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At the epicentre of the crisis: battling to provide clean water in Kenya

In Kenya, the coastal city of Mombasa has been one of the worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Antony Njaramba, Managing Director of the Mombasa Water Supply and Sanitation Company, gives us a first-hand account of how the crisis has affected water supply in the city and how attitudes towards the importance of water are slowly changing.

“When the crisis hit Mombasa in March, we found ourselves in a no-go zone, in terms of accessing some of our customers, because of the lockdown which sealed off some parts of the city. Yet at the same time, our services were categorised as essential and we had to respond to the government directive to keep on supplying water. So we were in a Catch-22 situation of some sort.

Our offices, in central Mombasa, face the Old Town of the city, which was one of the epicentres of the pandemic in Kenya. From my office you could see the policemen guarding Old Town during the lockdown.

Our staff had to keep going into Old Town, to give them emergency water. There are some markets on the borderline, which were the only source of food for the people living in Old Town.

We had to keep supplying water to these markets, so that the people in Old Town could keep on living.

The government directives to continue to supply water to all residents regardless of whether bills were paid were understandable in the crisis, but it has affected our revenues. The first month – March – we lost 35% of our revenues. We have not broken even in the last few years, so this is a big issue.

During the first wave of Covid-19, government mandates to continue water supple severely affected the revenue of water utilities.

Mombasa has been hugely affected by the pandemic. The city’s economy is dependent on two key things – the port, and tourism. Both of these went down in a flash.

When I was in school I read a book by Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart. And there was a main character called Okonkwo. One of the seasons they had was one of the worst, where he borrowed 800 yam seeds and planted them and the rains never came, and when they came, they came very destructive. And it was so bad, one man just took a piece of cloth and hanged himself. And after that, Okonkwo used to say, if I survived then, I can survive any other thing.

And for us Covid-19 is the same thing, its been one of the biggest challenges in most managers’ careers, but for me, I was at the centre of it all.

I had to quickly reorganise my team to address the issues that we had to overcome. We divided ourselves into two teams, which would not be in contact with each other. We allowed people to work from home where they could, or to cover local areas to reduce movement as much as possible.

One of our biggest challenges was to provide water in the vulnerable areas. We mapped the city into zones and focused on the most vulnerable areas. We constructed concrete bases to enable us to install a 5,000 litre tank on top. The water was for free, so that people were not tempted to go to cartels. Water cartels always take advantage of a negative situation, to make people’s lives even more difficult.

There were also public service institutions which needed water. Within 24 hours of the government directive being given we went to Kenya Ferries and put 100 taps in. Then we did a hydrological survey and realised that there is fresh water there. So we drilled on the island side of the ferry and the mainland, and connected with a pump, so now there was a guaranteed supply of water for 24 hours.

We know that in another wave of Covid-19, we may not be able to move around freely to bill. So we bought 100 smart meters that can be read remotely, and we picked a few customers just to test. We were amazed at the response – not just in enabling us to social distance, but with the numbers that came through.

Through the efforts of staff, our revenue position is improving. We are now just 10% down and I believe we will be able to catch up in September.

Investing in smart meters will allow utilities like MOWASSCO to safely bill customers if there is a second wave of Covid-19.

When we had the first case of Covid-19 with our staff, 15 staff including myself had to self-isolate.

Personally, this was one of the most trying moments in my entire life. Those three weeks I was in the house, in the room, stuck there, it was scary – but at the same time, I had 300 staff who were looking up to me. I spent a lot of time coordinating with staff, to keep myself busy and sane.

I do think that now, there is greater appreciation from the general public, and the government, about the role of water utilities.

Water has never been on the high table for discussion. When you look at donors, all of them rush to health, but they don’t seem to realise that prevention is better than cure.

The other day I heard that at least Ksh 300,000 [$2,700] had been spent to treat a single Covid-19 case. I don’t think you spend Ksh 300,000 to give someone water. If you were to spend the equivalent on water, I think people would be safer.

But for the first time in eight years, the County government of Mombasa has allocated Ksh250 million to support the water sector.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for additional investment in water services across Kenya as a way of preventing outbreaks. Credit: Brian Otieno

In Mombasa, we do face a water scarcity problem. We have only enough water to meet around 15% of demand, and around 74% of the population is low-income.

But despite this, I do believe universal water access in Mombasa is possible. Completion of the Mwache Dam, and repair of the Mzima pipeline and construction of a second pipeline, Mzima II, would give us enough water. In addition if we could get a cheaper electricity tariff which was just for water – like there is for streetlights, for example, it could make desalination possible.

But our infrastructure is aging. Some of our pipelines were built in the 1920s. Water is just not something that people have taken seriously. This country is full of water, just mismanaged water. The entire country has a NRW [non-revenue water – water that is lost or not billed for] rate of 43%, a very high number when the global rate is around 22%.

There is a stereotype that water is always available, and as a result we have never properly developed the water sector. This myth about water being just freely available, without the need for investment to manage it properly, needs to be debunked.

We in the water sector are a sum total of failures across the generations, and probably Covid-19, and the spotlight subsequently shone on the water sector, is making our work a bit easier.”

WSUP has worked closely with MOWASSCO for several years, helping the utility to better serve low-income communities with clean water. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic WSUP is currently implementing hygiene promotion campaigns in Mombasa and other Kenyan cities, supported by the UK government / Unilever backed Hygiene Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC).

Learn more about WSUP's work to increase the capacity of utilities like MOWASSCO


Climate recovery in Beira: sustainable water and sanitation access for a more resilient city

In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, WSUP has been delivering sustainable, long-term water and sanitation solutions to help mitigate the effects of climate change for thousands of residents in Beira.

In March 2019 Cyclone Idai caused devastation across Mozambique, including in the city of Beira which suffered from widespread flooding and severe damage to its water network. A major relief operation saw many residents housed in resettlement camps with limited access to clean water and safe sanitation facilities.

With the support of Borealis and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, WSUP has been working to restore and improve water and sanitation services for low-income residents in the most affected districts of Beira.

Throughout this work WSUP has been focusing on creating more resilient services to ensure that, as climate change makes extreme weather like cyclones more common, vulnerable residents in Beira have sustainable access to clean water and safe sanitation.

WSUP’s work with water utility FIPAG has improved water access for residents of resettlement camps like Ancha Luis. Credit: Stand Up Media

Extending the water network to underserved areas

A key part of WSUP’s work in Beira has been supporting the local water utility FIPAG to extend their water network and provide an improved water supply for their low-income customers. Alongside the utility staff we worked to extend the network to the most underserved areas of the city, particularly areas unable to supply water to additional residents resettled after the cyclone.

This has helped residents like Ancha Luis, a Beira resident currently living in a resettlement camp, access a reliable source of water.

“Every day we faced many challenges to clean ourselves. There was a shortage of water for drinking, washing clothes including the dishes. Now the search for water has become a lot better compared to when we first arrived. We used to have to walk from Block C to Block A, as the resettlement camp is divided in blocks.”

Rehabilitation of the existing water network in Beira is helping ensure a more reliable water service for Joao Manuel. Credit: Stand Up Media

Ensuring the reliability of the existing water network

WSUP has supported FIPAG to rehabilitate 112km of the existing network, including repairing and replacing worn pipes. WSUP helped facilitate communication between FIPAG and the community to promote the benefits of the project and raise awareness of the necessary requirements for households to get a potable water connection. This has helped to provide a more reliable service for low-income customers, ensuring existing water connections can continue to serve residents in the future.

This work has proved crucial for water connections in resettlement camps where large increases in the number of residents after the cyclone meant water fountains could initially only run for a few hours a day. Joao Manuel, a community chief living in a resettlement camp, recalls the dire situation in the days after the cyclone.

“When we arrived here, there was no water. We spent about 15 to 20 days without water and when we did get access it wasn’t enough for everyone.”

In the longer term, WSUP is working with FIPAG to extend water connections in peri-urban communities which are unserved, using high quality PE100 pipes.

WSUP has been supporting members of community-based organisations like Domingos Mafunga to ensure their organisations are able to help affected residents. Credit: Stand Up Media

Supporting community-based organisations serving vulnerable communities

WSUP has also been supporting community-based organisations that are directly supporting the most vulnerable communities in Beira to access water and sanitation services. This has included rebuilding the offices of these organisations and providing training to increase their capacity to support residents struggling in the aftermath of the cyclone.

For Domingos Mafunga, Coordinator of the Vision for Community Development Association, a community-based organisation supporting residents in Beira, WSUP’s support has been vital in ensuring his team can promote good sanitation and hygiene practices to displaced residents.

“The biggest challenge we all face is sanitation. It is a critical activity, because the majority of the population come from rural areas, so they are not used to an urban lifestyle.”

Learn more about our work in Mozambique

Climate resilience in Southern Zambia – new report

Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor has today published a new report on the need for water and sanitation service providers in Southern Zambia to become more resilient in the face of climate change.

Building resilience to climate change experiences from Southern ZambiaThe report, entitled, Building resilience to climate change: experiences from Southern Zambia, focuses on water shortage in the Zambezi river basin and the steps that the water utility Southern Water & Sanitation Company Limited (SWSC) is taking in response.

