Innovations in Safe Water for Millions

By Amanda West, Social Ventures, Mercy Corps

Innovations in Safe Water for Millions

Unsafe drinking water is a global problem that affects more than 660 million people every day. And yes, we know there are low-cost solutions that have been proven to work in rigorous scientific studies – for millions of people with the least access to safe drinking water.

Evidence Action is a social enterprise that develops and de-risks anti-poverty interventions that have been rigorously tested, often through randomized controlled trials – the gold standard in evaluating whether an intervention has the intended impact. One of its programs, Dispensers for Safe Water, offers a proven, low-cost approach to increase rates of chlorinating drinking water in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Last year, Evidence Action expanded Dispensers for Safe to Uganda where 8.4 million people (21% of the country’s population) lack access to safe water. The project was funded by the Innovation Investment Alliance, a partnership between USAID and the Skoll Foundation, supported by Mercy Corps.

To date, Evidence Action has installed 5,883 chlorine dispensers directly at a local water source, providing 1.8 million Ugandans with access to safe water.

But innovative hardware is not enough for lasting change. It requires a savvy business model and smart operations to build a program that is able to serve millions every day. Andy Narracott, the Deputy Director of Global Safe Water at Evidence Action, and Richard Kibuuka, the Program Lead for Dispensers for Safe Water in Uganda, explain:

Innovation – as a concept and as a practice – is integral to Dispensers for Safe Water.

First, Dispensers for Safe Water is, in and by itself, an innovative approach to safe water for rural, underserved end-users in developing countries. It is based on a series of randomized controlled trials and best available evidence of what works in getting rural households to use chlorine and in creating cost-effective “last-mile” distribution.

After installing dispensers at local water points, we maintain them with regular chlorine delivery and maintenance service, supported by ongoing locally-led community education. Based on rigorous data, we know that water supply infrastructure alone is not enough to ensure safe water in the home. It must be coupled with a reliable service supply chain to ensure consistent ‘uptime’, and it must incorporate behavioural change mechanisms to sustain user adoption over time.

Second, we developed a revenue model that does not solely rely on grant funding or on user fees that effectively screen out many people – especially the very poor.

We opted for a business model that helps us achieve our dual commitments to sustainable services and services for everyone: revenue from carbon crediting. The Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, which commits countries to emissions targets as a means of climate change control, allows Evidence Action to translate the use of chlorine dispensers into tradable carbon credits. After a complex certification process we now generate carbon credits in all three countries where we operate and have, to date, sold 86,197 credits. Even though carbon markets are trading currently quite low, our carbon credit revenue is continuing to supplement an increasing share of our more traditional financing, such as grants and individual donors.

Our third area of innovation lies in our day-to-day operations, or in what we call ‘process innovation.’ We believe that we can always do our work better, cheaper, or faster. We are fortunate to have an in-house evaluation team that allows us to run continuous ‘mini-randomized’ controlled trials where we can test various approaches in quite a rigorous way.

For instance, we wanted to know whether children would be effective messengers for the use of chlorine dispensers. We knew from our household surveys that children often collect water. So we educated children on the use of dispensers and why chlorine is important for staying healthy. We compared safe water education in schools with the same messaging delivered in community meetings with both parents and children, and found that by training school children we were able to increase adoption by 13%. We estimate that this will reduce our annual community education costs making it more effective and cost effective.

We think that our three approaches to safe water are producing a highly viable solution to what continues to be a monumental problem: safe water for the most poor and marginalized communities.

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