126 127 Freewater. The water revolution A conversation with Albert Prewitt Sandro Di Domenico Sand, wind and wasteland. This was the old wild West. Thousands of miles traveled by cowboys and caravans of adventurers, with the American dream in their pockets, in the hope of finding luck. The sweet Pacific coast as the last landing, and a recurring sign placed at the entrance of sparse saloons to act as a mirage: it recited Free Meal, a soft deception of peace and refreshment on the dusty path. A hundred years later Milton Friedman, Nobel laureate and father of modern economics, unmasked it, explaining to the world the principle of opportunity cost: be careful, wayfarers, because free meals, quite simply, do not exist. Because if in the wild West the plate of beans offered by the saloons paid itself off through the silver coins coming from whiskey and hay useful to put the horses back in force, it is since the dawn of time, Adam and Eve included, that there has always been a hidden price both for a succulent apple or for a sumptuous meal charmingly offered as a gift. However, a doubt remains. If free meals do not exist, what about water? Can we trust a sign that says Free Water on the side of the road, or on top of a vending machine? It is a startup founded in 2020 in Austin, Texas, where once there was only sand, wind and wasteland, to answer that it is possible to offer free spring water, as well as packing it in recyclable cartons or aluminium bottles for reuse. And not only that; for every bottle, FreeWater donates ten cents to charities to try and fix the thirst issue around the world. It may sound like a joke, but in the United States it is already a reality. Although limited, so far, to North America. The brilliant idea, which once spread worldwide could help save the lives of over thirty-six million people who do not have access to water, came to Josh Cliffords, the unconventional entrepreneur as American newspapers have rebaptized him, whose inspiration have been visionary geniuses such as Nikola Tesla and Elon Musk. Cliffords began his career at nine, selling on the street fresh lemonade made by squeezing lemons from the tree in the garden. But young Josh soon realized that by offering it for free, he could have made more. He was able to attract buyers for his much more expensive baseball cards. A year later, in 1995, at the age of ten, he had already convinced his parents to invest in Microsoft, and in his early thirties he had already completed the tour of the Americas and Europe where in 2015, in Belgrade, he founded Save the refugees, a non-profit organization committed to helping migrants fleeing Eastern Europe via the Balkan route. His partner and right-hand man Albert Prewitt sums up the story of Cliffords as follows: «Thanks to Save the refugees, Josh has come to help up to ten thousand people a year, but he soon realized that the non-profit system alone cannot last over time. "Otherwise the Red Cross would have already saved the world", as Cliffords is used to say. This is why he decided to take a new approach through FreeWater. He wanted to make sure that donating to charity could be as easy as eating a slice of pizza, or taking a sip of water. Because, let's face it, there is an underlying reason why non-profits are not always able to achieve their goals and it is because, when donations run out, they are forced to quit, to stop operating. They can no longer do anything about it. The FreeWater model is able to guarantee a continuous flow of money to invest in a quality non-profit with a high success rate, Well Aware, a specialized non-profit with a 100% success rate. Thanks to them we financed and built our first water supply system in Kenya, which captures rainwater, in an elementary school». The trick is there, even if you can't see it. Even without the victory of a Nobel Prize, Cliffords discovered it by giving away lemonades as a child. So, once he got older, he first turned Milton Friedman's old mantra into free bottles of water do not exist, and finally he decided to revolutionize it for good. «We consider – Prewitt explains – our startup as the future of marketing. �uite simply, we turn the product packaging into an advertising space and we use the revenues coming from this ad to cover all production costs. And we believe this system can be applied to several consumer goods available today in shopping malls. In our ambitions, water is only the first of many products that, one day, could fill the shelves of real free supermarkets». Imagine for a moment a world where the Free Meal and Free Water signs are replaced by Free Supermarket signs. There you are, now you are looking at the world from the same perspective as Cliffords and partners. «We have been operating since 2021 and, so far, we have produced seventy thousand free bottles of water. As soon as we have demonstrated that this model is successful here in Austin – Prewitt argues – it won’t be too difficult to spread it not only in the States, but throughout North America. Our first target is Canada, where we have already made contact with some producers in order to have everything we need to start distribution». In fact, FreeWater is not the owner of the sources from which the bottled and distributed water comes, but quite simply it pays it at prices negotiated with the owners of the sources, yet it manages to offer it for free. This speaks volumes about the actual costs