Read the report now.

As the effects of man-made climate change become more pronounced, water shortages are becoming more common throughout Africa, with Southern Africa a particular climate change hotspot.

The challenges brought about by climate change are too fundamental to be solved simply by drilling new boreholes to access new water. Instead, utilities need to assess all parts of their operations, from financial management, to governance, customer engagement and staff capacity.

WSUP Utility Strengthening FrameworkThe report also presents the different stages of WSUP’s Utility Strengthening Framework, which uses eight steps to move towards a stronger utility. Click on the image to see the full size graphic.

SWSC has seen its water source shrink significantly in recent years, most notably in 2018-2019, where many regions in Southern Zambia only received 20-30% of the normal annual rainfall.

As a result, WSUP has been working closely with SWSC, with the support of Wasser fuer Wasser, to develop and implement a utility strengthening programme to help it build resilience in the face of growing climate change.

Read Building resilience to climate change: experiences from Southern Zambia now


Join us for World Water Week 2020

This year World Water Week will be held virtually, with WSUP co-convening five sessions through the week of 24 August 2020.

With Covid-19 and climate change both demonstrating the need to invest in improved water, sanitation, and hygiene for the poorest people around the world, meeting to discuss these issues is more important than ever.

Learn more about the sessions we are involved in below:

Climate change and water scarcity: how can urban utilities respond?

As the demand for water increases, and climate change places stress on water availability, finding ways to effectively manage urban water systems has never been more urgent. In many parts of the world, climate change and rapid urbanisation are placing enormous pressure on urban water utilities.

Drawing on recent research, in this session we are exploring how utilities can transform their operations to improve water resource management and mitigate the impacts of water scarcity.

Learn more


It doesn’t help people if we don’t deploy it!

The world needs more success stories of water innovations and business models operating successfully in underserved markets. WSUP is partnering with Imagine H2O for their Urban Water Challenge to facilitate the implementation of urban water innovations that can help transform lives and communities.

Together with Imagine H2O we are reimagining the parameters of a truly productive partnership to support water innovations that can scale their impact across the region, the continent, and the world.

Learn more


Sewers for Resilient Sanitation in the 21st Century

Sewers are vital elements of most urban sanitation systems. What can we learn from past successes and failures to ensure sewers contribute to resilient sanitation for the 21st Century?

We’re exploring historic and emerging approaches to sewer design from condominial to source-separation sewers, to find the best ways to sustainably protect both the environment and public health.

Learn more


The invisible link: dignity, safety and health for sanitation workers

Sanitation workers are critical to achieving safely managed sanitation, but their work can be easily overlooked. Millions of sanitation workers around the globe provide essential public services, often at the cost of their dignity, safety, health and living conditions.

Join us as we discuss experiences from around the world of the best ways to protect sanitation workers dignity, health and safety.

Learn more


Seen and unseen stress on water resources in climate-vulnerable countries

Bangladesh is on the frontlines of climate change. Sea-level rise and groundwater saline intrusion are forcing more and more people to move to urban areas that are already struggling to provide water to their growing populations.

In this session we are highlighting the multi-faceted effects of climate change in Bangladesh and the need for more integrated approaches to developing sustainable solutions to water resource management.

Learn more

What can the water sector learn about customer service from UK energy providers?

By Annie Hall, Marketing Specialist

Learning from other sectors is a fundamental part of WSUP’s approach. We bring together experiences from civil society, academia, and the private sector.

In fact, it was WSUP’s interest in the role of the private sector, and the drive to understand low-income consumer needs, that convinced me to make the leap from a career in corporate marketing and creative advertising agencies.

In previous roles, I’ve worked on projects to improve the customer service experience in sectors from energy and pharmaceuticals, to luxury jewellery and technology. However, trying to apply this in a developing market context hasn’t been easy.

I have had to adapt familiar theories, models, and best practice assumptions to account for technology limitations, business maturity, and unique pressures faced by the utilities we work with. Nonetheless, I still look to international industry leaders for inspiration from time-to-time.

In this blog, I share a snapshot of a recent customer experience of my own. This year, I switched to Octopus Energy, a relatively new UK based company that has attracted press attention for their numerous industry awards, and impressive customer service commitments.

From my first interaction, to the regular billing and metering communications I receive now, I have been impressed by their clarity, consistency, and creativity in keeping me engaged. It led me to reflect on what WASH institutions can learn from other utility brands and which, if any, of their customer engagement techniques can be replicated by water service providers in sub-Saharan Africa.

The onboarding process

The onboarding process refers to every interaction a customer has getting set up with a company. For a utility provider this may include the initial customer application and confirmation of when the connection will take place, through to being issued an account number, the first meter reading and delivery of the first bill.

This critical process is where first impressions are formed and it has the potential to disappoint, confuse, frustrate, and leave customers worried that they’ve made the wrong choice.

My onboarding process with Octopus commenced with an immediate email, thanking me for choosing them. I was given a clear and detailed summary of the key information and could see when my supply would start. I was even able to change this with a single click. The email confirmed my payment amount and indicated when to expect the first bill and all subsequent payments.

It’s important to acknowledge the ability to provide such an efficient switching service was heavily enabled by action taken by the UK regulator Ofgem back in 2014 when they radically modernised the switching process to benefit customers.

Regulator engagement forms a core part of WSUP’s work in the WASH sector. Active, informed, and empowered regulation authorities help to drive competitive innovation within industries, which is why it’s so important that a customer-centric mindset is championed by the regulators. WSUP must often encourage the utilities to go above and beyond the minimum standards set by the regulator, whilst supporting the regulator to raise the stakes in parallel.

My welcome email also included a personalised note, with a useful tip regarding how to identify emails that require action from me, versus emails I can read at my leisure.

This email was shortly followed by another, from the company CEO, telling me more about the company’s mission and values and invited me to learn more about how my purchase decision contributes to their greener energy initiative.

Throughout the process I did not have to seek out any information. I was sent regular updates, billing reminders and felt informed, valued, and convinced that I’d made a good choice, not just for me – but for the planet too it seemed!

By contrast, customers seeking a household water connection in a peri-urban area of sub-Saharan Africa can wait several weeks after paying an initial deposit before they see any activity from the service provider. Lengthy processes involving approvals with local councils and sourcing of infrastructure materials mean the customer is left chasing for updates, often queuing at the utility office.

This period spent out of pocket and out of the loop makes customers distrust water utilities.  Many of the utilities we work with miss opportunities to proactively keep customers informed. They could engage customers in their wider vision for healthier communities and add a personal touch to communications simply and cheaply.

Meter readings and bills

Like most utilities, my energy provider requires me to submit regular and timely meter readings – a task no one enjoys! It interrupts your day, and often involves accessing a meter hidden somewhere outside the home. So, Octopus incentivises this in two ways.

Firstly, I can access an online platform to submit my readings on a laptop or mobile in less than three clicks. There are step-by-step instructions to remind me how, and my previous submission is displayed to help me notice any anomalies.

Secondly, every time I submit a meter reading, I have the option to play a virtual wheel of fortune. An animation simulates a game-of-chance, where I can win money off my next bill. I’ve not won anything yet, but I keep playing (and keep submitting my readings) regardless!

It almost doesn’t matter what Octopus has created to pique my interest. The point is, they’ve recognised the effort required of customers to facilitate the billing process and have attempted to make it easier and more enjoyable. WSUP conducts customer journey mapping exercises with utilities to help them identify where their business operations inconvenience customers and try to encourage them to think of their own ways to ease the burden.

It’s all in the mindset

Is it reasonable to expect a small regional water utility in sub-Saharan Africa to deliver a customer experience like mine? No, not yet. But there are there lessons we can learn from other sectors about how to prioritise customer experience within organisational structures and processes.

When talking to Utility Week, Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, marketing and product director at Octopus Energy said, “It’s everyone’s job to do customer engagement.” Rebecca explained how staff training, performance measurement and even where they sit in the office, is built around delivering the best customer experience.

She also talked about how their systems are set up to facilitate individual customers being repeatedly routed to the same six to eight staff members, leading to greater personalisation and accountability. Staff aren’t measured on call handling times because they want staff to give customers the time they need.

Some observers are sceptical about whether Octopus can maintain this high-quality service experience as the customer base grows. However, an attitude of continual learning and improvement seems to be the status quo. “As we keep growing, we need to continue to get better. That’s the biggest challenge, continuing to put pressure on yourself to keep making things better as you scale,” said Rebecca.

It’s not as simple as “build it and they will come”

This is important because building the necessary infrastructure is only part of what is required to bring sustainable water and sanitation services to poorest and most vulnerable urban communities.

Utilities need to continuously work at creating and sustaining demand for their services. When designing business models for low-come consumers, it’s important to remember that ability to pay and willingness to pay are not the same thing. Willingness to pay is driven by a perception of value and like any other customer, low-income customers expect and deserve service experiences deemed worthy of their hard-earned .

Investments in customer experience don’t have to be radical, expensive or underpinned by major technological advancement (although that helps). Often the utilities we work with just need to spend more time putting themselves in the customers’ shoes.

