people can be very resourceful. I’d like to ask a few questions now, if you don’t mind.

Where did you get started, and when did you first introduce your water filter? Where did you make a strategic shift, and in what country did you first implement the shift? Finally, why did you choose that country?

To begin with, we initiated a pre-series phase. Since our product involves manufacturing in large quantities, it was crucial to ensure the accuracy of what we were sending out before deploying it in the field. Conducting pre-series testing is essential to our industrial project, following standard industrial practices. We collaborated with various NGOs worldwide for this purpose.

Unfortunately, it didn't go as smoothly as expected due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world began closing down, there were challenges in delivering the pre-series products. Nevertheless, we sent them to several countries, including the Central African Republic and schools in Haiti.

Haiti has been a significant market for us, although it experienced some interruptions due to the ongoing situation. I should also note: the selection of countries was determined by the partnering NGOs rather than us. Our first major and noteworthy project took place in Colombia. This is my first owned company.

How was it for you, or what thoughts did you go through, when you moved to become a business owner?

That's funny because I often tell people I wasn't thinking much when I made the decision. I'm joking, of course, because it entails a lot of work, effort, and commitment. I'm not just sweet-talking here because I'm an entrepreneur and want to portray myself as a hero. I'm not a hero.

But I can’t deny the fact that it's a significant burden when you decide to undertake it. You might not realise it initially, but after five years, you understand it's like sprinting in a very long race. So I didn't dwell on it too much; I just went for it.

I had the support of NGOs at the time, and I continue to receive their support. If you overthink things, you do very little, so you must leap and go for it. And I'm genuinely glad I did, even though I wake up earlier than my alarm clock every day and think, "Okay, here we go again today." But it's a common experience for most people with jobs, so it's not very different from others.

As a business owner a few years into your journey, what experiences from your previous careers gave you the confidence or perspective to tackle it all?

Well, achieving success played a significant role. For instance, when I served as the Head of Delegation for the British Red Cross in Haiti, it was the organisation's largest operation at that time. The fact that they entrusted this responsibility to a French person meant a lot. I’ve also held similar positions in other countries, and it's comparable to running a business. You need to ensure that everything follows the plan. The only difference is that instead of earning or winning money, you have money to spend. But the underlying principles are very similar.

All those experiences in the field, managing countries as a country manager or director, gave me the confidence to pursue my own company. Some individuals will take on this challenge, while others may not. It's not a matter of superiority; we are simply different. For some people, it's more evident or apparent than for others.

Have you ever done something completely different from what you had planned in your personal life or career?

I ended up getting married, which was never part of my plan. I got married very late in life, and I intended to remain single and not have any children. However, just recently, I welcomed my third son into the world. Maybe that’s not exactly the answer you expect, but in terms of life experiences, it is the biggest departure from my original plan.

Congratulations! It’s funny how parenthood can come into our lives, even if we didn’t think we wanted it at first. At Fonto de Vivo, what would you say have been the biggest challenges, apart from COVID, in getting it up and running?

To begin with, a few things posed challenges right from the start when I began to pursue this business. First and foremost, it was a significant commitment considering I was already in my forties and had children. I had to decide whether to save money for their education or invest it in Fonto de Vivo. That was definitely a challenge, to begin with.

Additionally, financial challenges persisted throughout the entire journey. I hesitate to use the word "adventure," but it comes to mind. When you're involved in such a business, unless you happen to be more successful or luckier than us, it's a roller coaster ride. Most of the time, when I interact with other companies, CEOs, directors, or investors, it's like riding a wave, constantly experiencing ups and downs. Eventually, if you're fortunate, you catch the right wave, and things start progressing smoothly.

From a financial standpoint, there were many ups and downs. When you invest your own money, there are times when you run out, only to be saved by unexpected support from the bank or someone else. This happened a couple of times during the lifespan of Fonto de Vivo. It's a challenge that induces a lot of stress.

Developing a product is also a major challenge. It took us two years, much like the financial aspect, to go through the process. You progress, feeling satisfied that you've met the agreed-upon requirements with the partnering NGOs. But when you present your work, they desire slight modifications. This leads you to return to product development repeatedly. It's a significant challenge.

As I mentioned, the primary challenge is to persevere and never give up. Even on days when you contemplate the enormity of the task you've taken on with a small team. Sometimes, you’d love to enjoy the good weather in Southern Europe. But as we continue, the incredible feedback we receive from the field, not just from NGOs but from the people using our purifiers, serves as our driving force. It can be another major challenge at times.

Occasionally, you forget why you started in the first place. With so many aspects of the business to manage and develop, you lose sight of your objective, which is to provide access to clean water for those in need. But occasionally, we receive feedback from NGOs, including pictures from the field, which remind us of our purpose. It reignites our focus on why we embarked on this journey and continue pursuing it.

In the end, it's truly rewarding. It makes all the burdens worthwhile.

Is this what you enjoy most about your work? Or if not this, what keeps your motivation high?

It’s this. Yes, more and more people are gaining access to water worldwide because of us. That means a lot. Let's be clear, though: we’re still a very small company, so we're not talking about a revolution. We're not saving the planet, but striving to provide something for people worldwide. That's definitely what keeps me going. We hope that, eventually, we'll gain enough recognition for more people to join us and partner with large companies, enabling us to make a significant impact worldwide. That's one aspect.

Additionally, another huge motivator is the fact that the NGO that has been working with us since the beginning— one of the main French NGOs— reached out to me recently and said, "David, we are super happy about your product, and we would like to develop another one with you." It's amazing. Yes, that's great. It's truly fantastic.

We receive feedback from the field about our products. They tell us, "Your product is very good. We are using it worldwide, and it's beneficial for this and that." However, there are still aspects that our purifier doesn't address. That's why they approached us and said, "We need to focus on the other aspects of water treatment.".

