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Impact Interview is our initiative where we explore the stories of changemakers and the initiatives they have developed to support sustainable development in Indonesia. This time, we spoke with Sabrina Farah Salsabilla (Sasa), CMO and Co-Founder of ReservoAir.

Can you give us a brief introduction about what ReservoAir is and the problem your organization actually aims to tackle?

First off, when I share about ReservoAir with non Bahasa speakers, I have to clarify that the “air” in ReservoAir in Indonesian means water because sometimes they confuse it with the air pollution.
So, ReservoAir currently focuses tackling the two water disasters in Indonesia: the flood and drought problem – these are the two extremes ends of water disasters in Indonesia.
We aim to tackle the issue by implementing sustainable water management practices and implementing the concept of zero run-off. Zero run-off in buildings means that every building should not result in excess water run-off (where it is not absorbed back into the soil) to the environment.
So our flagship product now is called poreblock, it is a permeable paving block which can infiltrate water 100x better than conventional one.

Can you share more about how the idea actually came about to be and why you decided to tackle this issue related to flood?

I come from an environmental engineering background so it’s relevant skillwise. So in my undergraduate years, I took a course in water resource management and found the learnings very interesting.

Can you talk about what you learned during this lesson, especially regarding the issue of flood?

It mainly discussed how urban development plays an important role in the flood in Jakarta. Jakarta already has a high flood risk and land subsidence problem, and on the flip side, we have a rapid growth rate of urban development ongoing.
The main solutions that were explored is regarding having the appropriate infrastructure, which is usually managed by the government, as well as implementing training for rainwater management, both vertically and horizontally.
Managing the rainwater verticaly means that we have to enable rainwater to infiltrate back into the ground. Back when urban development and buildings are sparse rain water could easily infiltrate the ground. Now with the explosion of urban development and residential areas, most of the rainwater does not infiltrate the soil anymore, resulting in run-off and disrupting the natural hydrological cycle.
This zero run-off concept can be expanded into many things such as collecting rainwater during the rain. We know in Jakarta, we also have many programs related to infiltration well to reduce the run-off to the environment.

Let’s talk about your flagship product , Poreblock - are they customizable?

So Poreblock is a porous paving block and when we test in the laboratory it can infiltrate 100x better than conventional one. Poreblock can be customized like regular paving blocks, for example like the shapes and also the colors.
Poreblock product variation
You may often see the red paving blocks on the streets, we also can replicate that exact look with our porous paving block.Poreblocks are also relatively easy to clean and maintain, we can just use jet spray like once every two months. When it’s raining, you will see how the porous features allow water to infiltrate it very quickly. Also it can reduce inundation and hence flood risk.

What was the process of innovating for Poreblock and building that into a business today? Did you come together in a lab to develop this?

Interestingly, Poreblock was actually born out of a research lab in university. The previous CEO of Poreblock, Anisa, was the one whoreally tapped into the research process. She was exploring how we can commercialize this innovation. After all, innovation will just remain as an innovation if it stays in the lab.
We eventually decided to try and market the product, meeting customers to understand what they need and try to put the product into perspective on how it can solve today’s issue of flooding.
There was a lot of setup in commercializing it from connecting to the manufacturers, exploring the production machines, and eventually, we started officially selling Poreblock in 2019.

What were some of the challenges that actually happened from when it went to the lab and to becoming the Poreblock that people are seeing today?

When we decided to try and sell Poreblock, we have to try and identify who can be our potential customers. After speaking to several potential user groups,the first customer that we decided to appraoch are architects, because they have a good understanding of this water problem issue and how it can be implemented in buildings. Architects can also recommend us to another architect so there’s a strong of word-of-mouth within that user group.
From an operational perspective, we also had to make adjustments especially in terms of production scale. Producing 1 or 5 paving blocks in a lab is relatively easy, but when it comes to implementing it in actual commercial projects we will need to produce thousands of paving blocks. We also have to think about the logistics of the delivery to customers and ensure how we can build good purchasing experience to make customers satisfied with our product.

Can you also share a story of how implementing your solution actually helps reduce  flooding in a particular area ? What are some numbers regarding ReservoAir’s impact?

From 2019, Poreblock has helped conserve around 700 million liters of water – and we expect that number to only keep going up.
I want to highlight this one big project in Semarang in collaboration with GoTo Foundation where we implemented Poreblock in the residential area and mosque area. On top of Poreblock, we also integrated infiltration well in people’s houses. Semarang was selected because they have all kinds of floods that we want to focus on, they have cases of urban flooding, flash flooding and issues of land subsidence.
Poreblock implementation in Semarang
For this project, we measure our impact by the CCTV, where we compare the pre and post implementation and how the water is infiltrated.
For heavy rain – previously, it took four to five hours for flooding to subside in the area. After Poreblock’s implementation, the flooding lasts only 30 minutes and 1 hour maximum. This reduction in inundation matters for the people because they can now continue their activity in the residential area.
We also use a modeling software to measure that we were able to reduce 53% of the run-off . For this big Semarang project, we really focused on quantifying our impact.

