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eWATERservices: Smart and sustainable water for Africa

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Alison Wedgwood
CEO and Co-Founder of eWater Services Ltd.

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  • eWATERservices: Smart and sustainable water for Africa

eWATERservices is a company born out of frustration, and a few lucky breaks…. It was 1996, after a stint at Environmental consultancy ERM that I began working for the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and was posted to India. I spent 2 years working as a water and sanitation economist on huge UK aid programmes in Lucknow, Maharashtra State, Mumbai and Karnataka, I followed this with work for UNICEF, World Bank and various NGOs in myriad African countries. I felt really important handing out wadges of UK aid money to water supply programmes; workshopping right-on rules about gender and judging outputs of UK aid programmes that were really pandering to social development experts in Whitehall, and had no chance of surviving the harsh realities of the dust, heat and culture overseas. All this was done between cold beers in luxury hotels. It was a strange time – and that journey from naïve idealist aid worker to angry non-conformist “this is rubbish, something has got to change” took a while. But over the years I gradually realized that most of the aid programmes I’d worked on for DFID, UNICEF, Water Aid, Oxfam had totally and utterly failed, and this is still happening. A 2020 review of British aid spending in Tanzania revealed that 33% of the water points installed in a £65 million programme over the previous 5 years were functional – and the other 67% were not – this is the story for all water programmes, the truth that you won’t see on a Water Aid web site, or advert on Sky TV begging for donations (Using Payment by Results to Improve the Sustainability of Rural Water Supply Services in Tanzania. March 2020 Ecorys, Aqua Consult).

In 2015, I was sitting in the Sheraton in The Gambia (having another cold beer) and met tech genius Rob Hygate who shared my frustrations and he said that we needed to design a leapfrog technology for water supply just like M-Pesa’s mobile money had done for commerce in Kenya.

It’s incredible to think that 93% of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to a mobile phone, but 2,300 people still die every day from water borne diseases. Why is that? The underlying cause is complex, but comes down to how the aid world has dictated water programmes should run and because water is often free – there is no revenue collection to pay for operations and maintenance…so, to put it bluntly, there simply is no maintenance and so right now 40% of ALL new water systems break after two years and stay broken leaving girls and women to haul water miles each day from dirty wells and rivers. And $10 billion is spent on water programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa each year (UNICEF WASH review 2020). The truth is that keeping water systems going takes money and professional technical support and handing them over to a “local water committee” or the “community” might sound nice on a large charity’s web site, but actually doesn’t work, and when they break, they stay broken.

93% of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa have a mobile phone, but 2,300 people still die every day from water borne diseases

So we started eWATERservices and designed the eWATERSmart Tap. People buy water credit from a local shop keeper, or relatives working in cities can buy credit and put it on their granny’s water tag. When the water tag touches the eWATERSmart Tap, water is dispensed and credit is deducted through eWATER’s own cloud credit exchange. Local eWATER staff run everything, the money is used by our local technicians to ensure pipes don’t leak, the solar panels are cleaned and major repairs are done quickly. Every transaction is recorded on our own blockchain ledger, so if someone pays for just 0.1 pence of water, the flow of revenue can be public and verifiable; this means every penny is accounted for and the eWATERcare monitoring dashboard is connected to the internet just through 1g or 2g phone signal, and gives live updates on usage and system functionality.

Our eWATER Smart Village includes sensors in the water tanks to detect leakage and sensors in each tap to detect low flows and solar faults so repairs are done quickly. Each £7,500 Smart Tap installed will serve 250 people, allow 11 girls to go to school, and cut water wastage by 150,000 litres, employing local skilled technicians and enough revenue will be collected to cover operation and maintenance forever.

The original plan was to sell thousands of Smart Taps to Water Ministries, Water and Sanitation Agencies, Community Based Water Operators and NGOs. We provided eWATERcare for a monthly service charge. A proprietary cloud based application for capturing and processing huge volumes of real time operational and sales data. But the problem was we ended up with accurate data on litres dispensed, flow rates, revenue collected that highlighted that operation and maintenance wasn’t being done and the systems were failing. Systems were broken; the only advantage was that the problems are known – but still unsolved. The maintenance wasn’t done, particularly if major repairs were needed in the early cycles of the project, when not enough revenue had been collected; we had one programme where a main pipe was broken in the first month and then never fixed for the next 12 months…run by a global NGO.

So now eWATERservices operates a Full Service Model where local eWATER staff operate what is essentially a Smart Water Enterprise and the money is used by our local technicians to ensure pipes don’t leak, the solar panels are cleaned and major repairs are done quickly.

A fundamental benefit of eWATERservices’ approach is that putting a price on water, no matter how small, makes people value the water

One of the fundamental benefits of eWATERservices’ approach is that putting a price on water, no matter how small, makes people value the water. When anything is free it is wasted, that is human nature – if you ever go on an all-inclusive holiday, I guarantee you’ll leave an unfinished pile of food and drinks on the table without a second thought! We’ve observed in the 127 villages we work in: water wastage has decreased by 99%.

Also, each eWATER Smart Tap installed will save 125 tonnes of carbon per year because people don’t cut down trees to boil water. This will be increasingly attractive for corporations seeking to buy carbon offset from a proven source because we have verifiable data on each household, how much water they use with GPS locations proving the offset.

Whether eWATERservices can attract enough funding to scale up and serve millions of customers in Africa will depend on investors’ appetite to transform the delivery of water in a fragmented, difficult market requiring a fundamental shift from a charity, aid, community voluntary model to a professional market based approach where people are happy to pay for a service that delivers clean water, close to their home, 24/7.

In The Gambia, take-up has been strong with the Ministry of Water embracing the opportunity of a new customer focused, private model for delivering clean water to very low income rural consumers. eWATERservices has tracked over 200 million litres of water in seven programmes in The Gambia and will be doubling its operations this year to serve 75,000 people, that is 15% of the rural population of The Gambia.

Right now, we have tracked 540 million litres of water, and collected thousands of dollars to spend on maintenance from 230,000 consumers in Tanzania, Ghana and Gambia purchasing water for about $5 per person per year. We will expand to 1 million customers by 2024.

But this isn’t enough, we know that to get larger systematic impact we need Impact Investors to get involved and share in our vision. With climate change looming on the horizon there should a call to action because there is no reasonable explanation why one billion people are still without access to clean water, and 503,000 children will die from drinking dirty drinking water this year but their parents all have mobile phones that work…

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