Shakira Niazi '93
Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in Cal State East Bay Magazine. Read the most recent magazine, The Food Issue; view more photos; and check out back issues online.
A desire to sell water in biodegradable bottles to pay for clean water projects in poor countries has driven the career of Cal State East Bay alumna Shakira Niazi '93.
Niazi started Salvare La Vita Water in 2010 after some post mortgage market-crash soul searching — and a concern about the lack of clean water in developing countries like Haiti and her native Afghanistan. She has designed a simple business model that saves lives: Her nonprofit, called Salvare La Vita, bottles premium water in the U.S. Her water sales pay for wells that provide clean water in poor countries.
It’s an interesting path for Niazi, a native of Afghanistan, who until recently focused on living the American dream as a mortgage broker in San Ramon. But when the mortgage industry collapsed in 2007, the misery of home foreclosures and job loss around her made her rethink her priorities. “Emotionally it drew me back to the purpose of life,” she says.
Early last year, she saw a news segment about World Water Day, an initiative that grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. That set Niazi on a new path.
She started reading the statistics about how the lack of clean water contributes to illness and death in poor countries. (UNICEF estimates that dirty drinking water kills more then 1.5 million people each year).
Niazi, who grew up in Afghanistan yet still had access to clean tap water, was particularly concerned about women and children who struggle daily to find clean water.
“So many people around the world don’t have the basic human right of clean water that we take for granted,” Niazi says. “It’s a woman’s issue because the burden of household chores is on women, and they wake up in the morning and walk three to six miles just for water.”
The oldest of four children, Niazi fled Afghanistan for Pakistan in 1983 with her uncle and his wife following a yearslong invasion of Soviets troops of her homeland that started in 1979. (Her father awaited possible trial and execution for political reasons at the time but eventually escaped, she says.)
Niazai made it to Germany and then New York, later settling with family in the San Francisco East Bay. She worked through high school and earned a business degree at Cal State East Bay, where her love of math and numbers blossomed. After graduating, Niazai worked in banking for years until starting her new venture.
At Salvare La Vita, which means “saves lives” in Italian, Niazi only works in countries where 50 percent of the population or less have access to clean water. She has partnered with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to date in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.
Here’s how her model works: For every 31 bottles of water sold, Niazi provides one person with clean well water for up to 20 years. She bases the total cost of a project on the average well size and how many people that well water will serve. She pays for the projects in advance, figuring out how much a well will cost and then selling enough water to pay for the project.
So far, she’s sold approximately 10,000 bottles at more than 40 northern California locations. The water comes from a spring in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the bottles, which are completely recyclable and biodegradable, are made in the U.S., she says. Her goal is to keep the entire business in the U.S. and limit the distance between the bottling and water delivery locations to under 200 miles.
Niaza says clean water has quickly become her calling.
“This hit home for me,” she says. “This connects me to my roots and why I am here.”