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Photo: Pump Aid

Supporting local people to improve their own access to water in Malawi

22 March 2017
Author: Duncan Marsh

Community managed water points are a mainstay of efforts to bring improved water to Malawi’s predominantly rural population. The approach involves digging a well, installing a pump and, to various degrees, establishing a water point committee from the local community and providing training on maintenance and governance. 

However, when the pump breaks down and can’t be fixed by the community there is an expensive rehabilitation. Over the past two years, Pump Aid has been testing an alternative approach to drastically increase access to convenient, reliable water – self supply. This involves influencing rural communities to invest in their own supplies. To do this, financially sustainable small businesses are fundamental.  

The functionality crisis

Functionality is a massive problem with community managed water points. According to DFID Malawi, approximately 40% of all water points are non-functional. The causes of non-functionality are a complex mix, often interdependent, of skills, financing, management capacity (community and local government) and inappropriate technology. Time scales vary, but in Pump Aid’s experience, downtime is usually a question of weeks or months rather than days. The consequence is that people revert to unsafe water sources. 

Official figures don’t recognise the functionality crisis. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Project (2015) claims that over 90% of the population in Malawi have access to improved (i.e. safe) water. This is a fallacy. In addition, access to improved water is defined as an improved water point within 500 metres but it’s well accepted that the further away water is the less people use it. Why on earth would you waste water washing your hands when you know it takes at least 30 minutes to re fill the bucket? 

Malawi has some pretty horrendous health indicators, with strong attribution to (a lack of) safe water, sanitation and hygiene behaviours. A great deal of effort has been placed on hygiene behaviour change initiatives, but without convenient hardware - water, toilets - getting software results tends to be a short-term win.

Additionally, like many other countries in Southern Africa, food shortages have ravaged the country this year, with a third of the population declared “food insecure”. Over 80% of the population is engaged in some form of small scale farming yet only 11% use irrigation. In a country where shallow ground water is easily accessible this beggars belief. 

In a context of tightening government budgets and reduced aid flows, the gold standard of piped water direct to people’s houses will remain a pipe dream for decades to come. The same approach to community managed water points is clearly not the answer. So how do we get more reliable and convenient water for multiple use to poor and often isolated communities? 

How self-supply can improve the situation

Self-supply is an approach to increasing access through investment by users themselves. It relies on a network of small scale businesses to supply affordable, appropriate and reliable products and services. In various guises it’s had a tremendous impact on access levels for rural communities in a number of countries including Ethiopia, Mali, Ghana and Costa Rica. 

A crucial lesson from these initiatives is that sustainability and functionality is drastically improved as a result of investment and ownership. For individual households it’s about incremental investments – moving themselves up the water ladder, improving health and productivity and over time investing in better products. For community managed water points, it’s about developing a business relationship with a trained pump mechanic who will service and repair for a fee. For small scale farmers it’s about investing in a basic rope and washer irrigation pump so that they can triple their harvest output in a year, recouping their investment, securing food for the household and making a profit from selling excess produce. 

In 2014, Pump Aid undertook a 2-year pilot self-supply project in Central Region Malawi to support “WASH entrepreneurs” to establish financially sustainable businesses to service the three markets mentioned. In under one year after initial training, all 25 entrepreneurs more than doubled their profits, with a group of eight more than quadrupling. As a result of investment during this period more than 20,000 people in rural communities benefitted from improved access to water. Other than the training and marketing support, we provided no subsidy – loans, kits and so on - to the entrepreneurs.

Our experience is that the key is profitability for the small business. Well diggers, pump builders and area mechanics have been around for ages. Pump Aid’s intervention is focused on supporting them to establish profitable markets and view customers as customers, not beneficiaries. They now actively market themselves to seek business, rather than waiting for it to come to them.

Our next step is a phase 2 programme to support the really successful entrepreneurs to establish economies of scale and to employ, grow and establish supply chains. In this way self-supply can act as a complimentary approach to more centrally-driven efforts, as well as bringing water closer to where people want it, creating jobs and building local economies. 

If you’re interested to see more have a look at the video UNICEF kindly produced for us.

Pump Aid's project won the International Aid and Development Award at the 2017 Charity Awards in June. Read more.

About the author

Duncan Marsh
Pump Aid

Duncan Marsh is director of programmes at Pump Aid.