Last year Project Maji entered an action-research partnership with Practica Foundation of the Netherlands to test a sustainable safe drinking water distribution network for rural, water-poor communities in Sub-Saharan African countries. This is an update on the progress we have made on the successful pilot with the MajiPlus currently being rolled out in the Asomdwee Community, Central Region, Ghana. Key success factors are a) higher service levels to maximize revenue b) the proprietary technical system design that allows us to match water supply with actual demand and c) the self-expanding capacity of the model at minimal costs. Read on to learn more.
There is a very pressing need to rethink rural water economics as 785 million still lack access to water and progress towards achieving universal access to water remains unsatisfactory. Despite some impressive gains - water collectors in rural communities still spend an average of 2–3 hours per day fetching potable water. Moreover, a massive 12% of monthly income is consumed by water expenditures, compared to the recommended 2-3%. Lastly, water point functionality is low, with one out of three handpumps not operational as a result of poor maintenance, driven by a lack of accountability and financial mismanagement.
Moreover, while financial and operational self-sustainability is key to the success of any rural water service, payment behaviours remain staggeringly low. 70% of rural households in sub-Saharan Africa do not currently pay for water services. It is a key challenge to acknowledge and address this. Only 25% of operation and maintenance (O&M) costs are covered by water revenue. Typically, the capital investment is funded by donors (who pay for the hardware, but do not finance O&M) and full cost recovery of O&M, let alone capex, through water revenue collection is ‘far off’.
Project Maji challenges these notions. We aim to provide a 360 degree sustainable water service via value-creation to:
Improve payment behaviour through value creation
Reduce the capex of a single kiosk (3 kiosks in one system) from $15,000 to $8,000
O&M will be fully (100%) paid for by revenue of water sales.
Hence the creation of the MajiPlus system. The key success factors are listed below, supplemented by evidence from research, field observations and our pre-and-post impact surveys:
Higher service levels to maximize income
The solution allows for elevated user experience through flawless technical performance, contributing to the willingness to pay and financial self-sufficiency of the model. Field observations suggest that an average single kiosk has a catchment area of about 300-400 meter radius. Creating a small network of water kiosks, each serving their own catchment area can result in higher demand via improved value creation, therefore leading to maximised revenue. Through our design planning, these systems are also considerably more cost-effective than multiple standalone kiosks.
Evidence from impact surveys
Our post-impact surveys confirm that the system has a 100% adoptability rate which means the entire community has access to the new safe water sources. In addition, we observed very high satisfaction rates (87% very satisfied, 13% satisfied), compared to before the intervention (40% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied). Service is considered reliable (93%) compared to pre-impact, in which 77% of the villagers labeled their previous water sources as ‘unreliable’. There is a high favorability rate and ease-of-use of the TokenTap system. Community responses to survey questions reveal that community members are excited about the reduced effort in collecting water now compared to the handpump. Critically, end-users confirm that they now fetch more water (both quantity and frequency) per day as a result of the close proximity of the water points to their homes. The willingness to pay for the water has already been confirmed in the first quarter of operations, with between 1,000 and 4,300 liters sold per kiosk per day, averaging approx. 5,000 liters per day for the system (3 kiosks). This attests to our first objective of improving payment behaviors by ensuring exceptional user experience.
Proprietary technical system design
MajiPlus system design consists of a network of compact mini water kiosks, all connected to a central grid. Depending on the water needs, this grid can be expanded or reduced. The concept uniquely matches water production with actual demand, resulting in an overall much smaller, more efficient and cheaper system, while having the same water sales capacity of an equivalent decentralised system. Critically, the MajiPlus system features pressure pumps instead of the typically used gravity-fed pumps. instead of building a high tower to generate gravity power, we use a pressure pump to distribute from the central solar array to the water points. . By installing a pressurized delivery system, water can be dispensed at a number of different sites up to a kilometre from a single well point, even uphill.
Evidence from research
The MajiPlus is a small, piped distribution system with three 1000L dispensing points (kiosks), compared to a 5000L tank in our standalone kiosk. This was made possible by challenging existing assumptions about water collection patterns. The popular assumption in the rural water sector is that collection peaks are early morning, - starting at dawn - and late afternoon. Most systems have been designed in accordance with these two demand peaks. However, Practica Foundation conducted a study in 2019 to challenge the widely accepted collection pattern assumptions to develop a supply system that meets actual demand (in litres) rather than presumed, which requires large water storage capacity. The data showed a surprisingly clear pattern of water collection across the day, rejecting the original notions of fetching water at peak times. Hence, we value-engineered the existing supply systems to achieve optimal efficiencies. Data-driven decisions were made to reduce the size of the tank capacity at each water dispensing point and achieve a capex cost reduction of more than 50%.
