SWE CEO Update: The State of SWEs during COVID-19


Earlier this month, the Project Maji team attended an insightful webinar titled “The State of SWEs during COVID-19”. The webinar was organized by Safe Water Network and it brought together CEOs from four leading safe water enterprises (SWEs) to discuss the role of SWEs during COVID-19 and beyond as a scalable service model for ensuring public health and resiliency. As a relatively new SWE, Project Maji is experiencing similar challenges as others in the sector. However, we have been agile in pivoting our operations to respond to the pandemic whilst ensuring the safety of our teams and Maji communities. More importantly, the Project Maji model has proven its resilience by ensuring uninterrupted, safe, and affordable water provision across the Maji communities, despite the enormous challenges at play.


Panellists:

  • Jon Allen, CEO, Water for Good

  • George Greene IV, President & CEO, Water Mission

  • Matt Hangen, President & CEO, Water 4

  • Kurt Soderlund, Founding CEO, Safe Water Network

What is an SWE?


The webinar began with a brief exchange of views regarding what a Safe Water Enterprise is, and how it stands out from other water supply models. It was unanimously agreed that the most essential component of an SWE model is its focus on financial and operational sustainability. Secondly, an SWE offers decentralized water solutions that sustainably serve customers in the missing middle of small towns and peri-urban communities. Lastly, it was largely agreed that the SWE model is the representation of a movement towards a new way of thinking in water provision and management. The model recognizes that the magnitude of the water crisis is too large for it to be mitigated simply through charity or philanthropy. Hence, an unequivocal inclination towards market-based approaches for sustainable safe water provision is imperative.

Impact of COVID-19 on SWEs


To begin with, mobility restrictions due to country-wide lockdowns was listed as a significant obstacle to being present in the field and conducting business. More importantly, most SWEs have headquarters in capital cities that were COVID hotspots and sending teams from these urban centres to rural or peri-urban settings was challenging, not only due to lockdowns but also in ensuring those travelling to the field do not carry the virus with them.


In addition, Kurt Sonderlund – CEO Safe Water Network and Matt Hangen – CEO Water4, pointed out that the Ghanaian government’s free water mandate for six months following COVID outbreak has negatively impacted consumer commitment and future attitude towards willingness to pay for water: “The Ghanaian government’s decision to not charge for water has set a wrong precedent in the communities, which we had worked so hard to off-set, so it has resulted in a lot of wasted time and effort for SWEs”. Now that the directive is soon to expire at the end of September 2020, there is increasing concern that currency devaluation and paid water will jointly result in a drop in consumption and water revenue.

Collective vision for SWEs to navigate in Post-Covid Times


When talking about the way forward for the sector, CEOs emphasized the need to organize internally and leverage the COVID outbreak to highlight the need for clean water as a “frontline vaccination” for hundreds of diseases. Essentially, bringing more attention to water as a public health priority to influence global policy and funding flows.


In terms of key learnings to be carried forward from COVID-times, Matt Hangen from Water4 suggested diversifying SWE services by focusing on handwashing essentials and including hospitals, clinics, schools and homes to the clientele for future scalability. In addition, there was a general agreement to inculcate a disaster management/relief dimension to the Safe Water Enterprise model for successful mitigation of future healthcare emergencies. W have now absolved

The Project Maji Experience


The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected multiple aspects of our operations, as well as put the health of our low-income consumers at risk. Access to safe water, and in particular handwashing facilities, has become more important than ever. As a result of restricted mobility and the economic downturn, we foresee the need for financial support to sustain our operations and assist with the cashflow setbacks.


The key challenges we currently face include:


  • Our production, supply chain and the roll-out of planned projects have been negatively affected, resulting in delayed access to water provision to vulnerable communities, with lockdowns and travel restrictions slowing the implementation rate down; To continue coverage of overhead at this time we were forced to eat into cash reserves otherwise earmarked for interventions.

  • Loss of funding, due to cancelled fundraising activities since World Water Day in March. In particular, corporate donors (retail, oil and gas) have been affected by the economic downturn and CSR budgets are frozen.

  • In Ghana, delayed communication from local authorities regarding absolving water payments reflected badly on Project Maji and agitated the local communities as we continued to charge for water despite the directive issued by the government. Thereafter, we have immediately absolved payments across all our Ghanaian sites to comply with the government directive.

  • Currently, we face a loss in water revenue due to government mandated free provision in Ghana. We will be reclaiming these losses from the government but the delay in the process has significantly affected our immediate cash flow. This is in addition to wasted time and effort in creating willingness to pay amongst community members as we foresee a decrease in consumption once we reinstate payments.

  • Ensuring the safety of our field teams whilst ensuring uninterrupted safe water access across Maji communities.

At the same time, acknowledging the utmost importance of access to safe water and decent handwashing facilities, since the onset of the pandemic we have rolled out an handwashing campaign across rural Ghana. We have targeted 12 communities, 2,000 households and 10,000 people, and we are actively fundraising to continue our handwashing and soap distribution drive. Furthermore, in response to the unfolding pandemic we have put our ‘innovation and creativity’ cap on and invented the Maji Bucket, a ‘no touch, foot operated’ handwashing station. Watch the complete video by clicking on the link below:



Thus, the challenges we are currently confronted with are in line with other entities in the SWE sector. Regardless, even as a relatively young enterprise, our resilience has been tested, we have persevered, proven our effectiveness and sustainability in ensuring safe water access across Maji communities.