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David Auerbach, co-founder of Sanergy

Editor’s Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, David Auerbach, co-founder of Sanergy, shares his thoughts on the sanitation value chain, community ownership, and exciting innovations in sanitation in response to our questions.

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

The most critical issue that the WASH sector faces is the lack of systems-based thinking. We need to go beyond simply providing a toilet. Although 2.5 billion people lack access to a clean toilet, 4.1 billion are at risk because sewage is not treated.  At Sanergy, we take a systems-based approach that addresses the entire sanitation value chain. We provide clean toilets through a franchise network of local micro-entrepreneurs, collect the waste professionally, and treat it properly by converting it into useful byproducts, such as organic fertilizer. Failure to address the whole chain ultimately pushes the challenge further downstream.

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

Sanergy sells Fresh Life Toilets to local micro-entrepreneurs. The franchise package includes installation, marketing, training and business support, and a daily waste collection service, and costs about $600 for the first year. In our work with the residents of Nairobi’s slums, we came across micro-entrepreneurs who were excited to launch Fresh Life businesses -- especially women and youth -- but who did not have immediate access to finance to start up their businesses. Kiva, an online micro-lending platform, partnered with us to provide 0% interest loans to future Fresh Life Operators. The partnership has led to 73 loans being issued and the construction of over 120 Fresh Life Toilets. Those operators serve 5,000 residents with hygienic sanitation daily.  At the same time, Kiva gives us an incredible platform to share the resilient, compelling stories of our micro-entrepreneurs with the world.

By partnering with Kiva, we are overcoming an important hurdle -- access to finance -- and are creating a grassroots, sustainable solution to provide critical sanitation services.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

All 161 of our Fresh Life Operators -- each of whom has invested their own savings in Fresh Life -- are from the Mukuru community. They are critical to the sustenance of our business and are key players in effectively tackling the sanitation crisis.  One such operator is Agnes Kwamboka who has a remarkable story of the transformation that she was able to make as a partner with Fresh Life. Tired of having to bribe policemen so that she could run her unregulated brew business, she closed it down and had two Fresh Life Toilets installed. Now, she earns a good income, which enables her to sustain her family and no longer worry about the police. She has also reinvested the profits by purchasing additional Fresh Life Toilets and in literacy classes for herself. Testimonies like these show that we are positively changing the community and changing people’s mindsets about their role in society.

The other significant way in which we gain community buy-in is by hiring from the community. Sixty percent of our 135-person team is from the local community and over 60% of our staff is between 18 – 25 years old -- the age bracket with the highest unemployment in Kenya.  The residents know how the lack of adequate sanitation can have disastrous effects on their lives and this makes them extra-determined to change their communities for the better.

Fresh life toilets become part of the landscape in the informal settlements in which Sanergy works. Credit: Sanergy

Fresh life toilets become part of the landscape in the informal settlements in which Sanergy works. Credit: Sanergy

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years.

One great initiative to emerge is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Re-invent the Toilet Challenge (RTTC). Institutions and researchers have received generous grants to come up with innovative approaches for the hygienic provision, collection and treatment of waste.  The initiative has really catalyzed the entire sector and, moreover, broken down taboos to bring the sanitation challenge to the center of any development conversation. Through the RTTC, Sanergy has benefited significantly. We have partnered with The Climate Foundation to develop biochar -- an organic soil conditioner. We have worked closely with Agriprotein in South Africa to develop a protein-rich animal feed made from maggots that consume only human waste. These technologies have the potential to be massively important for the agricultural input industries. In creating value from waste, we give incentive for everyone to participate in the sanitation value chain.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately besides WASH funders, of course?

Lately, we have read a couple of compelling papers from the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program about what a toilet’s worth, from ID Insight about IDE-Cambodia’s work with microfinance, and Dean Spears’ research on the effect a lack of hygienic sanitation has on children’s height.

Dr. Kerstin Danert, Skat Foundation

Editor’s Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, Dr. Kerstin Danert, water and sanitation specialist at the Swiss-based Skat Foundation, shares her thoughts on community engagement, the power of networks, and more in response to our questions. 

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

Collectively, we have the means, the methods, and the technology to enable everyone to access safe and sustainable drinking water and sanitation services. However, we need much more consideration of PPPs — People, Power, and Politics. In other words, people’s different needs and abilities, the huge global, national, and local power imbalances, and political pressure, as well as political response.

