Saturday 5 March 2011
Edwin Broni-Mensah, you could argue, is an academic or a philanthropist whose scheme is either naively idealistic or brilliant or both. Either way, as soon as you've read about his idea, you'll be kicking yourself for not having thought of it. We're sitting beside the Serpentine on an unusually warm winter morning in London's Hyde Park. Broni-Mensah is patiently expounding the perils of toxic BPA plastic bottles while I try to hide my bottle out of shame. Phasing out these hateful bottles is the aim of his project, now in its second year. Two minutes in, he spots mine, politely balks and I apologise. Major eco fail.
It was through playing squash at university that Broni-Mensah came up with GiveMeTap. Throughout his PhD, sport was his sanctuary, yet something didn't add up: "Tap water is free and portable yet I was spending a fiver a day on bottled water. I was like, 'Wha'?'"
The concept of GiveMeTap was born, launched online for a song, and last year won him an award as "most outstanding black student in Britain". It works like this: you buy a tidy blue bottle made from recycled aluminium for £7 from his website and take it into any cafe which has signed up as a "provider" of the scheme. Your bottle is then filled with tap water for free, thus reducing the wastage in landfill sites, helping communities in Africa install clean water pumps (70% of the £7 goes towards this) and saving you money.
Although the scheme currently operates solely in the Manchester area, Broni-Mensah has moved in with his parents in Edmonton, north London, in order to launch it in London, it's hoped, in time for the Olympics. In theory, he'll be providing 1 million people with access to clean water by 2013.
How did he manage to launch the project while also completing his PhD? "I follow Parkinson's Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. I think that captures it very nicely."
Broni-Mensah thinks our "peculiar obsession" with buying plastic bottles is "little more than a cultural conditioning". Furthermore: "We're too proud to ask for free water in the same way we feel the need to buy crisps to use a cafe's loo."
All very benevolent but still, given the current climate, it seems bonkers to invest seven years of education into a non-profit scheme, subsidising your rent by tutoring maths when you could be making a packet in the City. "I know," he laughs. "All my friends are bankers and I'm their poor student mate. But it's my choice."
And, frankly, there are enough bankers to go round, allowing people like Dr Broni-Mensah to turn staggeringly obvious ideas into life-changing schemes.