In the last five years since you started, were there bigger mistakes that you made and learned from?

There were some points during the journey. You need to learn to listen to yourself more than you currently do. It's difficult because we have partners and investors on board, along with many other people, and you try to listen to everyone and shape your position based on their opinions. But sometimes, and this is challenging, you should listen to yourself and go against others. It's easy to say but not easy to do. Nevertheless, in the future, I will be stronger in my convictions when I have a strong gut feeling that something is the right thing to do.

In your life, not just in your career but in general, have you ever experienced significant epiphanies or “Aha!” moments that changed your approach to certain things or shifted your perspective?

It's not original, but I went through the COVID experience myself two or three years ago. And that's probably the case for most of us because I've observed many people around me contemplating whether what they do is right. It also seems to be a common occurrence in the UK and many other countries. Many individuals are reevaluating their way of life and reconsidering various aspects. I have also undergone a similar process, which has been beneficial in several ways. Firstly, it has helped me realise that my work aligns with my true aspirations, which is a positive outcome. Additionally, it has allowed my family and me to tidy up our personal lives and social activities. So, while it may not be particularly original, that's the most significant epiphany that comes to mind.

You said it nicely earlier, I thought, when you referred to the wave motion that comes with entrepreneurship. How do you ground yourself and maintain your mental and physical well-being?

In the past, instead of taking a lunch break, I went climbing and engaged in similar activities. However, the workload has somewhat hindered me.

Nevertheless, I'm making an effort to incorporate activities like hiking into my routine and spend time outdoors as much as possible. Every weekend, I go out with my family. It's the opposite of sitting in front of a computer all day.

Fortunately, I'm fortunate to live in the middle of a vineyard, so I have numerous opportunities to take nature walks. I highly recommend this approach if it's feasible for others. Of course, not everyone can do so, especially if they reside in the city. Still, stepping outside refreshes me. It is the way to do it.

What were your significant compromises or sacrifices to reach where you are today?

One of the biggest compromises I made was deciding to continue instead of stopping.

In my previous experience as a humanitarian worker, I primarily focused on emergency and post-emergency assignments. Typically, I’d spend about a year— or a maximum of a few years— in a country and then move on somewhere else. This constant movement was both a positive and negative aspect of my life. It was a lifestyle I enjoyed, but I can't say for certain whether it was good or bad.

But now I’ve given up this constant change and the opportunity to switch activities. Though I still travel to some extent, it's not the same as living in a place like Lebanon for four years or in Liberia. Those experiences were significant in my life. I had to let go of all that. Suddenly, my life became more conventional, and I commute to the office every morning on my motorbike. But yes, that's another sacrifice I had to make.

What lessons or insights did you gain from that time, having lived in various other countries for a couple of years?

I consistently emphasise to everyone in France that we should never take what we have for granted. While it's not fair to directly compare Lebanon and France, it's important to recognise that nothing is guaranteed indefinitely. Any country can face significant challenges at any given time, regardless of its level of development or status as a European country. This is something I always keep in mind.

Even though I have travelled to many countries, such as Afghanistan, where people endure tremendous hardships, they still persevere. They continue to live their lives, get married, have children, and find joy in whatever ways they can. We should all remember this, especially those of us in wealthier countries who have everything at our disposal. It is unnecessary to complain about trivial inconveniences like running out of toilet paper.

Agreed. We have it far better than most of us realise. Do you think you might like to share what books you're reading?

Now and then, I read books in English. I am reading a book by John Irving now: Last Night in Twisted River. When I was younger, I enjoyed John Irving's works a lot. I came across one of his unread books by chance, so I decided to read it.

What future do you hope to create with Fonto de Vivo?

Our primary goal is to make our current product, the Orisa, widely available. We believe that it should be accessible through NGOs and to individuals in countries where clean water is scarce. That's the first step.

Additionally, we envision building a large retail network worldwide for our products. Interestingly, last summer in France, we faced a drought, and the general public approached us to access our purifier due to concerns about water scarcity. This gave us a different perspective on the market. We realised that our purifiers could serve as a backup solution for society, especially in Europe, during times of trouble.

However, this aspect is just a bonus for us. Our main focus remains on the rest of the world, where access to clean and safe water is a pressing issue. Our ultimate achievement would be to have our products available in every village and small shop, similar to Coca-Cola.

Do you have any advice you would like to give young entrepreneurs or individuals considering starting a business?

Everything has been done before. As I mentioned earlier, people told me that when I started, and I've always responded with "yes." Walking down the main street of Nantes, you'll find restaurants everywhere. But you can still open a new restaurant and achieve success. The same applies to services and products. Even if something similar already exists, you will still thrive as a business.

So go for it: that's my advice. Be prepared for setbacks. Being prepared to face failure is crucial. If it happens, don't let it destroy you. Instead, view it as a part of the game. Winning the lottery doesn't occur frequently, but you can still play.

Similarly, be prepared for losses in your business. If it does occur, it shouldn't shatter you. It might not necessarily make you stronger or wealthier, but it will undoubtedly be a valuable experience. Ultimately, that's what life is all about.

It's a bit different for young ones because, generally, you have a longer time to recover if something bad happens. So definitely, if you are young, you go for it.

If you had one message that could reach anyone in the world, what would it be?

Look after the others.

One of our universal human needs. Thank you so much for sharing that, and for spending a little time with us. Your story is extremely interesting; it sounds like you’ve lived a beautifully varied life. From all of us at Brighter Future, we sincerely hope your purifier gets into as many hands as possible, as soon as possible. People like you will save countless lives in the future.

If you’d like to learn more about Fonto de Vivo, please visit www.fontodevivo.com.

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