The current COVID-19 pandemic is taking its toll on the economy like probably no crisis before it. Across the world and across all sectors, businesses are hit by the consequences of prolonged lockdowns and a halting global economy. WASH businesses are no exception.
Aside from entrepreneurs who are involved in disinfectant production and for whom the crisis presents new business opportunities, most water and sanitation entrepreneurs are currently struggling with potentially dramatic consequences. Without WASH entrepreneurs, who in many settings complement the work of public institutions, countless people could soon be left without access to water, hygiene and sanitation. We asked two entrepreneurs in our network, Eswand Water Entreprise, supported by Aqua for All, and SOLVillion, supported by cewas, to tell us about their current situation and what strategies they are implementing to keep their businesses afloat. Eswand is active in Nairobi, Kenya, and supplies water to 5000+ individuals through a privately piped system that encompasses 220 household connections and 1 kiosk. SOLVillion is based in Jordan and provides engineering solutions in the field of water and wastewater. Their decentralised wastewater treatment system (DWWS) is developed as an onsite system to recycle wastewater and reuse it for agriculture.
Can you tell us how your business has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
Esther Wandia (founder of ESWAND): We do not know exactly how this crisis will impact our business and our supply of water, yet, but we expect that our low-income customers will struggle with paying their water bills, which means that around 2500 consumers could loose access to water, which is very worrying, of course. The corona pandemic has been associated with poor hygiene whether personal or environmental. Uncompromised hygiene and sanitation standards have kept the figures of infections in Kenya down. Water is a precious commodity and comes with a price. Water provision should be reciprocated with timely payment. However the general public downplays the importance of water. Unfortunately we are not programmed to appreciate the true worth of water services. The current situation demands availability of flawless fresh water.
Aia Abul-Haj and Motaz Al-Thaher (founders of SOLVillion): We work directly in the field doing installation. Due to the current restrictions on mobility in Jordan, we are unable to work and communicate with our clients and end-users. This is very challenging for us, since we need the face to face communication with our clients to get their approval and get the work done. Currently 95% of our work is suspended, which means there is no income for us. At the same time, we still have to keep up with our operational costs. We are also worried about how people will perceive water recycling and reuse in the near future. We will need to double our efforts to raise awareness and convince them that water recycling and reuse has no negative health impacts and does not contribute to COVID-19 spread. People will be afraid of many things that could potentially have an impact on their health.
How are you coping with this situation and what strategies are you implementing?
Esther Wandia: We want to switch away from electric pumps, which are connected to the grid, and make a transition to solar pumps to reduce the cost of power bills and consequently water bills for the consumers, while at the same time reducing their carbon footprint and becoming independent. It’s a long-term goal of ours to expand our business for sustainability. We are now looking for co-financing to be able to afford the 16,000€ investment necessary to make the switch to solar pumps.
The rationale for the solar pumps installation is also a solution to frequent power shortages. Consequently an increase in water supply will significantly benefit the community at large. It will provide the conditions to enable it to flourish socially and indeed economically. With an ever increasing population a demand for more water is inevitable thus intertwined and pegged on reliable power or uninterrupted power supply. We currently are sensitising home owners and our consumers on the importance of installing water storage facilities. The weather has been unfavourable leading to power outages and those without storage tanks suffer the consequences of dry taps. Flawless water is no longer a luxury due to the corona pandemic, it has become a bare necessity.
Aia Abul-Haj and Motaz Al-Thaher: We are trying to find new opportunities in this challenge. New solutions in the waste water treatment field might emerge out of the COVID-19 crisis. We are applying for funds, awards and competitions. With our customers, we are working on overcoming the challenges by doing more digital marketing and communication. We are organising some challenges and online training to raise awareness about the topic of wastewater treatment and sanitation solutions and to build capacities of the youth in this field. Last, but not least, we are also taking advantage of the available extra time to do some internal reorganisation and build the capacity of our team through online courses and so forth.
What is your outlook on WASH entrepreneurship in the coming months or years with COVID-19? What kind of support do you and other water entrepreneurs need?
Esther Wandia: We are looking to double our storage capacity (currently 20,000 m3) and distribution to connect new developments. Reducing power costs will help free some revenues to connect more people; our target is up to 15.000 people in the next five years. Furthermore, the enterprise requires business development assistance to professionalise and raise funding to expand operations.
Aia Abul-Haj and Motaz Al-Thaher: The whole water and sanitation field has to find new solutions to save water without affecting hygiene and cleanliness. We have to find a way to disinfect everything without using water and chemicals, this is the challenge of our times now. As a start-up, we need support in adjusting our business model to find new revenue streams. We also need coaching and mentorship to keep us focused and maintain our mental health. And support and facilitation programmes at the tax-level, with fees and government regulations.