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Wetec: Walter Penfold

Irrigation company takes first mover advantage with rainwater harvesting systems that look set to change the way the market thinks about water consumption.

Juliet Pitman

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Walter Penfold

Those in the know predict that water shortages will be responsible for South Africa’s next big infrastructure crisis. If they’re right then Walter Penfold will be sitting in the pound seat. And even if predictions are overstated, there can be little doubt that a business which delivers smarter ways to harness and save water is on a winning wicket. Penfold started Wetec with a partner in 2003. Originally an irrigation business, the company this year launched a new imported product range that allows for the collection, storage and distribution of rainwater. “It’s called rainwater harvesting and it really is the way of the future,” says Penfold, explaining how the system captures rainwater for it to be stored and then redistributed into the plumbing of a home or the systems of a large industrial business.

Seeing the gap

“Think about it,” he says, “Rainwater is fresh and pure, but is allowed to run off into storm water drains, rivers and eventually into dams from whence it needs to be cleaned and purified at great expense into pure safe drinking water. Urban consumers use less than 5% of it for drinking and food preparation; the other 95% of this drinking water is used to flush toilets, wash clothes and irrigate gardens, which is absolutely crazy. Rain harvesting collects the water after it has rained, when it needs little purification and filtering, and stores it so it can be used for non-drinking and food preparation purposes.” Penfold’s years of running Wetec as a specialist irrigation company helped him identify the rain harvesting gap early on. “Our business focus has always been on urban water conservation and our irrigation systems were designed for optimal water efficiency,” he says. These computer-operated, fully automated, intelligent irrigation systems calculate how much water a garden loses each day through evaporation and plant use, and therefore how much water needs to be replaced. By measuring the microclimate of a garden and adjusting to the weather, they can save the user between 20% and 50% of irrigated water consumption.

Securing sole agency

“With that background, it made sense for us to start looking at water efficiency for the whole home. This led us to rain harvesting, which is applicable as much to large industrial businesses as it is to individual consumer use,” says Penfold. His experience in irrigation laid critical foundations and developed his know-ledge about importing best-of-breed products and where the biggest water saving needs lie. The company has secured the sole rights to import and distribute the Rain Harvesting product range from Australia, where rain harvesting is at its most advanced and sophisticated. “Australia is the driest continent on earth, and over three million Australians rely on rainwater as their sole water supply. They are the leaders in rain harvesting and it’s there that we naturally turned when looking for rainwater harvesting products,” he explains, adding that the company hopes to secure the sole rights for distribution into Africa as well.

Tapping the market

The potential market is large, diverse and untapped; for private urban use Wetec offers everything from a simple DIY tank to sophisticated underground storage tanks complete with pumps and filters, while the commercial and industrial systems can cater for enormous operations. “Water tariffs will undoubtedly rise which means everyone, from the individual consumer to large industrial corporations, will stand to save money from rainwater harvesting,”  Penfold adds. For consumers there’s the added benefit that a sophisticated home system can be installed and linked to the plumbing without much interference in the existing structure of the home. “It doesn’t require bashing down walls or anything of the kind, and the system is designed to automatically switch to municipal water if the rainwater tanks run dry,” he explains. The water is filtered for sediment, colour and odour using a patented filter system.
While the simple DIY kit and rain barrel will be retailed through hardware stores, Wetec distributes the rest of the product range through contractors. “Human beings have been doing a low-tech form of rainwater harvesting for 4 000 years, but it’s mostly a forgotten practice. But now, the water crisis, particularly in water-scarce countries like South Africa, has created the need for solutions that save water and use alternative water sources. It’s a fledgling market in South Africa but it’s one we aim to dominate,” Penfold concludes.

Company: Wetec
Player: Walter Penfold
Est. 2003
Contact: +27 11 708 7950
www.wetec.co.za

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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