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

Skat Foundation hosts the secretariat for the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN), a network that enables practitioners, professionals, and, ultimately, water users to make informed decisions on how to improve and maintain access to safe water in rural areas. As a network, from 2011 onward we have very much tried to boost the interaction, building up of trust, and sharing of experiences (positive and negative) between practitioners and professionals working in rural water supplies. This is through online communities as well as face-to-face events.  As I observe the exchanges in several of these communities, which enable people in different countries and contexts to realise that they face some of the same problems, and learn how others have overcome them, I am convinced that there is much more potential to catalyse change through networking.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

The Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) now has over 2,600 members — people working directly with communities, as well as those more removed from the “front line”. There is a wide range in how these practitioners and professionals (and the organisations that they work for) engage with communities. However, cutting across all of them, I think that there is need for much more serious consideration of how to encourage and support water users to directly help themselves, in incremental ways, such as through self-supply. We are also learning that community management needs ongoing support to be successful. And in the case of larger, multi-village schemes, professional management and regulation may be the only way to support a reliable service. We still need to understand more about why services are working and failing within the specifics of the context in which they operate and to learn from these.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

I still stand true to the last of our seven myths that we published in the Myths of the Rural Water Supply Sector in 2009, that there is no magic bullet or one simple solution.  Fundamentally there is need for much more cooperation between organisations.  And I am encouraged to see this happening in some countries and certain localities. I get excited when I hear, see, and read about organisations (and individuals) really working with others to solve problems and do good quality work. Government, NGO, development partners and others can really come together to work out how to build on their strengths for the country, or local area, as a whole. Steady, joined up ways of working can have a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5 to 25 years.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

It would be too obvious to talk about the wonderful water point mapping work that seems to have grown in popularity recently. When we prepared our recent publication on Finding Information in Rural Water Supplies, I was struck by just how much information is actually out there. So let me talk about what I have not seen — and that is a web site which intelligently pulls together the WASH (and water resources) information and links from different sources country by country (or state by state in the case of large countries) in a very accessible manner. I think that this could make a difference — not only to productivity, but also to the discussion — and to politics. 

Dr. Snehalatha Mekala, WASHCost India

Editor’s Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, Dr. Snehalatha Mekala, former country coordinator for WASHCost India, shares her insights into life-cycle costing, working with communities to collect WASH data, and other learnings from the WASHCost India project in response to our questions.

1.  What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

A critical issue standing in the way of successful community-based management of WASH services is the lack of technical, human, financial, and other resources in local communities to properly manage the water supply systems — even when governments do hand these over for community management. This lack of adequate operation and maintenance (including capital maintenance) reduces the life spans of these systems, and as a result doubles the investments required. This not only increases the costs of water service delivery (essential also for sanitation and hygiene) — especially in countries that can hardly afford to make such investment — but also affects the poor and the marginalized disproportionately.

The belief that local communities can manage on their own has only been validated by a few exceptions — islands of success created by NGOs or pilot projects, which have not been sustained when scaled up. Local communities do require timely and long-term support, both technically and financially, if they are to manage the WASH issues on their own.

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

As part of the WASHCost India project, we adopted a learning alliance approach where key sector stakeholders — especially policy decision-makers at the Water Supply and Sanitation Department in India’s Andhra Pradesh State  — were involved in designing and implementing a five-year  research project that aimed to embed research results for lasting policy influence. Since these key stakeholders provided the data on investments made and the research findings on services delivered, it was relatively easy for them to realize that skewed investments do not deliver equitable services. What I mean by skewed investments is the higher percentage of investments on hardware versus the lower percentage on O&M and direct support (i.e., costs for awareness generation and capacity building). Furthermore, investments were skewed towards providing infrastructure to benefit rich households with less of a focus on poor households. It was also relatively easier for stakeholders to understand the need to adopt a Life Cycle Costing Approach (LCCA) for resources allocation — with each cost component getting appropriate allocations so that the water supply systems delivered services as per design. We thus learnt that:

  • Ownership by the key stakeholders in the research process (from design to results) is critical
  • Quick dissemination of findings is essential
  • Perhaps most importantly, this process requires time and champions
  • Impact is slow but percolates into the system more effectively than the conventional research process of simply ‘presenting findings’ to decision-makers  