In case of population growth or a general increase in water demand, the system can be easily expanded by adding additional satellite kiosks to the system. By allowing expansion at minimal cost in terms of investment and operations, we are able to increase net revenues significantly. Critically, this enables us to improve the business case and ensure long-term sustainability of the facility and service to the community. We will close the gap between the prevailing rural water models known for non-functionality and low revenue, and our own visionary model; a self-expanding economic model supporting sustainable access to safe water cultivating thriving communities.
Evidence from the field
By introducing a hub and spoke system, installing three smaller sized water dispensing points, we have reached a wider geographical area at a lower total cost. This, in turn, increases our revenue potential significantly. For example, for a population of 3,000 people, Mini Maji target disbursement is 7,500L, while equivalently, for a MajiPlus system, this becomes 10,000L, allowing for a +33% increase in revenue potential for a given size population derived from the improved distribution that drives the change in consumption patterns.
A 33% increase in revenue potential is significant and delivers a self-expanding rural water model. It paves the way to financial self-reliance, donor dependency reduction and overall sustainability of rural water sources: the ultimate key to accelerate SDG 6.1: universal sustainable access to safe drinking water.
TokenTap – reduce over-engineering
To improve our business case for rural water provision, we introduce the TokenTap, a low-cost and easy to maintain token-based pre-payment system developed by Practica Foundation. Electronic payment systems, also known as water ATMs, have gained popularity in the rural water arena, but unfortunately, they are expensive, both in terms of investment as well as operation. Therefore, Practica’s creative minds developed a no-frills innovation, avoiding over-engineering, to promote financial sustainability. Moreover – in very remote, rural areas, high-tech electronic versions of different prepaid alternatives proved to be difficult to maintain by local technicians. Also, the supply chain of spare parts can be found to be a challenge. The TokenTap is truly a fit-for-purpose payment system, only integrating essential technology to bring the cost of solutions that are currently on the market, significantly down, whilst simultaneously increasing reliability. Fully mechanical, it is a robust system that delivers a fixed amount (e.g. jerry can or bucket) of water to the user when a token is inserted. The TokenTap system meets all the objectives of a cashless payment system (enhance revenue collection, financial security, and accountability, 24/7 access, remote monitoring, eliminating information asymmetries, improved uptime, freeing time for labour or schooling) but introducing a mechanical solution reducing the payment solution cost by approx. 50%.
We invite you to watch this introductory video to experience the features of MajiPlus
Replicating for Impact
Due to the formidable success of the MajiPlus pilot, the solution is now set to be expanded to the Atsiekpoe Community, along the Volta River in Ghana. Project Maji will be partnering with a community-based non-profit called ‘Stepping Stones for Africa’ to bring safe water access to the community’s only health clinic. Currently, the main water source for Atsiekpoe is water from the Volta river which is about 300 metres from the community and 800 meters from the clinic. More importantly, the river water is not potable for consumption as health issues such as schistosomiasis (bilharzia), urinary tract infections, diarrhoea, skin and eye infections have become very common in this village due to water pollution.
With matching funding from additional partners, we will be implementing a hybrid version of the MajiPlus with three dispensing points and our River Solution to provide safe water access to the community. Essentially, the MajiPlus will be adapted to pump water from the river. With the addition of an appropriate and proven rapid sand filtration unit, our River Solution will eliminate the harmful larvae from the river water and provide safe water access. Three small water dispensing points will be deployed across the community and a fourth access point will be piped to the clinic.
The strong ties and high level of trust of Stepping Stones for Africa in the Atsiekpoe Community has eased our entry in the community and villagers have agreed to pay for safe water access. Here are some snapshots from initial site assessments and community sensitization meetings in the community:
In conclusion, this is a game-changing pilot. It has allowed us to bring the cost down of a single water access point by more than 50%. That means for every donor dollar we receive we can double our impact and scale up twice as fast. The success of MajiPlus enables us to open more taps and transform lives with a sustainable solution to eliminate water poverty, tackle disease, empower women, and train communities on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH) practices across Africa.