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“It is important to rethink things, to bring something new, but this depends on the region, on where you are”.

27 June is Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Day. Small businesses are important contributors to sustainable development. They make up 90% of all businesses, account for 60-70% of total employment, and are major drivers of poverty alleviation.

Aboubacar Camara is a social entrepreneur in Conakry, Guinea working on access to safe water and hygiene. Working in the water sector is not straightforward, you have to overcome many hurdles. In this interview, Aboubacar shares some of his experiences in running a small social enterprise.

Aboubacar Camara with his staff

1. What do you need to start a micro-enterprise in the water sector?

An entrepreneur in the water sector has to be passionate about the subject as it is essential for the survival of your business. The sector is constantly changing. Water issues in a country like ours are very complex, so you have to come up with solutions that last. You have to know the environment, what the needs and demands are, and come up with innovations.

For decades, governments and international institutions have been too focused on quantity rather than quality. But with all the waterborne diseases, water quality is central to local concerns. So one of the key things that a water entrepreneur has to know is where the water problems are, what data are available, is an intervention financially viable? Is it worthwhile to step in and take action?

Also look at your competitors, how are they operating, what is missing in the services they are offering?  And remember that one of the most difficult things in entrepreneurship is how to make money from a service business. Do you think it possible, then go for it!

2. What persistent obstacle have you encountered in the water sector in Guinea?

The water situation in Guinea is paradoxical, there is an abundance of water resources but a real difficulty in  covering the water needs of the population. The quality of the water is a concern. In some regions, especially in coastal areas, there are high concentrations of iron and salt in the water. Due to the bad water quality Guinea has known several epidemics of cholera, the latest was in 2012.

A major concern is that a significant proportion of the population is still using untreated surface water. One of the reasons for this situation is a lack of proper systems for water management which supply quality drinking water to the people. A growth in water production units supplying water of dubious quality adds to the array of problems we encounter.

3. What have you learnt from running this business?

Believing that your interventions should be focused on rural areas (poor areas) only where the needs are highest is a mistake. It is very important to realise that your market is everywhere, so do not only focus on who benefit the most. This is crucial for keeping your business alive.

I have also learned that water companies are social institutions in a permanent state of bankruptcy which are only kept going by the good faith of the entrepreneurs. In countries where the water problems are urgent, it is advisable to be a strategic partner of the government in order to capitalise on data.

4. What is required to drive your business forward?

During the cholera and Ebola outbreaks that Guinea faced in 2016, we were able to show that Tinkisso had the technical and organisational skills to meet the demand of the government and UNICEF. However, after the epidemics we lost the political support of government and this will probably only come back in times of emergency.

Due to these developments, the business model of my company Tinkisso has evolved enormously. We have now fully adapted our portfolio of products to meet Guinean demand for hygiene and household water treatment. We have created other complementary products, such as chlorine, to meet the demand both in cities and rural areas. We need the financial and political support of local actors who want to commit to our long-term vision of creating value in the country. Since 2010, the Antenna Foundation supports our activities in this context and has helped us find technical and economic solutions. This was key in the development of our skills and to ensure the independence of Tinkisso. This kind of long-term commitment is essential for a sustainable business model. We need to diversify our funding and are looking for other partners.

5. Innovation is a key word nowadays, what innovation do you dream of?

Nowadays, it is important to rethink things, to bring something new, but this depends on the region, on where you are. At this moment, Europe is producing self-driving vehicles, but here in Guinea, we do not even have roads, hospitals etc. So what kind of innovation is relevant where? What we need to do first is educate people, train them to understand the basics.

I want to innovate in the fight against waterborne diseases, I want to educate women to sponsor other women to adopt healthy behaviours. I have already started with this project. It is a matter of showing these women that with motivation, they can improve the health of other women and their families in rural areas. It is a sponsorship system for improving the quality of water and therefore the quality of life.