Interview: Mascha Singeling and Peter Gijs van Enk on water demand management in Malawi

Due to rapid population growth, the Northern Region Water Board (NRWB) in Mzuzu, Malawi, is facing an exponential incre­ase in water demand. The present coverage of 68% of households is expected to lower in the coming years due to a lack of water resources. The largest part of Mzuzu’s population still uses poorly constructed and shared pit latrines that pollute ground water. Both the NRWB and the Mzuzu City Council (MCC) acknowledge the urgen­cy to strengthen their capacities in finding innovative instruments to mitigate the gap between demand and supply of safe water.

In this FDW funded partnership Plan Netherlands and Vitens Evides International (VEI) help the NRWB and the MCC to sustainably increase their financial, technical and managerial capacity. PPPLab’s Marleen Brouwer spoke with Mascha Singeling (Manager WASH Programmes) and Peter Gijs van Enk (Institutional Partnerships Officer) of Plan Netherlands about this PPP.

What is Plan’s role in this PPP?

Plan is an international organisation with 51 country offices, of which one is located in Malawi. In the project, Plan works through this national country office. We are responsible for the overall management and monitoring & evaluation. Plan also helps the MCC in mobilizing households and landlords to improve their own Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) situation. Moreover, Plan trains water and sanitation operators, and improves coordination between the NRWB and the MCC.

In Mzuzu, Plan Malawi is currently also implementing an EU funded sanitation and hygiene project in cooperation with the MCC. Due to the high need of the local population for WASH, Plan decided to also develop a PPP project together with VEI in Mzuzu. VEI was already engaged as a service contractor to the water boards of Lilongwe and Blantyre since 2009. In the new PPP VEI can build upon its local experience, in order to assist the NRWB building its capacities for improved water supply in Mzuzu.

What is currently the biggest challenge within your project?

The developments in our project run not as quickly as we expected. For example, the hardware is not built yet. We discovered that we had to invest much more time and effort in relation management, partnership building and the search for suitable locations for project implementation. Moreover, our local project manager left, which caused quite some delay. For Plan, which is responsible for the overall project management, it is crucial to have a local contact person. Luckily, in the meantime we have found a new ‘linking pin’.

Within a PPP, it is normal to cooperate with an extensive range of stakeholders. For our project, we find it challenging to work with local government parties as executing agencies. There are not many people working at the NRWB and the MCC, so the human capital is rather small. Besides this, they have to deal with competing claims on their time and capacities, because besides our project there are other WASH projects with other NGOs to work on. Sometimes these other projects are even able to invest more (financial) resources in the civil servants of the NRWB and the MCC. It shows how important it is for Plan and other NGOs which are active in Mzuzu to make a coherent plan for supporting the city’s WASH sector together. For this reason a coordination team of all the NGOs active in Mzuzu has been established and meet regularly.

Of which results or processes are you proud?

Although PPPs are very popular these days, in fact they are no new phenomenon. Plan has already build up quite some know-how and experience in the field of WASH PPPs, but we see that every partnership demands its own modus to build trust. These days, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs asks to set up a PPP as a condition to qualify for subsidies. But rarely a partnership is already built long before the subsidy from a public stakeholder like the ministry has become available. Moreover, partnership building takes a lot of time and effort. Therefore we are proud of the fact that our PPP has kicked off, that all partners know each other well, and that we can count on each other. Our local project manager is doing a great job, and she is forging alliances within the city of Mzuzu.

Besides, we are proud of the joint efforts of Plan and VEI to support the local water boards. This cooperation has resulted in a new strategic partnership between Plan and VEI, so the PPP in Malawi has helped to encourage future cooperation. We have made the first crucial steps and construction of water kiosks and toilet blocks will commence in the next months.

In your opinion, what are the biggest pitfalls for PPPs in the FDW subsidy framework?

The bottom line is that all stakeholders in FDW strive for the same goal: we want to have impact on the ground. Plan sees PPPs as a very mature form of development cooperation. However, we wonder if a PPP is the right way to involve private parties. Despite the fact that RVO is an understanding and approachable partner, the FDW subsidy framework is rather inflexible. In the project we have to deal with (major) changes every day. It is impossible to design and predict the course of a PPP in detail in advance, but actually the subsidy framework asks applicants to do so. To ensure impact we have to be flexible and adjust our activities regularly.

Moreover, it is very difficult to create a business model for making money, but which also guarantees the provision of water to poor people at the bottom of the pyramid. Maybe there should be no subsidy framework for PPPs, but rather another kind of financing. We are not sure what could be the exact alternative, but at least Plan has thought about suggestions to make the framework more flexible. We have presented this to DGIS and RVO through the NGO evaluation of FDW.

Another pitfall is the sustainability of the projects. The new sustainability instruments for call 2 of FDW and FDOV might help, but the signatures of local partners under a sustainability contract are not enough. We need to find out how we can take this a step further than just complying with a donor’s requirement. The real challenge is to make sure that local government takes its responsibility from the start and continues to do so after the external funding of a project ends. This will need time and capacity building.

Are there subjects that you would like to discuss with other parties involved in PPPs?

We would be interested to learn if other PPP practitioners can share their best practices on how to create a smooth cooperation with local governments. Think of topics like daily allowances, but also suitable capacity development activities and entering into long-term commitments. Despite the fact that Plan has a local project manager, we realise that we, the Dutch team, still need to invest a lot of time in this PPP. We would welcome a discussion about how other PPPs cope with this.

Want to learn more about this PPP? Click here for the project profile. The project’s flyer can be downloaded here: WASH-Mzuzu-A5-2014. Interested in more background information?