They need to think strategically about the customer communications plan, map key customer journeys and identify where an extra SMS update, a personalised bill communication, a targeted public announcement or a more friendly customer service interaction, might help to transform how customers perceive their service as well as how valued they feel.

If you’re interested in learning more about Octopus energy and how they’re disrupting the UK market with their unique approach to managing customer relationships, check out some of the links below:






The virtuous circle of good customer service: experience from Mozambique

By Antonio Madeira, Head of Water, Mozambique

Creating stronger service providers, a core strategic goal for WSUP’s 2020-2025 business plan, requires development of scalable business models that allow services to be provided to low-income customers at a profit.

There are two fundamental ways to make a business model more profitable: increasing revenue or reducing costs (and preferably both). Good customer service is critical for both.

Good customer service leads to greater customer satisfaction, timely payment of bills and customer advocacy, which in turn drives new customer growth via referrals. Poor customer service leads to customer complaints, which are resource-intensive to manage, defaults on bills, negative word of mouth, higher rates of customer churn, and even vandalism.

It can be tempting for public service organisations like utilities to assume customer service is less critical because they are the only provider in the market. However, an absence of direct competition does not mean, customers have no choice. Customers can choose an illegal water connection, they can choose to purchase bottled water, they can seek an alternative source.

Águas da Região de Maputo (AdeM), the primary water utility in Maputo, recognises the importance of good customer service and has been working with WSUP for several years to develop a model that allows them to be more present and available for their hardest-to-reach customers.

AdeM, a water utility in Maputo, has been working with WSUP to develop a model that allows for better customer service in low-income areas of the city.

Consequences of undervaluing low-income customers

Like many of the utilities WSUP works with, maintaining a consistent, reliable, and financially sustainable engagement with low income communities had proved challenging for AdeM. A lack of trust had emerged between low income communities and the utility.

Firstly, there was a broadly held perception that water services in low income communities were not prioritised due to less water supply network coverage, fewer household connections and comparatively less water consumption making the market less attractive to the utility. This was exacerbated internally at AdeM, by weak bill collection efficiency in poorer areas of the city.

Secondly, there was a belief among customers that their service was substandard, particularly in relation to wealthier neighbourhoods assumed to receive a better supply experience. For example, in times of water shortage, low income communities believed their supply would be cut first.

The extent to which these perceptions were accurate was arguably less important than the need to change them. What AdeM needed was to shift their relationship with customers into a position of greater trust and cooperation.

Customers needed to feel valued by AdeM and equally deserving of quality service and attention awarded to higher income areas. In return, AdeM needed low-income communities to view their service as good value for money and worthy of timely and consistent bill payments.

The power of community-based organisations

AdeM currently contracts several community-based organisations (CBOs) across the city. The model operates on a performance-based contract whereby responsibility for local monitoring of bill payment, meter reading, delivery of invoices and reporting leakages are delegated to a community-based organisation. CBOs conduct their tasks by visiting low income customers at home, whilst maintaining daily communication with AdeM, through the zone manager.

The decision to hire CBOs was driven by the fact that the CBO staff would be working in their own neighbourhoods. They would therefore have better knowledge and appreciation of the problems and be likely to adopt a more authentic, understanding, and effective approach to engaging low income communities.

Once recruited, CBO staff undergo training delivered by WSUP and AdeM, covering technical aspects such as understanding the billing systems, through to softer skills such as community interaction techniques.

The difference between this model and use of traditional meter readers is that the local staff have more time to dedicate to building relationships with customers, making themselves available for any queries or feedback during their regular visits. This change has been positively received by residents.

“We now have someone to report to at the utility Águas da Região de Maputo as well as local young people who can read water meters in the neighbourhood,” says Carlota Zefanias, resident Aeroporto B, Maputo.

Carlota Zefanis, a resident of Maputo, has benefited from the improved customer service of AdeM in her district. The work was funded through WSUP’s partnership with the Coca-Cola Company. Credit: Ernanio Mandlate

Benefits for AdeM

In areas managed by CBOs, AdeM has seen an increase in debt recovery values, billing rates, and reading rates of meters, which enable the utility to calculate bills more accurately. AdeM have also seen the CBOs deliver added value in managing dissatisfaction in times of crisis.

An increase in water tariff in 2018 unfortunately coincided with a review of AdeM’s billing cycle, which led to multiple bills in quick succession and unexpected invoices, understandably impacting the poorest communities most significantly.

Whilst better planning would have been preferable in mitigating customer dissatisfaction, the availability of CBO staff to assist with customer queries, explain the changes, be sympathetic to their frustrations and support customers in managing a debt repayment plan, meant that bill collection efficiency recovered quickly.

Deployment of the CBO model has also led to significant improvements in the tracking of error cases and account anomalies. While collecting readings, CBOs will sometimes encounter obstacles such as faulty meters, water damage obscuring visibility, or the customer simply being unreachable.

Thanks to the CBO staff capturing the most frequent and impactful error cases, AdeM has an up-to-date customer database and a better system for prioritising action to improve quality of service supply.

The successful CBO model used by AdeM will be scaled-up to a further five areas by September 2020. Credit: Mario Macilau

The future

Approximately five years from the launch of the CBO approach, the model is delivering impressively and is a fantastic example of how customer-centric investment in simple human touchpoints can transform the service experience and have a meaningful impact on the bottom line. Bill collection efficiency increased from 50% in 2009 to 80% in 2016 in the newly served low-income areas. Additionally a customer survey found that 59% of households considered the water bill a ‘reasonable price’.

The model is currently being scaled up and implemented in 10 areas of the city, with the costs shared between AdeM and WSUP funders. A further five areas are planned to be included by September 2020. However, this is only the beginning. The CBO model was always planned to be developed in stages, culminating in fully delegated management of service areas whereby the CBOs will have complete responsibility for service delivery including billings, revenue collection, leakage management and customer liaison.

The delegated management contracts will be performance based with the CBO’s being paid an agreed percentage of the revenue collection. The principles of moving to this stage have been discussed and agreed with AdeM and the first pilot is expected this financial year with replication to several areas in 2021/2022.

Arsénio Mate, project manager at AdeM, describes the approach as part of the organisation’s plan to provide better quality service to customers, especially for those living on the periphery. “We welcome the initiative and we hope they will continue working with us to serve those in need with good quality service”, he says.

This work is part of WSUP’s strategy to support AdeM in improving operations and service delivery, through a wider utility improvement programme over the next three years. This strategic approach addresses AdeM’s water service delivery in a holistic framework to improve KPI’s for service delivery, commercial returns and to meet future demand including reducing NRW losses.

Find out more about WSUP's work in Mozambique here

Marketing the un-marketable? Selling sanitation in Bangladesh

In an environment where many are unwilling to pay for sanitation, how can we promote safe services?

In Bangladesh, WSUP is trialling different marketing models to encourage greater uptake of services.

We tested door-to-door brand promoters with promotions running in trusted shops (retail agents), to find out which were more effective at targeting different stages of the customer journey.

We also looked at how these marketing approaches could best link with a sanitation service’s existing processes, so that sales leads could be retained and converted when the customer was ready.

Watch our video to find out what we learnt:

The work was supported by TRANSFORM, a programme led by Unilever and the UK’s Department for International Development. TRANSFORM is a collaboration between business, government and civil society, leveraging their respective strengths to address the world’s most pressing development challenges.

Learn more about WSUP's work to build a stronger customer experience.

Customer experience: everyone’s business and no one’s responsibility

By Lorine Arodi, Business Development Lead, Kenya

Opinions formed at the point of purchase are not fixed. Customers continually re-evaluate the value of the products and services they buy against the experience they receive, which is why companies must invest time and resources in continuing to satisfy customer experience expectations.

Customer experience is the subjective response customers have to any direct or indirect contact with a company. Customer experience is defined by every interaction a customer has with both the product and people associated with a company. It is best thought of as the impression made on a customer, which impacts how they think and behave towards the brand.

All customers, including low-income customers, look for high-quality products and services at an optimal price and therefore may pay more for the same products and services if they feel the companies are providing additional value through their service-based interactions.

Credit: Tsilavo Rapiera

WSUP has been working closely with five utilities across Kenya to improve their supply service and encourage greater customer focus, for the following reasons:

1) Pressure from the regulator – Regulator WASREB has created guidelines on consumer engagements to incentivise service providers to improve customer relationships. Guidelines include recommendations for regular customer satisfaction surveys that often expose customer expectations that the utility doesn’t know how to fulfil.

2) Customer complaints – A rising number of complaints, especially on social media, have begun to negatively impact on the brand image of utilities. Pressure to respond is also a drain on staff resource and morale.

 3) Customer expectations being set outside the sector – Customers believe that service provision should be on par across businesses in different industries. For instance, if a customer experiences a swift response to a billing query from their mobile phone provider, they will expect the same experience from their water utility.

 4) The cost of poor retention – Customers that regularly default on bills, return to illegal connections, or are disconnected are extremely costly to the utility. Customers who churn require further marketing resource to reconnect them and represent months of potential lost billing in the meantime. This negatively impacts return from the initial investment in demand creation, and on wider network extension investments too.

