Uganda’s COVID-19 water sector response – a threat to sustainability or an opportunity?

Everflow is a community-funded enterprise providing preventative maintenance and emergency repair services to keep rural Ugandan water wells flowing. The Stone Family Foundation began supporting Everflow at the end of 2019 to conduct a study in partnership with Stanford University to assess the willingness and ability to pay for water maintenance services, as well as costs and benefits to users, communities and local government.

Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, two district local governments asked Everflow to service all the wells that needed repairs across the two districts. In this blog Igor Markov, Director of Business Development at Lifeline, based in Kampala, reflects on his visit to two communities and the risk and opportunity this support has highlighted.

What is Everflow?

Launched in the Apac and Kwania districts of northern Uganda in 2017, EverFlow Africa is a social enterprise incubated by International Lifeline Fund (Lifeline). It ensures rural boreholes with handpumps are providing water to communities continuously by performing preventative maintenance and emergency repairs within 24 hours for issues reported via a toll-free hotline.

EverFlow provides these services to customer communities, comprised mostly of farmers, at about 3% of the typical monthly expenditure for a household of six. Customers are currently enjoying working handpumps for more than 364 days per year – or 99.8% uptime. By contrast, other boreholes in the districts break down for more than two weeks per year.

COVID-19 response – a threat to sustainability?

In early April, the District Government COVID-19 Taskforces for Apac and Kwania requested that EverFlow repair handpumps across the two districts, including those that had not paid for subscriptions. The goal was to stave off COVID-19 by limiting travel between villages and ensuring people had enough water to meet their needs. Keeping handpumps working was essential to this plan.

EverFlow provided this service free of charge. During my visit, I encountered two cases that illustrated the threat to sustainability that well-meaning actions can foster.

First, I witnessed a repair at a village where Mr. Tony Otim, a retiree, led his community to join EverFlow. Otim made sure his village’s payments for EverFlow were up to date, and in May he called the toll-free hotline to report a breakdown and a handpump mechanic fixed it within a day.

Conversely, in June as part of the district-wide COVID-19 emergency response, EverFlow repaired the pump in Barokima village – that had not subscribed to the service. The Barokima handpump broke down in January, and in total the village experienced over two months of downtime in 2020. By the end of EverFlow’s professional repair, the handpump was running smoothly for the first time all year, at no cost to the village.

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An Everflow mechanic conducting a repair

This demonstrates how the COVID-19 response in Uganda threatens to undermine sustainability through emergency relief, by suggesting to rural communities that waiting for a government programme or philanthropy to fix handpumps is a good bet, discouraging the likes of Mr. Otim to pay for something that can be obtained for free.

But the reality goes beyond this perverse incentive. It’s also possible that affordability and demand barriers prevent villages like Barokima from paying for such a service, something Stanford University’s Program on Water, Health and Development is currently investigating in partnership with Lifeline.

These barriers mean that the user fees currently collected by Everflow are insufficient to cover the entire cost of providing the service, and that external public and philanthropic funding will likely be needed for some time. For this reason, in the longer term it is important to move away from using funds to apply bandaids to boreholes and more towards investing in high-performing water systems that can be scaled.

A window of opportunity: investing in high-performance systems

A critical step towards achieving high-performing water systems is having robust policies and enforcement measures. Despite the sustainability risk mentioned above, the COVID-19 emergency response provided an opportunity to strengthen and implement the policy framework for the maintenance of rural water points.

Throughout the COVID-19 emergency response, Everflow collaborated with the Ministry of Water and Environment to advance the new National Framework for Operation and Maintenance of Rural Water Infrastructure. The framework gives water pump maintenance service providers the responsibility of providing pump repair services over an entire geography. It aims for districts to coordinate with service providers to enforce payment of water maintenance fees across a territory, improve accountability by introducing standard performance indicators, and channel subsidies where needed. Districts are also required to ring-fence part of their budgets to promote the repair services and enforce the framework.

The details of the National Framework are still being finalised, but Everflow’s COVID-19 response with Apac and Kwania, though temporary, shows how it could be operationalised. Over that period Everflow was selected as the sole provider of services over two districts. It went from serving 27,000 people to more than 340,000 – proving that a rural water point maintenance service provider can, as advocated under this framework, coordinate with local government to provide high-quality services at district-wide scale.

Another positive outcome of the COVID-19 response is that providing free repairs gave Everflow the opportunity to promote its service widely across the two districts, which could grow its customer base. In preparation, EverFlow is strengthening its operations, including with an automated billing system and a sharper focus on sales and marketing.

The COVID-19 response in Uganda has revealed how dealing with a global health emergency could undermine the sustainability of a service vital to keep rural water supplies reliable. However it has also provided an opportunity to strengthen the policy environment and improve operations. By investing in key areas of the business to prepare for growth, Everflow is now better prepared to take advantage of the upcoming policy changes and make rural water reliability a problem of the past.  

This blog draws in part on an article written by Daniel W. Smith, PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, Emmanuel Ojara Sunday of International Lifeline Fund, and myself. It is available here.