For centuries civilizations have thrived at the banks of rivers and waterways – flourishing on its sustenance. The Nile formed the lifeline of Egypt and the Indus Valley Civilization sprung up on fertile land next to the Indus River. With ground water contamination and the health hazards commonly associated with tap water in Pakistan, quenching your thirst with water straight from the river or a water bed no longer remained an option. That is when we turned to bottled water and trusted leading companies to feed us the right concentration of minerals dissolved in pure drinking water. However, leading bottled water giants are set to face competition from a relatively small establishment that is set out to put Pakistan on the map for a top class product. Zubair Khan, former economist, talks to Maryam Syed about his product, O1 Premium Natural Drinking Water, whose composition can compete with leading international brands of natural bottled water.
Can you tell us about your professional background and how you came to establish O1 Premium Natural Drinking Water?
Zubair Khan: “Let me first tell you about our water. I am an economist and worked at the IMF for a while, I established a bottled water plant because I discovered a very rare natural resource of water which naturally, on its own, has the finest qualities that water anywhere in the world can have. I decided to then put up a plant which was deserving of treating this special water. And this is a very small family business, just me and my two children who are qualified from business schools. This is the story of a small family business and how we were able to put this plant up without the help of banks because they refused to deal with entrepreneurs and a new product. This is not just any water – this is a different genre of water than what you are currently buying in bottles. Water is a lot more than just a liquid that we drink. There are different categories of water and any water whose original composition is changed by the bottler that generically all over the world is called bottled drinking water. On the other hand is the natural mineral water which is that water whose original composition is not altered at all. Water can have three types of ingredients in it: the dissolved minerals and salts, the suspended particles in it like fine sand particles and bacteria and viruses. Now no one wants bacteria or viruses and no one wants suspended particles so it’s the dissolved substances that are the differentiating factor between the two genres and categories of water. In our case because the water originally has an extremely healthy composition we have to deliver it unaltered. Otherwise, we cannot call ourselves a company providing natural mineral water. There are standard certifying authorities in Pakistan and globally and they will not allow you to call your water natural if you are changing the compositing.”
But why do the other bottlers of Pakistan change the composition?
ZK: “Because they draw their water from wells where the water is originally not safe or suitable for human consumption – so they go through industrial processes to take out from that water whatever is in it and then they add chemicals to it to generate a synthetic mineral balance that is not naturally present. The consumers don’t know how much they are adding because they don’t give you a specific number, they give you a range of values so you don’t know what you are drinking. Sodium is considered a bad ingredient and in the composition the level of sodium can be the upper end of the range. So you don’t know what the elderly with hyper tension issues are drinking or what the children are drinking. In contrast the water we provide is coming from a huge natural source of water which has a standard composition and the composition of the water is indicated on the bottle as specific numbers so you know exactly what you’re drinking.”
Which companies are your competitors?
ZK: “In our case we have been blessed with a source of water so pure and healthy that we can only compare ourselves with other natural mineral water brands globally. Pakistan doesn’t have any so we are against big world level competitors and not against Pakistani brands. Ours is a naturally superior product. In the composition of healthy water the concentration of sodium, chloride and nitrate show be less and in the water we provide all three are at the lowest end of the range. Evian prides itself in having very low sodium content in its water and O1’s content of sodium is even lower than Evian. We consider this a God given gift and we consider it our responsibility to preserve the natural purity of this water.”
What kind of purification and filtration methods are used at your plant?
ZK: “We have invested in a state of the art plant. Somebody came to our factory one day and said, why is the floor wet? I replied it’s not wet; it is so clean that is reflecting beautifully. The water does not see daylight till it’s inside the bottle. It goes through our filtration processes and treatment and we are also applying cutting edge nano technology to purify the water. The bottles are also being immaculately washed and the entire plant is fully automatic and we only have two people who operate it using touch screen controls so we have minimised human contact. We have three layers of a clean room environment before the filling station so there is no indirect contamination from the air. The plant has filters sending in sterilised air into the clean rooms. The bottles are fitted with sterilised caps and come out of the clean rooms ready to be consumed after sealing them and marking the time and date. We deliver the product in first class vans. We have testing laboratories on site and we are also getting our water tested in independent laboratories.”
ZK: “I have been an economist most of my life and running your own business is a totally different experience so this was a learning process for us and I must say that the institutions of the country which are supposed to help the entrepreneurs don’t help. They only work with already established organisations and do not risk investing in new set ups. Even the private sector banks are lending their money to the government, making huge profits. The profits of banks alone in the past year contributed to 1.5% of the GDP. But, they will not lend to entrepreneurs with unique ideas and genuine needs. But, that was also a blessing in disguise because we now have a totally interest free project and we are not burdened by any debt. We are now starting to deliver in Pakistan but we still have huge challenges before us. You must remember that there are established names in the bottled water industry. World class multinationals are currently at the forefront in Pakistan. But, they are all selling the same product and the people are totally unaware of the difference between bottled water and natural mineral water so we have a totally new product and O1 – naturally pure is a totally new brand name. We have selected the name because it is youthful and modern and signifies the premium class of water. Our entire team including advertising and branding, are all youngsters so we are trying to capitalise on the youthful energy and great ideas of the bright young stars of Pakistan. This is a genuine Pakistani product. Within the team there is a lot of ownership of the product by everyone and they have done a great job in bringing this out.”
How do you intend to compete internationally and where is the product currently available?
This is a product to be watched and we are very proud of it. The proof of its goodness is when you taste it and we have warned our users that it is very addictive. The capacity of the plant is large as compared to our ambitions of marketing. Our plant is about half the size of the big multinationals. We have certain disadvantages as well. Because it is natural mineral water it has to be at one source only, like for example Evian is still coming from France and the cost of transport adds to the price of the product. We are situated outside northwest of Islamabad, but we are trying to protect the consumer from the transport cost because we believe that everyone has the right to have access to such pure water. Getting Pakistani certification is no problem keeping in mind the superior methods of purification that we use so we are aiming towards international certification. We are very ambitious and we have registered with NSF, a US based foundation which has a global reach and they are the highest level of certifying body in the area of food and water and we have sent our water to be tested in their laboratories in Europe. After that they are going to come and audit our plant and once we comply with their very stringent requirements we will be able to use their name with our product. We want to launch this product internationally which is why we are going for international certification.
How is the product priced?
“The product is definitely priced a little higher than the products in the market because we want the people to realise that this is a superior product. It is an international quality product but definitely at a domestic price. This is the water that you really want to splurge on when you are in a nice restaurant or at home and wanting to enjoy a nice meal. The product is b