5) More effective marketing – A positive customer experience leads to customer satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy. A satisfied customer is more likely to refer new customers.

As a Business Development Lead, I have participated in many strategy meetings with utilities and witnessed them discuss customer experience issues. Often representatives across the organisation have opinions but no one seems clear on who should take responsibility for this area.

In WSUP’s experience, insufficient focus on customer experience, goes hand-in-hand with a lack of a dedicated marketing function, a department responsible for communicating with prospects, customers, and other stakeholders, while creating an overarching image that represents the company in a positive light. Without a dedicated marketing function, customer communications become largely driven by commercial teams who are measured on billing revenue and growth of the customer base alone.

Promotion stimulates demand, which brings customers on board, but without communications strategies focused on retention and maximising the customer experience, these customers become dissatisfied and may look for other options.

WSUP is supporting water service providers to strengthen their service delivery to low income areas through provision of primary and tertiary networks and demand creation for last mile connections. In Kisumu county we supported Kisumu Water & Sanitation Company (KIWASCO) to carry out one-to-one engagements with customers through door to door sensitisations, consumer education, landlord and tenant forums and the use of communication and visibility materials.

This resulted in additional demand creation, with 720 households enrolling for water connections. This significantly increased customer base and revenue collection demonstrates high demand in low income areas.

Report: Supporting KIWASCO to improve service in low-income areas

KIWASCO were keen to ensure that this success was not short-lived. They recognised that servicing low-income areas often requires a different approach and, without a dedicated function to keep abreast of customer needs and expectations, consistent billing revenue from the newly connected customer base would be under threat. As financial sustainability became compromised by late or withheld payments, theft and vandalism, it was clear that the utility needed a dedicated marketing function. Eldah Odongo, the Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications at KIWASCO outlined their approach:

“Customer service should be the norm rather than the exception…KIWASCO has fully embraced this concept and embedded it in our strategic plan and, through the recently concluded job evaluation, we have created a new Department of Corporate Affairs and Communication whose sole mandate is to ensure customer satisfaction”.

Eldah Odongo, the Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications at KIWASCO

Setting up a dedicated marketing function within a utility

A dedicated marketing function requires a clear mandate and responsibility for a range of activities such as: gathering customer insights, producing a communications plan, developing product and service offerings, and strategically overseeing advertising, promotion, distribution, customer service and public relations. It should form part of the wider business strategy and not be executed as a fire fighting measure.

For a marketing function to be sustainable and ensure positive customer experience the following should be considered:

  • Embedding the marketing function into the utility structure – The function must be strategically positioned within the existing utility structure to enable effective collaboration with departments such as commercial, operations and any other dedicated customer-facing teams.
  • Assigning staff to spearhead the function – To ensure responsibility of the function is well managed , it’s necessary to have buy-in from the senior leadership team and a dedicated senior manager tasked with setting the vision and monitoring performance of the function.
  • Reviewing job descriptions to align with the purpose of the department – Whether hiring new staff or repurposing existing teams, all job descriptions (and supporting performance appraisal metrics) should be written to align with customer-centric goals and tasks that improve communication with, and the service experience of, both prospective and existing customers.
  • Allocating budget – Budget allocation as part of quarterly or annual financial planning will ensure adequate resources for customer marketing strategies, and communications efforts designed to improve to the customer service experience.
  • Developing strategies to support the function – Documenting a clear strategy for the department is a great way to bring the team together under their new responsibilities and key performance measures. Commercial and customer satisfaction data, can be used to set priorities and develop a roadmap of activity for enhancing the customer experience at critical touchpoints.

A well-structured marketing function and supporting customer experience strategy will result in greater customer centricity across the organisation. This will improve the quality of service to customers leading to a positive customer experience and satisfaction. A satisfied customer is likely to pay their bills on time, and recommend the service to another person. Therefore, improvements to customer retention are crucial to support business continuity and growth.

Learn how WSUP is helping service providers to create positive customer experiences

‘Leaky bucket marketing’: the importance of balancing acquisition with retention

By Annie Hall, Marketing Specialist

Over the past year, I have been working alongside WSUP’s country teams to support utilities in extending their reach to more people, in the most deprived areas of a city.

Projects usually feature an infrastructure-led programme to extend the network, supported by some form of community sensitisation campaign to drive demand for household connections. In most cases these interventions are successful in raising awareness about what customers can expect from their utility and stimulating customer interest in products and services.

But, there’s a problem. I’ve seen that activities that create demand can actually damage customer demand over the long-term. This is because utilities neglect a vital second phase: sustaining demand, through great customer service.

In this article I argue in favour of placing less emphasis on demand-creation activities, and more emphasis on retaining customers. This matters a great deal. The quicker that utilities can achieve reliable, recurring revenue from customer bases in under-served communities, the quicker progress can be made towards the goal of universal coverage.

Why prioritising demand creation can be problematic

  1. Demand outstrips supply – WSUP has seen examples where, due to successful customer acquisition campaigns, order-fulfilment and connection processes are unable to keep up with applications from customers. This creates backlogs, connection delays and negative customer experience. Peaks in customer demand, due to demand creation campaigns, also increase pressure on weak internal communications and information management systems. This results in stressed, overworked and ultimately disengaged utility staff and often cashflow visibility issues, as customer deposits get lost or misallocated over time.
  2. Customer communication breaks down – Pressured by new connection targets, community engagement strategies rarely extend beyond initial sensitisation and sales conversion. Once a deposit is paid, customers go through an onboarding process, which refers to every interaction from the initial application and confirming when the connection will take place, through to being issued an account number, the first meter reading and receiving the first bill.This process is where first impressions are formed, but it has the potential to disappoint, confuse and frustrate. A smooth customer experience requires well planned communication, between both the customer and service provider, and between different departments within the utility. Often this communication breaks down. Over time confusion over billing and unanswered complaints regarding water quality or supply outages leads to dissatisfaction and brand reputation issues.
  3. Churn rate rises – Negative customer experience, caused by unmanageable demand, and poor communication means customers start defaulting on bills, return to illegal connections, or become stuck in a cycle of disconnection and reconnection processes. This results in an inaccurate perception of growth and a skewed view of the return on investment delivered by network extension projects. A high rate of customer churn delays the breakeven point at which utilities start to generate return from increased coverage. Without a strong customer retention strategy, utilities continuously seek revenue growth through signing up new customers, as opposed to reducing revenue lost through unpaid bills and lapsed household accounts.
Credit: Ernanio Mandlate

‘Leaky bucket’ marketing

Solely focusing on demand creation activity is like trying to fill a leaky bucket by pouring in more water. The bucket can only be filled once the hole is located and repaired. In fact, pouring more water in, might make the issue worse as new cracks emerge under the pressure. It would be more efficient to keep the incoming water steady while the source of the leak is addressed.

So, what can be done to reduce loss of customers?

It would be an oversimplification to suggest that this scenario can be solved by one or two actions. Utilities are complex organisations, operating within a complex wider system. However, adoption of a more customer-centric mindset, and a few important rules of thumb can go a long way.

  1. Listen to customers – Understanding the reasons for dissatisfaction and churn is crucial. Customer satisfaction surveys are useful but should be crafted around a clear and pre-agreed set of objectives, stating exactly what information is being sought about how customers think, feel and behave. Executing effective customer satisfaction surveys requires dedicated staff, who will analyse the results and make clear recommendations for improvement. Using complaints data and seeking richer information via formal and informal customer consultation is also worthwhile. Front-line staff like meter readers for example, can offer valuable insight and perspective.
  2. Map key journeys – Understanding the customer experience is the first step towards improving it. The goal of customer journey mapping is being able to identify opportunities to add value and maximise customer satisfaction, whilst also identifying where to mitigate risk of confusion, frustration, or unnecessary effort on behalf of the customer. I recommend prioritising the experiences most likely to shape the customer’s opinion of the organisation, such as onboarding and issue resolution.First impressions count, so the onboarding experience is critical in ensuring customers don’t experience post-purchase regret. This is especially important if connection delays are likely. Issue resolution such as bill queries or discoloured water complaints are a prime opportunity to build positive customer experiences, or at least mitigate against the negative experiences that may have led the customer to complain in the first place.
  3. Make data-driven decisions – It can be difficult for any organisation to justify resource for activity that is not intended to grow the customer base. Measuring the cost of churn and unpaid bills means that utilities can put a value on the cost of a poor customer retention strategy and show why focusing too much on customer acquisition will ultimately hurt the utility financially. This helps to provide a business case for investing in activity, such as customer loyalty campaigns and process improvements that enhance customer experience.
Credit: Brian Otieno

WSUP’s approach

In an attempt to maximise beneficiary numbers, the international development sector risks exacerbating the problem, by focusing too much on coverage growth, extending networks and reaching new customers. At WSUP, we’re working hard to protect a balance. Our utility strengthening framework encourages a more customer-centric approach to all aspects of utility operations, focusing on optimising service delivery whilst maximising customer lifetime value.

