New mobile citizens and waterpoint sustainability in rural Africa

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Geography - SoGE


Africa's innovation in mobile technology may form a key platform to resolve one of its oldest problems - safe and reliable water access. The idea of this research project is that a systemic informational impasse has been a fundamental constraint to rural water supply sustainability. Two recent innovations in mobile communications technology have released this constraint: first, a secure, universal and low-cost information and mobile money system that allows an increasing majority of rural and urban Africans to talk and send money at increasingly lower costs, and second, the pilot development by Oxford University of a data transmitter that can automatically, accurately and securely transmit low-cost data on handpump water use. With a regular, reliable and universal flow of handpump data no longer will governments and donors be able to claim investments have worked based on unverifiable data. Accountable and transparent information will be available for everyone in instant and simple metrics of how much water is available when, where and, critically, over time. When handpumps fail, everyone will know and new ways to provide better maintenance services by sharing risk across multiple handpumps will be possible. Donors and governments will no longer be able to hide and citizens will be to act with the power of information. As rural Africans remain the hardest to reach and most in need of safe water access globally, the potential developmental impacts of this research, under increasingly unpredictable climates, could result in transformational impacts across time-savings, health, education, income, gender equity and basic human dignity for the 330 million Africans without safe water access.

By 2012 more Africans will have access to mobile communication services than improved water services. By 2014, 90% of Africa will have mobile communication coverage. These very recent changes in combination with a real appetite to address the majority of one billion Africans struggling in rural areas under increasingly unpredictable climates offers a concrete opportunity for meaningful and lasting change. Chronic failure and under-performance of rural waterpoints (handpumps) is central to rural poverty. Lack of improved water services leads to daily and life-cycle costs for most Africans, but particularly women and girls; for example, in rural Africa an estimated 40 billion hours is spent annually collecting water from unsafe sources, mainly by women and girls, with an associated 448 million lost school days each year and a related 1.5 million deaths in children under five years from drinking unsafe water. Despite significant efforts and billions of dollars of investment between 1990 and 2008, 67 million more rural Africans now lack safe water access, a statistic symptomatic of Africa's faltering progress towards meeting the water access global safe water target twenty years late in 2035.

With one in two rural Africans owning a mobile handset and government, donors and mobile operators actively seeking new collaborations and ideas, this project aims to harness this swell of technology innovation and policy support to test at scale an innovative new device designed and piloted by Oxford University. The technology alone has little value but it is transformative potential to capture and share data from remote and dispersed regions seamlessly and instanteously opens up new and exciting possibilities for change. No longer may living in rural Africa be synonymous with being chronically poor and water insecure. This project aims to challenge and change this situation to maintain and accelerate safe water supplies for rural Africans.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?
The primary beneficiaries will be a) rural water users in Zambia, b) the Government of Zambia, c) donors/investors. First, rural water users will benefit directly from a free, one-year maintenance service pilot reaching an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 water users served by 200 sampled handpumps in rural Zambia. Second, the Government of Zambia and Ministry of Local Government and Housing (MLGH) responsible for national rural water supply will benefit from capturing and understanding data on the performance of handpumps in real-time to i) shape planning and investment decisions to reach the most in need in an accountable and transparent way, ii) have empirical data on operational performance and costs to develop a national rural water maintenance programme, iii) be in a position to monitor and hold to account donor investments in handpumps over the life-time of pumps, iv) crowd-in investment from potential investors who are underwhelmed by the lack of metrics on investment returns compared to other interventions (i.e. health, education), v) be in position to maintain and accelerate improved water services to Zambia's 8.3 million rural inhabitants, of which 4.4 million lack safe water supply. Third, donors/investors will benefit by understanding the performance of their investment in rural water supply and be able to monitor and target investments of the full life-time of a handpump learning how and who uses the handpump to improve effectiveness and ancillary interventions, such as maintenance services, water quality testing, hygiene education and water supply to rural schools. Naturally, if the project achieves its goals this work will have potentially dramatic implications across all rural areas in developing regions where 84% of the 884 million people without safe water access live. UNICEF is uniquely placed to effectively scale-up and leverage change across the 193 countries where they operate.