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

It was a challenge in the WASHCost project to collect village-level data on costs and services, especially without written records. But the work in pilot villages to collect data through maps, graphs, and participatory methods (e.g., focus group discussions) — and to discuss possible solutions using geo-referenced maps — helped greatly. Villagers understood, perhaps for the first time, the importance of collecting data and using data to understand the relationship between the costs and services, and how using data can help them understand their village-level problems and possible solutions. Collecting cost and service data and discussing O&M-related WASH issues triggered community action in some villages to address these issues (although in some other villages there was only a passive reception!). Thus, while the process continued, it certainly built a sense of ownership and we hope it will be sustained.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

Mapping water points and monitoring the functionality and service delivery of these systems by using smart phones are really exiting and can bring lots of improvement to the sector. The piloting done in the WASHCost project using these technologies to develop water security plans provided many insights into how many bore wells were drilled in the last ten years, how deep they were, and what impact they had on drinking water availability. I do accept, however, that while water point mapping and functionality mapping with advanced technological devices and gadgets are helpful, there has to be a support system to address queries and doubts and to resolve emerging problems quickly.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

The IMIS database, created by the Indian government’s Ministry of Water and Sanitation to monitor and report on the drinking water and sanitation across the entire country of 1 billion people, is certainly an impressive achievement (even if the reliability of the data will need cross-verification in some cases). The India Water Portal  and the India Sanitation Portal  are of great use for people working on these issues as they cover all relevant national news on water and sanitation, from legislations and the latest research reports to tested solutions and case studies from the field. The WaterSoft system developed by the National Informatics Centre for the Department of Rural Water Supply in the state of Andhra Pradesh is also a stupendous achievement, containing detailed cost and technical information on the water supply infrastructure in all 76,000 villages across the entire state (which is 275,000 sq. km — larger than Ghana).

Harold Lockwood, Director of Aguaconsult

Editor’s Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, Harold Lockwood, director of Aguaconsult, shares his thoughts on the changing nature of aid, project ownership as a flawed concept, and more in response to our questions. Find him on Twitter: @haroldlockwood

If you are interested in participating in this series, send us an e-mail at: WASHfunders@foundationcenter.org.

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

Undoubtedly this is the challenge of changing the way we work. For decades ‘aid’ to the sector — most especially the rural sub-sector — has been delivered largely through the provision of infrastructure in short-term, cyclical interventions which solve an immediate problem, but leave many others unanswered. NGOs, charities, foundations, and even large donor grant programs and loans have delivered a lot of hand pumps, tapstands, and toilets, but have been much less successful at delivering permanent water or sanitation services. If national WASH sectors in the South are to truly move forward, our support must address the entire ‘eco-system’ of service delivery. This is particularly true as the donor world becomes more complex, as lower income countries move to be lower-middle income countries, and as expectations for services rise — as they rightly should. The challenge of ‘tomorrow’ for many in the developing economies is going to be household level piped supplies, not yesterday’s point source handpumps, and we should be ready to meet this.

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

As part of the sustainable services at scale initiative in Ghana managed by IRC of the Netherlands, we have been working with the government’s Community Water and Sanitation Agency (CWSA) to address some of these systemic weaknesses and gaps in the rural water sector. This has involved intensive work to better understand the structural problems behind poor functionality of water supply systems and really attacking some of the most pressing solutions: a new legal instrument for CWSA, improved policy and implementation guidelines, better monitoring, and a truly comprehensive vision of what rural (water) services should provide. This has meant working with a range of institutions and organizations, including donors, many with vested interests in the current arrangements. After three years of intensive work at national, regional, and district levels, we are starting to see a growing consensus and demand for real change which is very encouraging.

The lessons I take from this experience are that this is a process that takes time; there are no quick fixes. Secondly, sector dynamics are often messy, but if the space can be created to reflect on what is going wrong and where the solutions might lie, it is possible to bring diverse stakeholders with competing agendas on board. Finally, we know that this process is not cheap, but compared to the relatively huge scale of resources being channeled into sector investments, it is affordable and absolutely necessary.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

I believe that ‘project ownership’ by communities is a flawed concept. Much of what has been promoted as ‘community management’ by projects in the past has often been based on a very shaky understanding of national sector policy and legislation. It assumes firstly that communities are legally able to take on the ‘project’ assets (the pumps, concrete, and tapstands, latrines, etc.), but this is often not the case, is unclear, or is contested. Secondly there is the assumption that (rural) communities have the wherewithal, capacity, and desire to manage their own systems. Twenty years of experience have shown us that this works for some, but that for many communities these two assumptions are wildly optimistic and deeply flawed.