Learn more about WSUP's approach

Citywide access to water and sanitation services in Kenya

Clean, piped water brings dignity to people, reduces living costs, frees up time – and crucially, given the situation right now, is a critical defence against infectious diseases.

With the support of The Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN), Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) has been working with Kenyan city authorities to enable more than 600,000 urban residents across five cities to improve access to clean water, safe sanitation and improved hygiene.

Improving water supply

Through new pipeline extensions, residents in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu can now connect to the water supply. Nancy Adhiambo, a fishmonger in Nairobi, says, “To be able to sell the fish I must first prepare them. I use water from the prepaid water dispensers to clean them. It is very helpful for business.”

WSUP also worked with private water operators to improve the quality of service for residents in marginalised communities. “I was trained on business development, human resources, financial and customer management,” says Vincent Omondi, a water entrepreneur in Kisumu.

Fishmonger Nancy Adhiambo has benefited from WSUP and RAIN’s extensions to the water network in Nairobi. Credit: Brian Otieno

Upgrading sanitation services

In Nairobi’s under-served community of Kaptagat, WSUP worked with the city utility Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company to extend the sewer network, upgrade pit latrines to pour flush toilets, and build demand for the new service.

Alice Nduta was one of the first to get a sewer connection in the community. Before, she had to use a room as a septic tank, and had to pay twice a month to have the room cleaned out. “The whole community is now cleaner and there is no bad odour in the area mainly because other plot owners have also connected their toilets to the sewer line.”

RAIN and WSUP provided residents like Alice Nduta with sewer connections that reduce the monthly cost of sanitation

Empowering women and girls

Ensuring that facilities meet the needs of women and girls is a vital part of building inclusive services. In Naivasha, WSUP worked with Life Bloom Services International to develop a sanitary pads sales and distribution business. Many of the sales agents are former sex workers, giving these women an opportunity to improve their lives through the Life Bloom social business.

Stronger utilities

As a result of the programme, utilities in four cities now have an improved ability to serve the poorest communities. For WSUP, this achievement represents significant progress towards our overall goal of supporting water and sanitation providers in Kenya to provide universal access across cities in the country.

Learn more about WSUP's work with The Coca-Cola Foundation

Stronger regulators crucial to improving sanitation services for the poorest, report finds

A new report published by Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) and the Eastern and Southern Africa Water and Sanitation (ESAWAS) Regulators Association identifies how stronger regulators can play an important role in improving sanitation for under-served urban residents.

The report, entitled Referee! Responsibilities, regulations and regulating for urban sanitation, has four key findings:

  1. Regulatory effectiveness is a core driver of improved sanitation services. Every football match needs a referee.
    An independent regulator can act as a referee between the government, and sanitation service providers, to ensure the best deal possible for customers.
  2. Regulations are not enough: clear responsibilities and active regulating is essential.
    A plethora of national laws and municipal by-laws already governs much around sanitation services. Yet on their own, rules rarely translate into improved outcomes.
  3. Problems cannot be solved in one bold step. Active regulating involves incremental change, extensive consultation and testing.
    Even countries which are showing good progress have a long way to go. Sandwiched between utility, government and consumer, regulators have to introduce change gradually and manage stakeholders wisely.
  4. A Regulating Ladder could support countries in their journey to active regulating.
    A ladder which mirrors the industry-wide UNICEF / WHO JMP sanitation ladder could inform assessments of where countries stand in their journey from passive regulations compliance to active regulating.

Download the full report here

As part of this research we spoke to staff from regulators in Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique about the importance of active regulating in promoting access to quality, affordable sanitation.

Safe sanitation is not just about toilets – it’s about the effective systems that underpin strong services. Regulators are a crucial, but often undervalued part of that.

WSUP and ESAWAS have analysed the role of regulators in four countries to assess their importance in the broader system of sanitation services, and understand how their roles are being made more impactful. The report identifies a range of different regulatory instruments and demonstrates how their introduction is leading to improved sanitation services in traditionally under-served urban communities.

The national case studies are as follows:

Bangladesh: national institutional and regulatory framework for un-sewered sanitation

Kenya: standard operating procedures in the city of Kisumu

Kenya: introducing cross-subsidies to finance sanitation

Mozambique: adopting new regulatory responsibilities

Zambia: a new national framework for regulating un-sewered sanitation

Kenya: incentives to encourage utilities to serve the poorest communities

The report also assesses the contribution being made by ESAWAS to drive change through at pan-African level.

Read the full report here

How can the global WASH sector respond better in future crises?

By Kariuki Mugo, Director of WASH Sector Support

The global WASH sector has laudably responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the actions have been in supporting the public health domain in handwashing with soap by way of ensuring adequate water is available in most households.

There has also been a great deal of investment in ensuring that water is available to all, especially the most vulnerable in cities, where lockdowns have been enforced. The poor have a different level of vulnerability in the sense that majority, if not all of them, depend on daily wages. The moment human movement is restricted, it immediately curtails their cash flow and as a result, denies them the opportunity to afford basic needs such as water supplied by vendors and pay-per-use public sanitation.

Despite these praiseworthy responses by WASH service institutions, this epidemic has made us realise that we do not have the right mechanisms for any form of emergencies in the sector. Traditionally, our systems are designed for normal conditions and not to respond to emergencies such as flooding, hunger, and war. These situations are usually localised and responded to by independent state and global bodies and not service providers.

However, there has been no known humanity crisis like Covid-19 in our generation, one that permeates nearly every facet of our existence. It is therefore not a surprise that the WASH sector, just like many others, was caught flat-footed by this pandemic. The situation has been of helplessness, the same case like everywhere else in terms of response.

Now that we seem to have somehow figured out the immediate actions to save lives and sustain a basic level of access to services, we need to envision what could have been done to better prepare for such circumstances. This becomes the immediate area of attention for the WASH sector to focus on, and the following are some suggestions.

WASH institutions have responded well to Covid-19 by providing emergency handwashing stations and water access. We must now focus on how to better prepare for future pandemics.

Structure Mandates and Coordination Mechanisms for Institutions

Institutional overlaps in the hygiene and sanitation sectors is a common occurrence in developing nations. Lack of clarity in mandates lead to either duplication or lapse of service provision. There is usually a level of unseen competition, especially in areas deemed to be well resourced by governments and donors, and abandonment of others that are difficult and less lucrative. The latter is usually the case for provision of services to the poor, and more so, onsite sanitation and basic hygiene services.

One of the evident and significant struggles in our programme countries is how various governmental bodies have struggled to respond on their own, as well as to rally support from stakeholders. This situation has clearly shown that it is the high time governments figured out how WASH institutions can effectively and efficiently work together not only to respond to humanitarian crises, but also in the day-to-day provision of services.

There is need for policymakers to rethink how institutions are structured and coordinated to enable clarity of responsibilities and allocation of resources, and as a result, reducing overlap and competition, and enhancing efficiency and collaboration in service provision at all times.

Develop Responsive Policy and Legal Frameworks

There is no doubt that the WASH sector lacks the relevant policies, laws, and regulations to govern response to crisis. The fact that the sector is designed to provide services to the population under normal economic conditions, any change in circumstances exerts undue stress to the systems, structures, and available resources. Besides, new, improved ways of working can only work if the existing policies and laws are repealed and this can often be challenging to implement.

Proper policies, laws and regulations will, for sure, enable WASH institutions to be in a better place to respond to emergencies and sustain services to a reasonable level. It is therefore imperative that governments draft statutes to better harmonize sanitation and hygiene institutions. This structured coordination is critical in such emergencies and is lacking in most countries.

Besides, hygiene has been a silent component in WASH service provision. Historically, most hygiene interventions have been mainly short-term campaigns without any meaningful infrastructure investment and sustainability mechanisms. This failure to position hygiene as a critical public health driver emanates from the fact that WASH sector policies do not consider the need for its investment and as a crucial responsibility of service providers. Now that  Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of hygiene in saving lives, policies and regulations must be reviewed to reposition its place in the sector.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown that we need to position hygiene as a critical public health driver. Credit: Yellow Rose

Structure Mechanisms for Full Utility Cost-Recovery During Emergencies

Utilities’ response to the crisis, in countries such as Ghana and Kenya, has mainly been the provision of free water in the short-term. This act of benevolence is commendable. But without any doubt, non-reimbursement by governments will usher in a more severe crisis of operational sustainability in the medium and long terms.

To begin with, low-income people living in unserved areas cannot afford to pay for services when directly provided by utilities during emergencies. Since they lack daily income and primarily depend on informal vendors and on-demand payments. The utilities, on the other hand, lack mechanisms for deferring non-customer payments and subsequent collection of revenues for services provided during the lockdowns. This situation, in addition to undue political pressure, has forced them to extensively provide free water during this pandemic.

The low levels of financial cost recovery mean that the service providers will soon experience a struggle to meet their fundamental recurrent obligations, thus further leading to a deterioration of services.

There is, therefore, a need to develop frameworks for enabling full cost-recovery support mechanisms for WASH service provision institutions while undertaking acts of emergency response for vulnerable populations. This is what is done for other sectors that typically intervene during humanitarian crises.

