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Keenwash: A Waterless Car Wash from the Middle East


The Atmehs, a chemistry-minded family of Jordanian entrepreneurs, have a cheap, green way to keep cars clean in a water-deprived region

Water is precious in Jordan, where shortages have prompted decades of rationing and exacerbated tensions with Israel. Nader Atmeh and his sons, Hassan and Moutaz, want to do their part by eliminating the traditional car wash in the Middle East. They say their waterless washing business, Keenwash, is saving Jordan hundreds of thousands of gallons a year.

Keenwash uses a nontoxic, almost entirely biodegradable spray-on liquid. Mixed and bottled at the Atmehs' factory on the outskirts of Amman, the water-based blend of surfactants and polymers softens and emulsifies dirt so it can easily be wiped off a vehicle's exterior with a cloth. Cleaning a midsize sedan such as a Toyota (TM) Camry or BMW 3 Series uses about 5 ounces of the liquid and takes 15 minutes or so. (A typical drive-through wash uses about 50 gallons of water.) Keenwash operates three cleaning stations in mall parking lots and sends cleaners to homes and businesses. It doesn't plan to sell its line of cleaners in stores; its business model is to sell franchises to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Waterless car washes have been around in the U.S. for a few decades. Nader, 65, first saw one on a visit with his brother in Dallas in 2003. While testing U.S. products in Jordan, he found the results mediocre—not clean enough, not shiny enough. And pricey: One 16.9-ounce bottle cost $16. A pharmacist who studied at Alexandria University in Cairo and founded cosmetics and household cleaning product manufacturers, Nader spent three years working on a cheaper formula calibrated for the hot, sandy Mideast environment, with a higher percentage of natural wax and ultraviolet ray-blocking agents. Since Nader and his sons founded the company in 2008, Keenwash has cleaned about 35,000 cars, including the U.S. and British Embassy fleets. It expects $500,000 in revenue this year.

This kind of car wash is still a rarity in the U.S., says Eric Wulf, who heads the International Carwash Assn. in Chicago. "It's no surprise the waterless thing has also raised its head [in the Middle East]," he says, adding that U.S. and European manufacturers install at least 50 car wash systems annually. Keenwash's basic service is cheaper than it is in the U.S.: about $7 per cleaning in Amman, vs. the $20 to $30 that franchise consultant Manish Adhiya in San Diego recommends that local shops charge.

Despite the recent political turmoil in nearby countries, Keenwash is expanding. Saudi Arabia has five franchises; Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the West Bank each have one. Hassan is negotiating a deal in Egypt, where he hopes to sell 250 franchises to a group fighting youth unemployment. "These revolutions and changes in the political situations will help," says Hassan, 30. "Maybe they did hurt a little in the first few months, but I think that we will benefit eventually."

Education

Nader Atmeh has a BS in pharmaceutical chemistry

Inspiration

He saw his first waterless car wash on a trip to the U.S. in 2003

Eco-benefit

Uses 5 ounces of liquid vs. regular washes' 50 gallons of water

Leiber is Small Business editor for Businessweek.com, Entrepreneurs editor for Bloomberg.com, and covers small business for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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