Turning our eyes to West Africa:

SWEP to untap potential of innovative WASH entrepreneurs in the region

Collaborating to create strong WASH entrepreneurship ecosystems has been at the heart of what we have been doing with the SWEP from our early days in 2017 until now. Since being joined by several new members, this mission of ours has gained even greater strength. During 2020, we all sat down at the SWEP table to reflect more deeply on where in the world we could best synergise our efforts and translate our vision into concrete joint projects. We did not have to brainstorm for long! Although our members are active across nearly all continents, West Africa quickly emerged as an obvious choice. Where else indeed is there such a formidable untapped potential and are the framework conditions evolving so rapidly to create the right environment for WASH entrepreneurship ? No doubt, the time is ripe to push the SDG 6.2 agenda forward across West Africa. And as SWEP we can offer a unique contribution to the efforts that are already taking place.

Decision-makers increasingly recognise the importance of the private sector

Providing safe, equitable, affordable access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene services has long been a complex challenge in the region. Public institutions have usually been in charge of providing WASH services to the population. But conventional centralised water supply or wastewater systems are often not the most cost-effective or efficient solution when distances between houses or villages are large, like in rural areas, or when space and access are limited by crammed urban conditions. In such contexts, entrepreneurs often offer solutions that are better suited for local conditions. And this fact has been increasingly recognised among African decision-makers. 

Entrepreneurship and a supporting environment has definitely been on the rise in recent years with public-private partnerships becoming more prominent and important shifts in the regulatory environment to provide more favourable conditions for entrepreneurs. Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, has now an estimated 50,000 SMEs, which account for 98% of Ivorian companies and employ the largest portion of the population, especially youth. And the government has recently established an SME Agency to support, promote and develop SMEs, with a CFA5bn (€7.5m) fund offering loans to female entrepreneurs at reduced interest rates. From a financial perspective, the untapped market potential of WASH services is huge in West Africa. The World Bank for instance estimates that the average annual revenue from Senegal´s untapped rural water market over the next 7 years would be 11 billion FCFA (equivalent to approx. 20 million USD). 

Nevertheless, entrepreneurship and especially WASH entrepreneurship still faces many challenges in the region and is in dire need of a stronger targeted support system. Due to its particularities, the water and sanitation sector is not easy to enter and thrive in. Little purchasing power of potential customers at the Base of the Pyramid and sometimes little willingness to pay, capital intensive infrastructure, complex regulatory frameworks and market distortions (informal markets can offer services for cheaper, since they offer the service but neglect the cost of safety, environmental and human health, for instance by desludging but then dumping untreated sewage) are some of the barriers facing entrepreneurs in the region.

Synergising efforts to create a WASH entrepreneurship pipeline

Many of our members have been active in West Africa for several years. We now aim to connect the experiences, knowledge and networks we gained to further support growth of enterprises and the creation of a WASH entrepreneurship pipeline there, and initiate and strengthen the sectors in neighbouring West African countries. Our members are already conducting several joint startup and incubation programmes in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. They are also studying the financing environment and creating partnerships with investors on the ground. As SWEP, we also conducted a complete mapping of support systems and enabling organisations in each country. And thanks to the Waterloo Foundation and Aqua for All, the basics of the WASH Systems Academy foundational online course on “WASH systems strengthening” will also soon be available in French. You can read more about our activities in West Africa here.

Jointly, we have the capacity to cover all relevant aspects of the water and sanitation entrepreneurship pipeline, from research and early stage business development support to acceleration and finally to scaling entrepreneurs to create impact for thousands to millions of beneficiaries. By focusing on exchange, collaboration and fostering synergies, we hope to make a significant contribution to supporting entrepreneurial solutions to realizing access to water and sanitation for all (Sustainable Development Goal 6) in West Africa. Stay tuned!