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Why innovations in the WASH sector rarely scale up?

Published on: 23/03/2018

Lessons for government, the private sector, NGOs and donors.

Using mobile phones to collect baseline data in Ethiopia. Photo

For years, the WASH sector has been mesmerised by clever ideas that have the potential to transform the sector: from a solar-powered device that can harvest water from the air; smart water pumps; water filters which purify water and reduce the number of lives lost to waterborne diseases; to eWATERpay which can be installed on public water points to ensure 100% collection of user fees.

However, most innovations in the WASH sector have one common feature: they are piloted successfully, but rarely scale up. And even those that get adopted or scaled up do not always bring about the full intended benefits. This begs the question, what is wrong with innovation in the WASH sector? Here is my take.

Too much focus on technology rather than building systems for execution

Often, when we hear of a new innovation in the WASH sector, we all get excited! The same things happen: donors will put money behind it, NGOs will pilot it; and government will be persuaded to adopt and scale up the innovation, even if it hasn’t been robustly tested at scale. However, as time passes by the enthusiasm dies off and nothing really happens to think through how the innovation could be executed at scale.

A good example is the Water Point Mapping (WPM) tool, which uses the Geographical Positioning System (GPS) to map every water point. When it was introduced and piloted in Tanzania in the late 2000s, many thought that it was going to improve the way government monitors and reports on their rural water supplies, thereby increasing transparency and accountability of investments in the sector and  of monitoring sustainability of services being provided. However, despite government’s adoption of the WPM tool, monitoring and reporting in the sector remains weak, and investment decisions are rarely informed by data generated from the WPM tool. Only a few years later we realised that having a WPM on its own is insufficient to ensure improved services.  It is about how to institute simplified and cost-effective procedures and processes for monitoring and reporting, along with understanding the incentives for data use across the government hierarchy. Services can only improve if we build a culture where  monitoring data is valued and used by districts for planning and decision making.

Innovation is often prioritised over developing business models

Many innovations in the sector are brought in by tech firms, with trials in the field led by WASH experts often from donor agencies, NGOs or government departments. The problem with this approach is that people who are involved in these projects often have knowledge of the technology and WASH, but less knowledge of the business side i.e. market needs, supply chain, willingness to pay etc.

Because we are hyperfocused on gadgets, the project team often spends considerable resources on perfecting the innovation, but less on developing sustainable business models and marketing strategies that would drive product penetration in the market at scale.

A classic example is the pit emptying services using gulper technology. When it was introduced in Tanzania, many thought that it was going to solve the sanitation crisis in unplanned settlements of Dar es Salaam. However, despite several attempts to perfect the gulper, we haven’t yet found a safe and sustainable way to empty toilet pits and then to transport the sludge to a treatment station. It is now becoming clear that the issue isn’t about having a better pump or vehicle. It is how to run a sustainable business in that area, and what sort of toilets would be both easier to empty and attractive to people.

Failure to plan for scale early on

Many innovations in the WASH sector follow a linear path: from ideation, prototyping, to pilots - which are usually reported successful.

We normally assume that successful pilots will lead to sustained scale-up efforts which is not always the case. Consequently, we get stuck with repeated small-scale successes, rather than impact at scale. Why?

Many innovation trials in the WASH sector are planned with the conditions for success in place. They are often implemented in the most receptive communities, with high quality and fully committed staff, enough funding and close monitoring and reporting often by donors and NGOs.

As pointed out by Jan Willem Rosenboom, the difficulty then comes when we try to transit from pilot to scale, where the so-called ‘innovation’ is subjected to real operating environments with often limited budgets, less political buy-in and staff with less training, experience, motivation and support. As a result, the conditions for success move from “outstanding” to “average,” and so do the results.

One of the key lessons from testing various prepaid meters in rural settings in Tanzania is that while ‘consumers’( i.e. rural households) could afford and are keen to use the prepaid meters (the main reasons being convenience and 24/7 access to water points); they are just end consumers. They might have influence on the choice of meters; they decide whether or not a prepaid meter should be installed at their communal water points. To reach these households, you need to engage ‘gate keepers’ (i.e. ministries and district officials, local politicians etc.) and ‘customers’ (i.e. Community Owned Organisations) who have vested interests and different incentives to those of households.

For working at scale to succeed requires planning for scale from the beginning. In the case of prepaid meters, this would include understanding the local market, institutional dynamics, politics and incentives of all players early on to inform the pilot, and possible adaptations in various settings.

We need to change our mind-set and approach to the sector

There is no doubt that the world is changing quickly. Thanks to globalisation and advancement of technology. Sadly, limited funding, inadequate staffing and old-fashioned methods are constraining the ability of the WASH sector to deliver services differently, and take advantage of technological innovation.

We need to ensure that our WASH engineers are not only trained in how to fix pipes and pumps, but equally in how to keep water flowing. Likewise, we need to equip them with management and digital skills if the sector is to tackle the global water and sanitation crisis. This will require a fundamental shift in the way we train and recruit staff in the WASH sector.

We need to make sure politics work for the sector and not the other way around. This means building capability of WASH experts to engage with politicians and policy makers and be able to ‘speak truth to power’ on pertinent issues affecting the sector. For example, we will not be able to scale up innovative prepaid systems in rural areas if we allow politicians to continue asking their constituency not to pay for water, even though the same people pay for TV, mobile phones and electricity.

Governments as well need to change their attitude to the sector. They need to understand that they can’t do it alone, and hence work to create an attractive environment for crowdfunding and expertise from the private sector, along with fostering a culture of creativity and new ways of thinking.

Equally, the private sector players and tech firms need to know that just having a good gadget isn’t enough. Innovations need to be repeatedly stress tested to account for user needs, contextual needs, and market needs at different levels and settings, and most importantly, their innovation needs to be affordable, and appropriate.

NGOs also need to get better at doing their job. They should not view themselves as WASH service delivery agents but rather play a greater role in testing new things in partnership with the private sector, and generate evidence to influence policy and practices at scale. Again, this can only happen if NGOs approach innovation through the lens of economic transformation rather than charity.

And, we donors too need to change the way we fund and support innovation in the WASH sector. First, we have to get away from expecting that several pilots we fund will scale on their own, towards thinking smartly on how to make investment go further. Secondly, we need to design our financing instruments in a way that they not only focus on developing next game-changing technology, but also push suppliers to really think about systems. We need to accept the fact that technology alone won’t result in transformative change, unless we also invest in data, service delivery, and overall process improvement. A recent shift to performance-based and adaptive programming in the Tanzanian water sector is a good example of how government and donors can work together towards a systems-thinking approach.

These issues aren’t new to the sector. The intention here is to remind us that purely technological innovation is insufficient on its own. To develop the novel technologies that will truly change how WASH services are perceived and delivered, we also need to fundamentally change our approach as a sector. If this is not addressed, the WASH sector will always lag behind, and will fail to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution.

Disclaimer: Lukas Kwezi currently works for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) as Water and Sanitation Adviser, based in Dar es Salaam. He writes blog posts in his spare time. Though he may talk about the work he does in the sector, this is neither a corporate nor a political blog and the opinions and ideas expressed here are solely his own, not those of his employers.

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