Utilities will need full cost-recovery support mechanisms to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: Tsilavo Rapiera

Ensure Equitable Access to Basic Urban Services (Leave No One Behind)

The curtailment of movement during lockdowns means that people are confined in spaces that generate a high level of service provision demand that is never experienced in regular periods. The need for water in low incomes areas is never high through days and nights, and as a result, utilities are finding it difficult to respond to this unusual condition.

Most importantly, this crisis has brought out the need for having arrangements to provide basic services to all those living in urban areas. The fact that the poor cannot access basic goods and services has made it impossible for most developing world governments to enforce lockdowns in low income urban and peri-urban areas.

This not only demonstrates how inequality inhibits the response to a public health emergency but also clearly tells that governments cannot respond to any other form of disasters in cities by way of broadly restricting human movement in low-income areas. It is a clear indication that inequality in access to basic urban goods and services leads to administrative incapability. Needless to say, inability to enforce a total lockdown in a segment of the population during Covid-19 outbreak indicates powerlessness to fully govern citizens in crisis situations.

This security red flag should serve as a serious wake-up call all governments to focus on providing services and ensuring economic empowerment of all their city populations, particularly the poor. If they do, it will improve the likelihood that in times of emergencies, people’s basic needs are met. In turn, this will make it easier to implement the necessary disaster responses across all of their people, speeding up recovery and a return to normality.

Find out more about WSUP's Covid-19 response

Fighting Covid-19 sustainably: four steps to creating water solutions that will last

In the wake of coronavirus, governments in developing economies are waking up to the urgency of providing water as an act of defence against infectious diseases.

Some short-term measures are important, but equally important is a renewed focus on long-term availability of water supplies, particularly for the poorest in cities.

Universal water coverage is not a luxury: it is an essential part of keeping people safe. Many governments in the Global South have responded impressively to the threats caused by Covid-19. They now need to use this momentum to look to the long term and create water access in informal settlements that will be sustainable for years to come, protecting against future pandemics or a second wave of Covid-19.

Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) has identified four steps to creating long-term water solutions that will last:

  1. Invest in stronger utilities
  2. Embrace the power of great customer service
  3. Improve regulatory oversight
  4. Strengthen cooperation between communities and utilities

1. Invest in stronger utilities

Utilities are the solution to comprehensive, safe water access in cities, with a remit to manage water supply from source right through to settlement. To have any chance of achieving access, cities need bring piped, treated water to households, and increase the number of people connecting to this water supply.

Investing in utilities and helping them improve services for the people who need them most is one of the most important steps that we can take to tackle the water crisis.

A key element to this is investing in continuous water supply. Intermittent water supply – where water supply is switched on and off – weakens infrastructure, can allow contamination into the water network, and crucially, means that water is not available when residents need it. Utilities have to be able to provide water 24 hours a day, seven days a week for all their customers.

WSUP is working with the utility JIRAMA in Madagascar to build their capacity and help them deliver higher-quality services. Image credit: Tsilavo Rapiera

2. Embrace the power of great customer service

Great customer service means customers are happy, bills are paid promptly and leads to more customers, which leads to more revenue – which in turn results in better, and expanded, services. It is a crucial, and often neglected, part of tackling the water crisis.

The current guidance from many governments that customers cannot be disconnected has meant some water providers fearing that poor customers will stop paying their bills. Utilities are concerned that their long-term financial viability may be threatened if this happens.

But our experience is that customers will keep paying if they receive a quality service. To create more water access, therefore, utilities need to visibly improve services for existing residents, building a more loyal customer base which will provide the launchpad for growth.

Utilities in Zambia are improving their customer service at a local level to help expand water access in informal settlements. Image credit: Gareth Bentley

3. Improve regulatory oversight

Regulation is often over-looked but a crucial part of incentivising utilities to provide water to the poorest segments of society. If servicing the poorest becomes a matter of regulatory compliance, rather than an optional add-on, then it changes the focus for senior management of those water utilities.

In Kenya, for example, this is starting to happen, with the introduction of a metric that utilities must report to the regulator showing how well it is serving low-income areas. The better a utility does serve these communities, the better it does on the annual league tables.

READ: Achieving national impact through regulatory improvements in Kenya

Utilities in Kenya must now report on their service to low-income areas in order to place highly in the league tables Image credit: Brian Otieno

4. Strengthen co-operation between communities and utilities

Poor relations between urban communities and publicly owned utilities are a significant reason for slow uptake of water services. When communities take matters into their own hands to source and distribute water to residents, this actually hampers the availability and quality of water across a city.

Community-led water services can result in poorly treated water, a lack of fairness in pricing, a proliferation of informal water vendors and often, different communities in effect competing to draw water from underground sources. Uncoordinated water abstraction is a major threat to water availability in urban areas.

To solve these challenges, water providers have to be much more proactive about showing how they can meet the needs of residents and winning communities over, so that residents can benefit from safely treated, piped water from the central water network.

In Ghana, water providers have been working to engage communities in their work to expand their services to low-income areas. Image credit: Ernanio Mandlate

Learn more about WSUP's Covid-19 response

Delegated Management Models: ensuring service delivery at a local level

By Chisha Mwenso, Administrative Officer, Zambia

In Zambia, WSUP has been supporting sustainable models for WASH service delivery to help reach more people in the most underserved communities.

In Lusaka, the capital and largest city in Zambia, around 65% of residents live in low-income communities, many of which lack access to clean water and safe sanitation. These areas are often overlooked by utilities and service-providers as they are less profitable than higher-income districts where residents can more easily afford water and sanitation services.

Lusaka Water Supply and Sanitation Company (LWSSC) has been implementing Delegated Management Models (DMMs) to expand access to water and sanitation in low-income areas and improve service delivery at the local level. This model establishes local management teams within communities which take over responsibility for day-to-day service delivery from the utility.

By preparing bills and payments, collecting meter readings, fixing leaks in the network and setting up new water connections they ensure a more reliable water supply and better customer service. As a result, residents become more positive about the service and more likely to invest in their own household water connections.

WSUP has been working to support LWSSC in the establishment and maintenance of these DMMs. This has included creating and monitoring service agreements between the operators and the utility; evaluating existing DMMs; mobilising capital to support new infrastructure; training staff and helping with community engagement. In addition, we have supported the low-income customer unit within LWSSC so that, in future, they will be able to establish DMMs without external support.

In the case of Mtendere East, a low-income community in Lusaka, WSUP also helped to mobilise financing to extend the water network to the area. Eight years on, this DMM is still working well, servicing 1,700 households with clean, affordable water. The local management team has also established positive relationships with the community through good service provision and a fast response time to queries.

“The DMM has been very proactive in resolving any challenges that arise and always provides good customer service. I receive my bills on time and in instances where I have been unable to settle my water bill at once the DMM has a facility that allows me to pay in instalments and not face any water service interruption” – Austin Kazelondo, a customer of the DMM in Mtendere East.

Austin Kazelondo, a customer of the DMM in Mtendere East

Investing back into the community

The management teams set up through DMMs require a start-up investment but are designed to become financially viable after this initial period. In Mtendere East, this start-up funding was provided by Australia Aid with support from CARE International who have worked with other DMMs in the area. Since then the local management team has been able to generate enough income to cover its own operating costs and establish an investment fund for the DMM. This fund is used to support payment plans that help residents spread out the costs of establishing a household water connection and to save towards the development of the DMM.

From this fund the management team has been able to save enough to build its own office in Mtendere East, allowing it to serve more residents in-person and extend its services within the community.

“The revenue being collected from the kiosks and payment of bills has enabled the DMM to extend the water network to service more people and build more kiosks, increasing the number from 15 to 24. Furthermore, the land on which these additional kiosks have been constructed is land that has been offered by the community members” – Benny Kaleya, Manager of the DMM in Mtendere East.

Benny Kaleya, Manager of the DMM in Mtendere East

What can we learn from Mtendere East?

The DMMs established in Lusaka have shown that this model can provide a successful path for commercial utilities and other government authorities to better serve low-income communities.

“We have seen high levels of efficiency with the DMM approach. You have a team dedicated to this area who are very efficient in providing services and are in constant contact with the customers”– Yvonne Siyeni, Peri-urban Department Manager for LWSSC.

Yvonne Siyeni, Peri-urban Department Manager for LWSSC

In Mtendere East, a key part of this success has been the involvement of the community in the development of the DMM. The role of residents in supporting the DMM, engaging with the services offered and, in some cases, donating land to be used for water kiosks has been critical in ensuring the sustainability of the DMM.

“When the Mtendere East DMM was established we ensured that clear roles and responsibilities were laid out in the service management contract between the DMM and LWSSC. This ensured the local management team were able to provide good customer service and could receive the support they needed from the utility.” – Reuben Sipuma, WSUP Country Programme Manager in Zambia.

There is still much work to do to improve water and sanitation access across Lusaka but WSUP is already working to replicate the success seen in areas like Mtendere East and expand the same model to other cities.

Find out more about how WSUP is improving access to safe water in Lusaka

Covid-19 and crowded urban settlements: how can we stop the spread?