How will they benefit?
As discussed in detail elsewhere, the time-savings, health, education, income and dignity benefits for rural water users will be large and significant. Equally, the distributional impacts will particularly favour women and children, and other vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, single-female headed households and child-headed households. The latter are a particular concern due to the impact of HIV/AIDS in rural Zambia.

The opportunity to benefit?
The pathways to impact document answers this question, though it can be re-emphasized that working with MLGH and UNICEF positions the project centrally with key policy and donor decision-makers in the rural water sector in Zambia and globally. Further, the project will invite other known NGOs working in the sector to learn from the project though we have a clear purpose to work with government and not outside it for sustainability and impact. In addition, the project has an ongoing dialogue with Airtel and other major mobile network operators to support other mechanisms to communicate and catalyse this work in Zambia and beyond.


10 25 50
Title Smart Handpumps 
Description A team from Oxford University has developed a new technology to remotely monitor the use and functionality of handpumps in rural Africa. Trials are currently underway in two districts in Kenya. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2013 
Description The prototype waterpoint data transmitters worked successfully over the project period with low incidence or failure and vandalism, demonstrating that this is a viable method of generating handpump usage a breakdown data: average time-to repair was less than two days.

The average number of repairs over 18 month was 3.5 per pump that had a repair (or 3.0 for all pumps being maintained as not all pumps required a repair during the study period). Looking at the local variable costs (mechanic wages, transport, spares and data costs) against the volume of water pumps as determined by the Waterpoint Data Transmitters (a.k.a. Smart Handpumps) the median cost per m3 of water was Ksh 10, with a 95th percentile cost of Ksh 49 (around $0.50). This is around half the cost that many people are prepared to pay for water.

The micro-enterprise that has be running the repair service was set up and is now incorporated in Kenya (Kwale Handpumps Ltd.). The manager and two mechanics are being trained and mentored by the project team and are now signing up communities to a paid maintenance service.

Average usage was 9,500 litres per week, with seven pumps seeing over 30,000 litres pumped per week, the highest being 48,000 litres. There was also high spatial and temporal variability in water use. Early 2014 was extremely dry, making handpumps vital: immediately before the first rains one pump was being used 24 hours per day, averaging over 16,000 litres per day for the 30 days prior to the rains.

A major package of work for the grant was the household survey conducted in the Kwale study area (n=3,401). Conducted by a locally recruited enumerator team of 18 people, and trained by the project team, this survey covered water use, poverty and health data.

We conducted a cross-sectional analysis of the data, looking at four poverty metrics in terms of their usefulness in elucidating the extent and multidimensional nature of poverty in Kwale: (a) Absolute [food basket]; (b) Relative [USD1.25 day]; (c) Multi-dimensional welfare index; (d) Subjective welfare. We constructed a multi-dimensional welfare index with 27 indicators (education, dwelling, assets, drinking water, sanitation and health) which provide a good statistical fit.

Household survey dated show high levels of mobile phone ownership (84%) and mobile money use (69%), with extremely penetration across all groups other than the lowest 20%. It is also clear that in terms of mobile money provision, M-Pesa has a near monopoly (67%). This indicates that water users in Kwale County have the ability to engage with a mobile-communication based maintenance service, including making payments via mobile money.

With respect to water supply, higher welfare households were 4.4 times more likely to have three or more of four subjective measures of drinking water security (quality, quantity, reliability and affordability) compared to lower welfare households; in contrast the difference was 1.3 times when applied to the cruder measure of "improved" water access. This underlines the known limitations of measuring 'access' (the physical handpump) alone rather than examining service delivery by the multiple criteria recognised under the Human Right to Water (UN 2010).
Exploitation Route There are three aspects of this research which will be useful to other researchers, policy-makers and stakeholders:

Firstly, technology and data can provide new information that can be extremely useful for both research and operational deployment. While a handful of transmitters were damaged, the majority are still working two years after installation (time of writing this report) generating data on handpump usage are functionality.

Secondly, the insights into the temporal and special variability of pump usage are unique. Such understanding of spatial variation in water usage patterns can help inform decisions about future water supply investments, targeting them in areas of high demand, rather than making them based on broad assumptions on per-capita water use and census data.