What do you feel about working on the Semarang project? Do you consider it a success and think that this project would be a model that you're looking to scale moving forward?

We feel that this Semarang project can be replicated in many areas and we believe it can scale. In fact, we made a booklet where we comprehensively document and archive our activities, identifying the challenges and also the dos and don’ts for this kind of project.
If people want to implement similar project in the future they can use our learnings as reference.We have also uploaded our booklet on our website so it can be accessed by everyone.
One of our dream in ReservoAir is to expand our implementation beyond residential areas, and expand our use cases to other sectors such as the agriculture sector, in mosques, and in apartments by the end of this year (2024). Eventually, we want to compile our journey and learnings and publish the results to show how water conservation technologies can help in reducing flood risk and drought risk in some area.

When you started out did you have any resources that you reference? Any companies that did something similar before that you took as a model?

It’s not necessarily a company but the zero run-off concept has been implemented in many countries actually. Maybe people are more familiar with the term nature-based solutions, our solution is also basically nature-based solutions but we choose to call it the zero run-off concept.
We will look up to the academic research available, also talking to the academics and lecturers to consult with them. So fortunately there’s never a shortage of resources.

What were some of the learning points and challenges you encountered while implementing the Semarang project?

One of the more important takeaway we took from that project was that implementing our solution is not just about solving the technical problems, a big part of it is how to engage with the stakeholders such as the community involved as well.
Our ability to successfully engage with the community is really important to ensure we get their buy-in and maximise the possible impact for the community.
We have to really spend time and really engage with the people there and see their pain points. Do we really solve their problems? If they also see this as a problem, it’s really easy for them to understand the solution.
We also did some education and socializations to the people regarding this water problem in Semarang. We don’t just engage ,and then implement, and that’s it. Once they understand what the problem is and how we are trying to solve it, they can also tell their neighbors or families, so again the word-of-mouth effect comes in play.

How do you collaborate with external stakeholders like the government and grant providers like the GoTo foundation?

When we collaborate with organizations like the GoTo foundation, they have grants that support changemakers. Working with them helps us understand the importance of defining our products and also quantifying our impact. Also telling the story and the linkage between the problem and also our solution.
The government is also a crucial potential customer because some ministries have targets for zero run-off in their buildings. It’s really important for us to align with their targets as well so they can see the urgency of our product.

In your website, you have a water calculator. Can you talk a bit more about this initiative and who is this targeted for?

Sometimes when I talk about ReservoAir and I talk about zero run-off and water conservation, I notice it does not really touch people emotionally. I feel I need to have something that relates to people personally.
I saw that in other fields, for example the carbon energy sector, they have a carbon footprint calculator. I also saw in social media how we can test our personality and then we can share it and then it makes other people want to test it also. I think it’s a really powerful marketing campaign strategy.
Combining these concepts and observations, I gathered with my friends and I have this idea “okay how do we raise awareness so people know that we are in the middle of water crisis”. So we have to find one thing that relates to them personally and we landed on personal water usage – how much water do we use everyday. I think people also don’t know how much water they use everyday. They also don’t have this concrete visualization of, let’s say 100 liters – how much is 100 liters actually?
So we developed this simple calculator which will ask us for our habits, for example going to the bathroom, drinking, washing and cooking rice and it will output how much water you are using along with an animal character that represents that usage volume. There are some simplifications but we want people to have this idea that they are also a contributor to this water crisis ,and that we also can do simple things by reducing our duration in the shower or washing the dishes when it’s already full so we can reduce the water usage.
Last we checked, our calculator has been used by thousands of visitors to our website. I think the most profound experience with this calculator was when we were invited to speak about the water crisis for the youths in schools and high schools. Last month, I went to JIS (Jakarta Intercultural School). I started the session with this calculator and it’s really interesting to see the students being engaged when we start with this quiz.
In the results, I reference the water usage as animal characters, so they’re like okay“I’m a gorilla” , “I’m a dog” , and they can compare with others how much water they use everyday. In that calculator, I also compare with the average of people’s water usage so they know that okay, “maybe the water that I use every day is a bit too much”

What are your future plans and innovations that you as an organization are working towards? What's on the horizon for ReservoAir?

The first thing is the solution itself. Currently, our project is just implementing the Poreblock as a standalone solution but there’s a possibility to make it part of an integrated solution, combining it with infiltration well and rainwater harvesting. So we are not only just conserving water, but we can also provide clean water from the rainwater. It’s also based on customers feedback.
The second thing is that for Poreblock itself, we have done some extensive research for the products and is looking to innovate. We want to explore making Poreblock that is made from waste, for example from PET waste or from fly ash. In this case, we are not just tackling the water problem but we can also tackle the waste issue. Currently, we already have a sample prototype made from graphene from PET plastic.
The third thing is to explore alternative use-cases for our product. Theoretically poreblock, with its porous features can reduce urban temperature by affecting the solar reflectance. It would be amazing if we can tell people that our product also reduce the urban heat island effect, reducing the temperature in urban areas, especially when they are implemented at scale.

How can people learn more about ReservoAir?

Learn more about ReservoAir by clicking their social links below
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