By Sam Drabble, Acting Head of Evaluation, Research & Learning

For the one billion people living in informal urban settlements in the Global South, the spread of coronavirus poses an imminent threat that could prove catastrophic.

A range of factors makes transmission of the virus in these contexts more likely, and the potential impacts even worse than the huge toll now being felt in more developed economies.

One such factor is the very high population density: social distancing and self-isolation are practically impossible in contexts where multiple families share the same compound, cook food in a communal area, and walk the same narrow lanes.

This situation is exacerbated by lack of access to basic services: many of the people living in these communities must leave their premises just to collect water, or to use a toilet which they could be sharing with 10 other families – for which they will often have to queue.

There are many factors at play, and considerable uncertainty. But the fear is that once Covid-19 reaches these areas, the unhygienic conditions will cause it to spread even more rapidly than in Europe, United States and China.

Covid-19: message from our CEO

Like every organisation, WSUP is having to react quickly to this constantly evolving crisis. In most locations where we work, social distancing is now in force. Cities are in lockdown, to varying degrees. All WSUP staff must work from home and cannot for now interact in person with those we exist to support.

But by continuing to work closely with our partner utilities, and with our wider networks at the city and national level, we can still make a difference: to the prospects of the people living in vulnerable communities, and to the people whose job it is to keep these communities supplied with basic services.

Beira, Mozambique. High population density and a lack of access to basic services means coronavirus poses a dire threat across urban areas in the Global South.

We have identified five priority areas in which WSUP and our partners can contribute in the cities where we work:

1. Hygiene promotion campaigns

An effective response to Covid-19 is dependent on clear information and advice. Getting the message across in informal settlements will require a sophisticated and targeted communications strategy. Information flows in these areas can be different from elsewhere, with local groups and community-level structures playing a central role. Community leaders will be critical in driving a crisis response, including local chiefs or councillors.

In Ghana for example, information about the virus has primarily been shared through key mainstream TV and radio outlets, but many people living in informal settlements will get their news from local radio stations serving anywhere between 5,000 – 15,000 people.

As a sector, we need to engage these outlets to ensure the information they relay is aligned with approved messaging from Ministries of Health and with wider government policy in relation to the virus.

Evidently strategies must be adapted to leverage specific cultural norms. In Bangladesh for example, select high-profile celebrities (notably members of the national cricket team) have huge traction with all segments of the population, and could potentially be engaged to push the cause.

2. National urban planning and coordination

Many African governments have been decisive in their immediate response to the crisis, requiring citizens to practice social distancing. The challenge now is to ensure institutions come together to ensure an effective nationwide logistical response.

In several countries where WSUP works, lines of responsibility within the public sector are unclear, and intermediaries can play an important role in supporting coordination. Taking Kenya as one example, this will entail our working in close partnership with a wide range of institutions, including the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Water and Sanitation, urban water utilities, the National Emergency Coordination Committee, County-level heads of preventive and promotive health, and large and local businesses offering essential services.

In Ghana, our immediate priority is to engage the Ministry of Health and the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) to support a coordinated effort to disseminate information about Covid-19 at the community level.

In Kenya WSUP is working in close partnership with a range of institutions such as the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Water and Sanitation and urban water utilities to support our Covid-19 response.

3. Emergency water tankers and bowsers

To fight Covid-19 the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended social distancing, regular handwashing with soap and practicing respiratory hygiene. But for regular handwashing to be sustained, people must have access to a regular water supply.

Working with our partner utilities to achieve continuity of piped water supply is a core priority for WSUP at all times, but the crisis presents unique challenges, and utilities will struggle to meet the increased demand in some parts of the city.

We need to supplement long-term water provision efforts with emergency water supply systems, including through water tankers and bowsers.

Here an example to follow is Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company: the utility recently announced plans to drill boreholes to boost supply to Nairobi’s informal settlements, where tankers are also now widespread. We are hopeful similar measures will be introduced shortly in Lusaka and other locations.

4. Delivery and distribution of soap and handwashing facilities

As well as water, it is of course critical to ensure the residents of informal settlements have access to handwashing stations and plentiful supplies of soap. This is an area where the private sector has an important role to play, with Unilever and others now exploring ways to accelerate provision of soap and hand sanitizers to vulnerable communities.

In collaboration with these organisations — and as part of ongoing support to our partner utilities — WSUP is helping to identify priority locations in informal settlements so that simple handwashing facilities can be provided and donated soap or sanitizers can get to those in need. This will focus on areas that can offer the most benefit to communities such as local health centres, schools, water kiosks and public toilets.

In Kenya, our partner Nakuru Water has been installing handwashing facilities:

We have continued installing handwashing tanks in various areas in the Town. Today we received tanks from Central Rift Dev. Agency to continue the fight against #COVID19.With @GovLeeKinyanjui @Eng_F_Ngeno
The power is in our hands, let’s keep them clean.#StaySafe #EnrichingLife pic.twitter.com/77y3yDq1QL

— Nakuru Water (@NakuruWater) April 1, 2020

5. Provision of personal protective equipment

In countries where Covid-19 has already taken hold, appreciation has grown for the role of “key workers” – people whose jobs are considered vital to public health and safety. Water and sanitation are basic services and utility workers have an important role to play in crisis mitigation. In a major recent survey, water utility leaders in the United States cited potential staffing shortages due to illness and quarantine as by far their biggest current concern in the pandemic. Utility leaders across Africa and South Asia will share the same fears.

To maintain a regular supply, a portion of utility staff will have to stay mobile, for example to perform urgent service repairs in informal settlements. To protect these individuals, we are working with partner utilities to promote the procurement and provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Acting with the required urgency

WSUP is well-positioned to support crisis mitigation efforts in informal settlements: many of our projects are explicitly focused on these areas, and our operations are built on close working partnerships with the city authorities and utilities mandated to serve them.

But neither we nor anyone else have all the answers – there is just too much uncertainty about how the virus will behave in these communities.

The key point at this moment in time is to identify those activities we know can make a difference, and to move and move quickly. We have a limited window of opportunity to mitigate the devastating effects of Covid-19 taking hold in communities where people are at the greatest risk.

Find out more about WSUP's coronavirus response

Our response to Covid-19: CEO message

Access to clean water and good hygiene have never been more important.

A message from our CEO Neil Jeffery

I wanted to share with you an update on WSUP’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the last week, we have been working tirelessly to reorient our organisation – getting staff back to their home countries, changing work practices, bolstering our technology systems and working out revised work plans for our operations around the world.

In the communities where we work, though, the crisis continues to grow. We are extremely concerned for the health and safety of people living in the fragile urban communities where WSUP focuses its attention. We are considering how we can strengthen WSUP’s role in the hygiene response.

Poor hygiene, and high population density means that an outbreak of Coronavirus in slum communities could be truly catastrophic. Mindful of this, we have seen authorities in the countries where we are working act quickly to limit the risk of disease transmission; and thankfully, the outbreaks in these countries to date have been small, at least compared to those in other parts of the world.

But this outbreak tells us that we need to act, more than ever, to address poor hygiene in growing urban populations. Many people are not aware of the critical importance of good hygiene; and even if they are, they may lack the soap and clean water to regularly wash their hands.

We have a duty to the communities where we work to consider ways in which we can assist them to improve hygiene, either through digital messaging, or by other means.

We are developing our plans on this and will do what we can to support urban authorities and utilities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia as they seek to address this issue. We have experience of implementing major handwashing promotion campaigns and our teams are considering how we can best adapt our response in each of our programme countries.

To all of our partners, we are grateful for your continued understanding, patience and valued support.

Best regards,


Find out more about WSUP's Covid-19 response

Bright water, bright future: climate resilient services in Madagascar

For residents of Antananarivo like Rasoa, access to reliable water sources is essential in the face of increasing water scarcity.

Across the globe climate change is affecting the most vulnerable people in cities the most. For Madagascar’s peri-urban communities alternating severe droughts and flooding are making it harder for people to access safe, clean water sources.

Through the Water and Development Alliance, the United States Agency for Development (USAID), Coca-Cola Foundation and WSUP are helping to create more climate-resilient water systems that support residents like Rasoa.

For Rasoa, access to water is life changing.

“The first time we saw the bright water gushing we felt and hoped that our future will be so bright.”

The service is managed by JIRAMA, the national water utility in Madagascar. Through JIRAMA’s work to establish a water kiosk near her home Rasoa has a reliable source of clean water that doesn’t run out during the dry season. This work across Antananarivo is improving the resilience of the city, protecting those that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Watch the video to learn more.

Learn more about WSUP's work on climate change

From the front line of climate change: residents tell their stories

What does climate change mean for the most vulnerable people living in urban areas?

Ahead of this year’s World Water Day, WSUP has been finding out how climate change affects the water and sanitation needs of city residents.

The following stories give a snapshot of the challenges faced around the world, from rising temperatures in Bangladesh to destruction of water systems in Mozambique.

Follow us on Facebook to read the full stories.