Sustainability of services can only be ensured by having competent operators (community, public, or private — I am agnostic on the modality, but it must be relevant to the context), good long-term support and monitoring, clear legislation, and financing frameworks to address regular short-term and longer-term capital maintenance costs. This is where we need to put our efforts.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

Unfortunately I am a bit of a Luddite and still have a ‘dumb phone’, but even I can see that telemetry, in aspects such as system monitoring with data flows either by SMS or internet enabled phone systems, is a game changer. These technologies can result in reduced travel and costs and empower users to monitor their own services and demand improvements. I am, however, concerned that all the noise and fuss created by these very clever technologies can at times detract from some of the fundamental principles behind their use — who has access to this information? How is it used? And, ultimately, will it result in improved performance and better, more sustainable services? We should not lose sight of these issues in all the techno-hype and flashy maps.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

What I like are several interesting sites, including the newly revised Sustainable WASH, which includes a great resource database, Water For People’s Everyone Forever campaign, as well as our own site at Water Services That Last. But beyond these new places, we shouldn’t forget some of the Golden Oldies like USAID’s old Environmental Health Project and the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, both of which have a lot of great in-depth reports and analysis. We should always try to avoid reinventing the wheel!

Ned Breslin, CEO of Water For People

Editor’s Note: This is the first in our new “5 Questions for…” series, where we pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector. In this post, Water For People’s CEO, Ned Breslin, discusses FLOW, tariff systems, sensors, and more in response to our questions.   

If you are interested in participating in this series, send us an e-mail at: WASHfunders@foundationcenter.org.

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

That, as a sector, if we continue to muddle through with small-scale projects, and with programs that have no chance of scale or replication, and if we continue complaining about a lack of finance and poor political will, we won’t solve the water and sanitation crisis. We need to have the courage of a comprehensive polio eradication-type campaign and movement. We are ready to make a bolder move. All investments in water and sanitation need to last, because we can no longer accept girls walking back to polluted water sources past broken handpumps and taps. It’s time we begin to think seriously about creative financial models to replace water and sanitation facilities over time. As a sector, we need to lead the world in issues of transparency with longer-term monitoring that helps us understand what works and why. We are ready for this leap, we just need to take it.   

2. Tell us about a collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

I am extremely excited about our new partnership with Akvo on the future development of FLOW. As many know, Water For People developed FLOW as a way to meet our commitment to 10 years post-implementation monitoring. FLOW is great but we were overwhelmed by the demand for FLOW by other agencies. So we decided Akvo will take this process forward. Through the process of creating a partnership, the thing I learned the most is that alignment around values, organizational culture, and vision is vital to a partnership moving forward. Challenges will emerge but we can always move forward if aligned with a bigger vision in mind.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

We focus on payment and tariffs. The days of sweat equity alone being sufficient for ownership are gone, thankfully. The challenge is to develop tariff systems that finance operations and maintenance (O&M), and also contribute in part to the eventual replacement of these systems over time while ensuring that all have access to water regardless of economic capacity. But someone has to pay, and ownership and sustainability will be elusive unless we embrace the fact that payment matters. We can debate who pays all we want, but someone has to pay — someone actually has to own that responsibility. Water For People works very hard at this issue. It’s not easy but it’s vital to all real discussions on ownership and sustainability.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

I love the potential of sensors in the water and sanitation sector. The ability to truly understand issues related to consumption patterns and, most importantly, functionality will be a big game changer. If sensors tell us when water systems are down, when they are repaired, and what is happening with water resources, we will be in a much stronger position to understand and respond to sustainability challenges. The one group I am watching now is SWEETLab — really good work there!

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

The one resource I am inspired by is A Child's Right program called “Proving It” (discussed in detail in this WASHfunders post). It’s early stages but it is a really nice attempt to track actual users over time. The web page will show you what is working and highlight when a system is down (leading to a reduction in the number of beneficiaries). This is a big step and should be supported when talking about aid transparency and all. 

We are launching something called “Re-Imagining Reporting” in August at Stockholm Water Week. May be of interest for people as well. To follow the progress, keep track of our tweets via @NedBreslin and @waterforpeople.

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