Key Takeaways on Mobile-Enabled Utility Services at the IWA Water and Development Congress in Jordan

November 11, 2015 | Mobile for Development Utilities | Global | Global | Salima Fazal Karim

The penetration of mobile services in emerging markets continues to outpace access to basic water and sanitation services thus presenting an opportunity to leverage the use of the former to improve the latter1. While the water sector has not yet seen as advanced and widespread uses of mobile as the energy sector2, more examples are emerging. At the International Water Association’s Development Congress & Exhibition from 18-22 October in Jordan, M4D Utilities seized the opportunity to showcase some of these emerging innovations by bringing together key players to present their services and research. Under the theme of “Water & Cleantech as Opportunity for Growth and Development”, M4D Utilities organised a workshop on “Leveraging Mobile Phones to Improve Utility Services.”

To set the scene, Ilana Cohen of GSMA M4D Utilities gave an overview of the various uses of mobile for utility services. For example, remote monitoring of service delivery or consumption that can be relayed in real time by mobile networks, two-way communication with customers, and mobile money to allow secure collection of payments.

Human sensors for improved water delivery
The first case study was on NextDrop, a past grantee of the GSMA M4D Utilities Innovation Fund. NextDrop works with the Bangalore Water Supply & Sewerage Board (BWSSB) to turn their valvemen into human sensors using a mobile application to indicate when and where valves are opened and closed. Thanks to the availability and transparency of this data, the utility service delivery was improved with predictable supply timings within three months; a far cry from previous variations of up to 9.5 hours, which led to a drastic reduction in customer complaints 3.

Relaying consumption of water via SMS
Engineer Stephen Mbugua, Commercial Director of Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC), next presented their Jisomee Mita service whereby customers can send their own meter reading via SMS. The objective behind this service is to allow customers to manage their water budgets better and pay in smaller increments more often. NCWSC worked very closely with the community through door-to-door campaigns, events, community ambassadors and leaders to mobilise the community around the new service. Results in the pilot area in Nairobi have shown a five-fold increase in revenues, growth in customer numbers and a decrease in operation and transaction costs associated with meter reading, billing and payments.

Mobile money enabled water payments
Dr. Aaron Krolikowski of the Skoll Centre of Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford presented his research on the use of mobile payments for water in Dar es Salaam through mobile money and SIM-enabled points of sale. Findings show that mobile payment users made more frequent payments and had a higher per-person collection rate than non-users. Furthermore, the automation, made possible by electronic payments, led to faster reconciliation of records and a reduction in corruption. Some disadvantages of mobile payments were also highlighted; in particular the lack of paper receipts with some utility staff themselves not always accepting SMS confirmations as proof of payment.

Water monitoring through open data and mobile technology
Dr. Annie Feighery, CEO and co-founder of mWater presented their free platform and reasonably priced monitoring kit which is used in 59 countries for “collaborative water monitoring through open data and mobile technology.” Users create mobile surveys; the platform then analyses the data and creates dashboards and maps in real-time. Insights garnered through the different uses of the platform show that frontline health and utility workers can adopt the technology regardless of age, gender and education.

Integrated Mobile Utility Management System
Finally, Daniel Kamiri, co-founder and CEO of Wonderkid, another M4D Utilities Innovation Fund grantee, closed the workshop with his presentation of their Integrated Mobile Utility Management System: customer feedback and complaint management, as well as meter reading applications. Based on their work with several water utilities in Kenya, an alternative partnership model was presented that takes into account the extensive change management within the utility that needs to take place for the successful adoption of new mobile services.

Beyond these specific examples of mobile use in the water sector covered in the workshop, a common theme in many other sessions was the need for monitoring, measuring the right metrics, ensuring data accuracy and overall data collection for impact measurement and decision-making. Here as well, mobile will play an integral role in monitoring progress and ultimately, the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6: Access to Clean Water and Sanitation for All.

1. Predicting the Future of Mobile-Enabled Community Services – MECS Annual Report
2. This will be covered in an upcoming blog on the analysis of concept notes submitted to our latest rounds of the Innovation Fund.
3. NextDrop developed a number of mobile applications as part of their grant project and more details can be found in our upcoming case study, accessible here.

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