Finally, the professional and rapid maintenance service demonstrated that it is possible to repair handpumps very quickly and at low cost. 95% of communities receiving the service paid around half the cost per litre that many people are prepared to pay for water. While it should be noted that these calculations did not us the full programme fixed cost as this was a research programme, this shows that supra-community management is a viable option for rural water supply.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare,Other

Description The research has influenced policy and practice in the wider goals of delivering universal and safe drinking water services. In Kenya, the national government has highlighted the work in its annual reporting for the national water services regulatory board (WASREB, 2014). This includes regular dialogue with ways to scale up the approach including uptake and support by two separate counties, Kwale and Kakamega. UNICEF at the global and regional levels are also trying to build the work into their programmes and potentially contributing to new reporting metrics for SDG 6.1 for universal and safe drinking water supplies. In 2018, UNICEF/Bangladesh and the Government of Bangladesh's Department of Public Health and Engineering has supported the installation of 500 transmitters in schools, clinics and communities. This pilot phase (Feb2018-Jan2019) will inform a wider programme of work on monitoring water service delivery and, if successful, will lead to a larger programme of work. Initial results will be released and shared from May 2018.
Sector Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Article in The Economist (4 March 2017) on FundiFix model
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact See
Description Citation in Government of Kenya Water Services Regulatory Annual Report 2014
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact New model for rural water sustainability that benefits low-income and marginalised rural populations in Kenya gain more reliable water services.
Description Drinking water choices for sustainable development: How do rural communities select their provision of water services?
Amount £39,829 (GBP)
Funding ID KCD00141-LD03.01 
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Department Global Challenges Research Fund
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2019 
End 12/2021
Description Smart Handpumps Crowd-funding campaign with matched funding from GCRF -
Amount £70,600 (GBP)
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Department Global Challenges Research Fund
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2019 
End 07/2020
Description Smart Handpumps: plug-and-play for wider impact
Amount £46,800 (GBP)
Funding ID 0007736 
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Department Global Challenges Research Fund
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2019 
End 07/2020
Description UPGro - unlocking the potential of groundwater for the poor
Amount £1,890,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2015 
End 02/2019
Description USAID Sustainable Wash Systems
Amount $15,300,000 (USD)
Organisation United States Agency for International Development 
Sector Public
Country United States
Start 08/2017 
End 09/2021
Title Kwale waterpoint mapping data 
Description Comprehensive waterpoint mapping data set for 534 handpumps situated in Kwale County (Msambweni & Matuge districts) incorporating a range of variables, including: • handpump technology; • geolocation; • financial management; • maintenance arrangements; • institutional settings; • functionality status; • groundwater reliability; • water quality and testing; • alternative water sources 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? No  
Description Rural Water Sustainability 
Organisation UNICEF
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Expands scale of existing work with new research programme
Collaborator Contribution Links to wider regional initiatives in East and Southern Africa
Impact None yet.
Start Year 2014
Company Name Kwale Handpump Services Ltd. 
Description With ESRC support we incubated a Kenyan-owned social enterprise called Kwale Handpump Services Ltd, under the FundiFix model. The company employs three local staff including a manager and two mechanics with a Director providing targeted support. The start-up has required close collaboration with the Oxford team in terms of developing a business plan to recruit communities to the maintenance service, establishing financial procedures, including a mobile billing system, and using the 'smart handpump' data to determine demand for water and likely failures. The manager has been trained in using the database which processes the smart data so he can observe the patterns of handpump usage over time. The mechanics have been equipped with parts and motorbikes so they can fix failures fast. 
Year Established 2014 
Impact Local repairs under the model used by the company achieve 99% completion under the 3 day contract compared to 53% for communities doing it themselves, significantly reducing handpump downtime.
Description Delivering handpump water services reliably at scale in rural Africa. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience
Results and Impact Hope, R. (2013) Delivering handpump water services reliably at scale in rural Africa. Presentation at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Den Haag, 25th June 2013
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity
Description Short piece on challenges of rural water supply in Kenya on BBC South Today news 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A short spot on BBC South Today on the challenges of rural water supply in Kenya - 18th June 2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description mw4d eNewsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience
Results and Impact An eNewsletter with the latest information on the New Mobile Citizens research project, distributed to 162 recipients
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description mw4d website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience
Results and Impact which contains up-to-date information and resources relating to the project. In the 12 months since 1st September 2012, the website has had 2,730 visits and 10,517 page views from more than 1,500 unique visitors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012