Interview: Jeroen van der Sommen on mobile monitoring of WASH service delivery in Ghana and beyond

In Ghana, as in many countries, there is a shift from investment in water and sanitation infrastructure only towards investment in service delivery. Effective monitoring with continuous, reliable data of the functionality of rural water and sanitation facilities is an important element to ensure sustainable service delivery to the communities.

Ghana is the pioneer country for the innovative programme for mobile monitoring called SMARTerWASH implemented and managed though a PPP. PPPLab’s Matilda Rizopulos spoke with Jeroen van der Sommen, director of the non-profit technology organisation Akvo, the provider of the open source mobile monitoring software element of the PPP. This PPP received funding under the first call of FDW.

Who are the partners in this PPP?

The partners in this PPP are the IRC, lead partner (International Water and Sanitation Centre), the Dutch not-for-profit foundation Akvo, the Ghanaian Community Water & Sanitation Agency (CWSA) and the Ghanaian private sector partner Skyfox. The PPP has funding from the Dutch Sustainable Water Fund as well as the World Bank, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

How was SMARTerWASH initiated?

It started when we introduced new data collection tools based on mobile phones. Through analysing the collected data the Ghanaian Community Water & Sanitation Agency (CWSA) realised that the problem was that many water points were being made but that the water delivery services were often not functioning. A water pump, which is broken, has no value to the communities. So we had the facts, which were based on, new updated data and we could analyse the problem to find solutions. The solution was in this case to make the local district officers responsible for the collection of data and to give them the tools to do this. This also made it interesting for a private partner to deliver services and maintenance. Because if the private partner has no data and they need to rely on the government for data, which is not up-to-date, nor of good quality, it is not worth building a business model on. This was the starting point of the PPP.

How does the mobile monitoring for this programme work?

We have an open source Internet and smartphone-based tool called Akvo FLOW, which makes mobile monitoring of the WASH service delivery much easier. Open source means that the technology itself, the code, is available for anyone who is interested so that users are free to adapt and develop it themselves if they ever need or want to. And also it is open in the sense that the data collected can be publically available for everyone interested to view and use. The information is also shared with the service provider Skyfox, which has service contracts with communities. When there is a facility, which is not functioning anymore, the community can activate the service contract by sending an message to Skyfox who has the data on that particular village and its infrastructure. Skyfox will thereafter supply the services and the spare parts needed within a certain time and people in the local community pay through a mobile money system.

What is happening in the SMARTerWASH programme at the moment?

We are in the third phase of the programme, which is when the IT system is being implemented. The software has been built, integrated with other IT systems and it has been piloted in a couple of districts. Now the partnership is in the phase of piloting the sustainable monitoring feature using Akvo FLOW as well as – funding allowing – scaling up to the remainder 40% of the districts in Ghana.

What is the strength of this PPP?

Why this PPP is successful is because all the partners have complimentary skills and roles, we do not compete with each other. An advantage is that in the PPP we have IRC as lead partner, an organisation that supports the ministry and knows the system very well. They therefore have an important role of the capacity development aspect because you cannot apply new technology if people and the systems are not ready for it.

Another strength is that the programme does not end when the PPP is completed, the business and the government will continue with the new system and there might be other opportunities coming from it because when you have good quality data, local business partners will most likely be interested. This is also part of why we got the funding for this PPP, because there is a sustainable business model behind it.

What challenges have you come across?

There are several challenges with the programme both on a technical and institutional level. A general challenge in West Africa and in many other countries is the IT systems for WASH service delivery. These systems were installed 10 years ago and there is often not only one but several separate national databases. These systems are not web based and it is hard to transfer the old data and change it into a new web based system. Working with the government at different levels is also a challenge because you need to work on capacity development, and for that you need good knowledge of the system and the institutional setting. Fortunately, IRC, the organisation doing the overall management of the programme, has been working closely with CWSA and the ministry for the last 15 years and they know the system very well. They have been responsible for capacity development and the institutional support. Another challenge is that you are one project among many others, which means that you often compete for capacity. That the donor coordination is not working makes this harder since that means that similar projects are funded and competing. It is essential the government becomes empowered to make a choice and does not jump into every project but decides what is sustainable and what can work as an integrated system.

What have been critical moments in the partnership?

Most moments are critical in these kinds of PPPs, especially when we want to go too fast with high ambitions. What we have learned is that you cannot continue at your own speed if you do not get the partners with you.

How are you scaling up the programme?

It is actually amazing to see what has happened since the SMARTerWASH programme started in other countries based on the experience gained in Ghana. For example at the moment Akvo and SNV are doing baseline water point monitoring surveys in Mali with the national government for the first time, and on a national scale. The baseline is being created and the mobile monitoring system is being implemented. When you have that data you already have various business partners interested in working with the data and the system. This is not only the case for Mali, but we also see this in Nigeria where we have finished a water well inventory covering 25 states with 350 000 water points and households being investigated. This is also done with Akvo FLOW. We are also preparing for providing our services for baseline mapping and monitoring in Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Liberia, Benin and Sierra Leone. These countries will have the advantage of learning lessons from our experience in Ghana. Akvo’s technology is applied in the WASH sector mostly, but applications in other sectors are increasing including agriculture, health, energy, and conservation, amongst others.

Interested in more details about this PPP? The project profile about the partnership can be found here.