Our key takeaways from Innovate 4 Water 2017

In 2015, the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) estimated that 660 million people don’t have access to adequate drinking-water sources, and over 2.4 billion people worldwide don’t have access to improved sanitation. There is still a long way to go before we achieve universal access to safe and affordable drinking and improved sanitation for all by 2030, as stated by the sixth Sustainable Development Goal.

Focusing on the power of collaboration, entrepreneurship and sustainable investments to reach the SDGs, the Innovate 4 Water matchmaking forum organised by Waterpreneurs was a good occasion to discuss the sector and practitioners challenge,s and how partnerships are critical to solve current issues. Held in Geneva on 9 and 10 June, the sessions focused on the themes of water and sanitation in the circular economy, water food energy health nexus, smart water technologies, sustainable ecosystem for water entrepreneurs, hybrid business models, blended finance.

At the end of a day of energising discussions in and out of the plenary sessions, here are some thoughts about the sector and how mobile is increasingly relevant:

We are seeing more and more examples of the use of mobile in the water and sanitation sectors.

There is no doubt that mobile has a role to play to help solve some of the challenges the sector faces: affordability, payment collection, supply chain complexity, disconnection between supply and demand, lack of operational data, last mile distribution. The level of discussions around mobile at the conference showed that there is more interest and questions around what mobile can deliver for the sector, as well as what learnings already exist. Some examples include large utilities to local providers collecting e-payments through mobile money wallets, organisations moving from paper-based reporting to digital monitoring and utilities connecting prepaid meters to access real time information about water usage and payments.

Mobile money brings opportunity but needs trust.

More learnings are starting to emerge on the impact of mobile money, as well as its challenges. Mobile money services are now available in two-thirds of low- and middle-income countries and in 85 per cent of markets where less than 20 per cent of the population has access to a formal financial institution. The use cases for integrating with utilities include digitising existing payments, pay as you drink models, digital credit for affordable connections and digital government transfers. When available, water utilities are increasingly leveraging mobile payments to improve payment collection. In Ghana, after having piloted a mobile monitoring application to improve data quality and analysis at their kiosk level, Safe Water Network is currently testing mobile money payments to create cost savings and enable more profitable in-home connections. However, similarly to the off grid sector in less mature mobile money environments, building trust with customers to switch from cash to digital payments as well as education and training on digital financial literacy is critical.

More learnings are needed on IoT for water and sanitation.

The Internet of Things (IoT) creates new pathways to collect data at different parts of the delivery chain and enables new models. Sensors installed in piped connections, water kiosks, hand-pumps or latrines, combined to data analytics platforms will lead to better understandings of operations and customer usages. From smart pilots to smart cities, there is still however a big step to be bridged. Early stage capital to test new ideas and generate learnings is needed; smart city strategies and partnerships with technology players would help build more ICT skills and support utilities to cope with increasing pressure on their service.

Can mobile trigger a step change like for the off grid energy sector?

Could there be a similar step change in the water sector as there has been in the off grid sector with the pay as you go solar models? The question remains open. Energy and water or sanitation are very different sectors, however some of the learnings extracted from the off grid markets are relevant for models targeting underserved customers. Financing options and mobile wallet payments are driving a new type of solar access and customer payment history could enable further financial inclusion and for financial institutions to make better lending decisions. Opportunity often where different needs combine and solar providers are increasingly enabling access to secondary products, such as appliances, cookstoves,… and could there be a bundling opportunity with water or sanitation products and services?

The off grid sector has also attracted significant funding in the past four years (more than US$200 million in 2016 alone). Based on customer mobile repayment history and future cash flows,new funding instruments have been developed, including securitization of solar assets. Could mobile also help de-risk new water and sanitation models of service

How the GSMA will continue to support mobile for WASH.

It’s essential for us to continue being part of such discussions to share our knowledge on the growth of mobile ecosystems and the impact of mobile tools for the sector; but also to better understand the challenges and complexity of the water and sanitation sectors. We have just published a mobile money toolkit, aimed at utility service providers who would like to adopt mobile money payment solutions and focuses on questions they should consider before deploying these tools. Coming up later this year, we will release case studies related to our Innovation Fund water and sanitation pilots. Finally, another round of innovation funding will take place in September, targeting organisations looking to integrate mobile in their models.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.

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