Bangladesh: warmer temperatures and increased flooding

Community leader in Dhaka
Mohsin Howlader, community leader in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Mohsin Howlader, a community leader in Dhaka, told us:

“The summer is getting warmer each year and the demand for drinking water is increasing. I have a family of four and we used to consume one pitcher of drinking water a day in summer, but in recent times we have to fill the pitcher twice.”

In Beguntila, 4,500 people live in a tiny community which has three times the population density of the rest of the city. Five years ago, with WSUP’s support, the community was connected to the main water network, operated by Dhaka Water & Sewerage Authority.

As demand for water increases, there is not always enough water available. Even worse, during the rainy season residents have to cross hazardous flooded areas to fetch water.

Mozambique: recovering from the effects of Cyclone Idai

Henriqueta Luís, a resident of Beira, Mozambique

One year after Cyclone Idai destroyed large parts of the city of Beira, Henriqueta Luís still suffers from lack of clean water.

“Sometimes the water that we drink is unclean and this results in diarrhoea, vomiting and cholera,” she said.

The cyclone destroyed much of the water infrastructure, meaning that Henriqueta frequently has to walk long distances seeking safe water. Even a simple water fountain near to her home would make a huge difference to her life, and WSUP is working with local communities as well as the water utility FIPAG to bring this much needed service to Henriqueta and many others.

As climate change makes extreme weather like cyclones more common, building stronger, more resilient water infrastructure has never been more important.

Zambia: ongoing drought

Kennedy Mpundu, a resident of Livingstone, Zambia

Kennedy Mpundu, a resident in the southern city of Livingstone, said:

“We get water for about five hours in a day and sometimes less, we have experienced very little rainfall in some years… During such times I have had to reduce the size of my vegetable garden or do away with it completely so that I save water.”

In Livingstone, southern Zambia, long-lasting drought over the past year has wreaked havoc on water services. The utility responsible for providing water in the region, Southern Water & Sewerage Company, has seen five sources of water dry up completely.

WSUP is working with the utility and communities to improve water management in Livingstone and increase the ability of residents living in informal settlements to access water services.

Find out more about WSUP's work on climate change

Emerging findings on gender and decision making in sanitation public bodies

This International Women’s Day, we are sharing some emerging findings from a research project to show how in sanitation, an equal world is an enabled world.

For International Women’s Day last year, we wrote about a new research project examining the gender split of staff in Kenyan sanitation public institutions. These include utilities, government bodies and training institutes. Researchers at Athena Infonomics are now reaching the end of the project, which you can read more about here. But before going into some of the emerging findings…

Elizabeth Wairumu, a beneficiary of WSUP’s partnership with the social initiative Life Bloom in Kenya.

Why is this an important issue?

Firstly, organisations that provide essential public goods like water and sanitation need to deliver services for everyone. If the people providing products and services aren’t actively considering the different requirements of their users, then life will be harder for pregnant people, menstruating women and girls, the elderly, people looking after small children, and disabled people. Increasing staff diversity can guard against providing ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions – which tend to prioritise able-bodied men.

Secondly, organisations like utilities need to adapt to serve growing and changing populations. Modern utilities don’t just provide pipes, taps and treatment plants; they are evolving and becoming more customer oriented. Utilities and other WASH organisations will need to have a body of staff that can respond to growing populations and climate change – if half of the population is dissuaded from working in a WASH-related company, then that company is unnecessarily missing out on a significant section of the labour market.

Thirdly, women holding executive positions are associated with strong company performance. Utilities that tap into this female labour force are more “profitable, competitive, sustainable and have a more dedicated and loyal workforce”. If utilities in countries like Kenya are to become financially sustainable, profitable and attractive to investors, women should be taking up key technical and decision-making roles.

So, what are the numbers?

The Global Gender Gap Index 2020 reports that only 15% of people working in engineering worldwide are women. In terms of water and sanitation provision, a recent World Bank report surveyed 64 water and sanitation utilities and found that less than 18% of the workforce was female, and less than one in four managerial or engineering staff were women. (For full transparency, nearly half of WSUP staff are women.)

However, there’s a gap in the literature. Research on the effect of gender-balanced company boards or executive leadership has looked at gender quotas in Europe and North America, not sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the research examining gender and WASH in sub-Saharan Africa tends to focus on women as beneficiaries of water and sanitation projects, rather than on those taking part in higher-level discussions about how to provide water and sanitation. The lack of literature portrays a clear geographic bias.

For a summary literature review, see the Policy Brief.

It’s not that women aren’t interested in these kinds of technical and decision-making roles – many of the people WSUP work with every day in utilities are women. But questions remain on whether women are sufficiently attracted to the water and sanitation sector in the first place, and once they’re working in the WASH sector, are they supported to stay in WASH and to progress up the corporate ladder?

Who’s making these decisions in Kenya?

The first phase of the research project entailed mapping the staff of six public sector sanitation institutions in Kenya according to gender. Institutions mapped included an official water and sanitation service provider (Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Co.), governmental bodies at national and county level (Kiambu County Water Department and the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation), the Kenya Water Institute, the Water Sector Trust Fund, and the national regulator WASREB. While not an exhaustive survey of every single person working in sanitation in the whole country, it’s a valuable dataset that we’ve not had before.

For more information on findings from this mapping phase, see the Policy Brief.

In these organisations, the average female representation across ‘top-level’ employees was 37%, with corporate leadership roles particularly uneven. ‘Top-level’ here means a role akin to a board director, CEO, COO, heads of institute, heads of department, and managerial heads that lead specific activities.

Eldah Odongo is the Customer Care Manager and Acting Head of Corporate Affairs and Communication at Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company.

Three barriers identified

This project doesn’t just aim to count people – we want to know more about what could be blocking women from taking on decision-making roles in sanitation as Kenya aims to achieve Vision 2030 and the SDGs.

To gather richer data, researchers arranged in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with male and female staff in each of the six focus institutions, as well as other relevant organisations that work in either sanitation or on gender-related issues, like UNICEF, the Kenya Water and Sanitation Civil Societies Network (KEWASNET), the Gender Equality Committee and the Ministry of Public Health.

This qualitative data will be analysed together with information gathered through an online survey completed by staff within the six focus institutions.

While analysis of the data is not yet complete, in our initial findings we have identified three main factors that could be disadvantaging Kenyan women in these careers:

Educational attainment: lack of role models in technical fields. Being told that maths and science were not suitable for girls, teasing at school about pursuing a technical career – all these were cited as reasons that fewer women than men were entering the technical WASH labour force.

Tradition and cultural expectations: particularly around parenthood, with women required to take the lead at home and in caring for other family members. Being primary caregiver to young children meant that many female respondents felt they could not take on field assignments or travel to conferences.

Networking opportunities and role models in institutions: many female respondents reported that their male colleagues benefitted from professional networks that they did not have access to, particularly as they were discouraged from attending evening social activities.

Beyond policies and into practice

Analysis is not yet complete so we can’t make any concrete judgements yet – but it is interesting that most of the organisations included in this research have HR policies, sexual harassment policies and paid maternity leave, and many employees have the option to arrange some kind of flexible working hours (although the latter is at the discretion of managers rather than a standardised practice).

Despite this, the gender mapping of senior staff and some of the qualitative data seem to still be pointing to issues that are hard to eradicate through organisational policies alone. Some of these emerging barriers to women’s full participation in senior decision-making roles in sanitation are hard to pin down definitively – but perceptions about how you are treated are crucial, particularly when it comes to making important decisions about your life and your career.

On a fundamental level, people should be able pursue their professional goals without impediment, regardless of sex or any other characteristic.

Next steps

When the research has been finalised, the results will be used to form recommendations for short- and long-term actions for the public sector institutions themselves, as well as the institutional framework which governs how they interact with other organisations, civil society and NGOs. This is just a starting point. The research will provide valuable contributions towards the growing push to highlight the importance of diversifying and strengthening sanitation service providers.

Blog written by Rosie Renouf (WSUP Research & Policy Manager). This research is being delivered by Athena Infonomics, and the lead researcher is Zachary Burt.

Further reading

Athena Infonomics (August 2019). ‘Barriers to Women Adopting Decision-Making Roles in Sanitation-Related Public Bodies and Attitudinal Differences between Male and Female Decision-Makers: Literature Review’. Urban Sanitation Research Initiative Kenya, WSUP.

Criado Perez C (2019) Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Chatto and Windus

International Water Association (2014) ‘An avoidable crisis: WASH human resource capacity gaps in 15 developing economies’.

International Water Association (2016) ‘The untapped resource: Gender and diversity in the water workforce’.

Kenya Integrated Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Project (March 2019). ‘Contributing to a gender-balanced WASH sector’. Blog, KIWASH USAID

Noland M, Moran T & Kotschwar B (Feb 2016) ‘Is gender diversity profitable? Evidence from a global survey’. Working Paper 16-3. Peterson Institute for International Economics

Social Institutions and Gender Index (2019). Kenya datasheet. OECD Development Centre

Thompson K, O’Dell K, Syed S & Kemp H (23 Jan 2017) ‘Thirsty for change: the untapped potential of women in urban water management’. Deloitte Insights

World Bank (2019) ‘Women in water utilities: breaking barriers’.

World Economic Forum (2020). ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2020