Safe Water Network’s water station model provides piped water to rural communities in Ghana, transforming the lives of local families. Safe Water Network’s Director for Africa Initiatives, Charles Nimako, describes the insights gained from this pioneering approach and plans for further expansion.

UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”, is a bold aim. Reaching such an ambitious target requires ambitious thinking, technical innovation, transformative policy, proper understanding of local communities, and new approaches to financing.    

Two billion people currently live without safely managed water, many of those in rural areas and earning less than $1 a day. Some funders and governments believe these populations are simply too poor to afford piped water connections at home. This perception has impeded investment in infrastructure that could benefit the most vulnerable communities. However, our experience from delivering safe water to these communities is that there is in fact a high demand for such services, and customers are willing and able to afford piped connections at home.

In 2020, The Stone Family Foundation financed Safe Water Network’s pilot programme in Adanwomase, Bomfa Achiase, Bonwire and Nobewam – four rural communities in Ghana’s southern Ashanti Region. This investment included new micro-utility infrastructure, which connects safe water from a central treatment station directly to homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and small businesses across a community through a network of pipes. Nobewam was Safe Water Network’s first station built specifically for piped connections, in a community that did not have access to safe water before construction. In the three other communities, we retrofitted existing community standpipe stations to provide more household piped connections.

These Optimized Piped Connection stations (OPCs) now provide more than 1,800 piped connections to 13,000 customers across the four communities. Demand was so high that we reached our goal in a quarter of the time projected and doubled our targets for piped connections.

These stations are operated by trained community members and supported by our field service teams, who perform equipment maintenance, water quality controls, and community engagement activities. In addition, we assign a customer service representative at each station to help customers with their digital payments and regularly measure satisfaction through customer surveys.

The stations generate enough revenue to cover the local operating cost and contribute to a long-term maintenance fund. After 18 months of operation, Nobewam has already covered all local operating costs and field service fees. The success of this station provides a blueprint for replication in other communities. 

To promote adoption of piped connection water service, we invested in a dedicated sales team trained in ethical practices. The team works with customers one-on-one to demonstrate the financial and wider benefits of safely managed water. Customers are willing and able to pay for a piped connection to their home once this true value becomes apparent.

Safely managed water through piped connections means that families no longer need to regularly walk to community standpipes and limit their water usage to the amount they can physically carry back home. They no longer have to rely on rainwater or other sub-optimal solutions.

Our Impact Report, which surveyed customers in these four communities, showed improvements in household happiness, health and finances after reliable access to safe water became a reality. Families had more time together, and more time for school and work, when they no longer needed to take lengthy, difficult journeys to collect water.

These successful examples from the field could change the ingrained perceptions of some governments and investors who believe customers in underserved communities are not able to pay, and help catalyse additional funding into community-level infrastructure for delivering safely managed water.

Over the next five years, we will build 25 more stations optimised for piped connections. Based on results from the pilot, this endeavour will significantly increase water usage, strengthening the financial sustainability of Safe Water Network’s overall portfolio of water stations in Ghana.

This pilot reshaped our vision for creating large-scale access to safe water in Ghana. Our model demonstrates that it is possible to expand safely managed water to low-income communities. It is possible for customers in these communities to pay for water and support sustainable water supply systems.

We are now even closer to accomplishing our goal of increasing access to safe water for three million people across 1,000 communities in Ghana, through our own field implementation and the replication of our model by our network of partners.

We are grateful for The Stone Family Foundation’s support and look forward to continuing to work with them, and others across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors, toward collectively solving the global water crisis.

Paul Gunstensen, Director of The Stone Family Foundation, comments: “The Foundation was delighted to finance this project, which represents the successful transfer of learning from a piped water programme we’ve supported in Cambodia to a new context. Supporting the expansion of piped water into the homes of customers in different contexts is something we will continue to promote through our recently revised strategy. We look forward to seeing further success with Safe Water Network from the next round of new stations.

“We will be hosting a session with Safe Water Network and three other partners of the Foundation from Africa and Asia on Sunday 28th August for World Water Week  where we’ll engage with others from the sector and share insights.”