Published:  12:02 AM, 18 February 2020

How small water enterprises are transforming women's work

How small water enterprises are transforming women's work Women-led small water enterprises are increasingly popping up in low-resource settings. Are they a solution to clean water access and women's economic empowerment? -Saha Global

Rebecca Root

In low-income countries, women are often shouldering the responsibility of managing household water supply. Whether it's walking to the nearest borehole, pump, or pond, women collect water in 80% of households with shortages. According to UNICEF, that contributes to a total of 200 million hours of collection a day by women and girls worldwide.

Water collection robs women and girls of the time they could spend receiving an education or earning an income, and it causes a physical, emotional, social, and decision-making impact, said Gillian Winkler, senior business development manager at Safe Water Network, a nonprofit working to advance entrepreneurial, market-based solutions that transform lives.

Small water enterprises, or SWEs - social enterprises that provide safe drinking water to communities - with women at the helm have the power to not only improve access to drinking water at the community-level but economically empower women by transforming them from water carriers to water entrepreneurs, according to experts employing this model around the globe.

Girija Bharat, founder and director of Mu Gamma Consultants, an Indian-based organization working to enable sustainable and economic development, considers water and sanitation "the crux of the Sustainable Development Goals."

And gender, she said, plays a large part in the success of work related to SDG 6, which focuses on clean water and adequate sanitation for all: "Whenever we have involved women in a project, sustainability has been ensured and the project has improved."

SWEs, which involve collecting, treating, and selling clean water via water treatment centers or stations, from a store, kiosk, or door-to-door, are increasingly being recognized as a cost-effective solution to providing clean drinking water. While the price of water supplied through the small businesses can vary, the idea is to make it affordable and accessible for the local community while covering business costs and allowing owners to generate an income.

In India, Naandi Community Water Services sells its treated water for between $0.04 and $0.07 per 20 litres, half the price of formal treated alternatives. Kate Cincotta, co-founder and executive director at Saha Global - an NGO training women from rural villages in northern Ghana how to treat water and sell it at an affordable price within their community - said it makes sense to have women lead SWEs because women are water experts.

"Most of them have been managing water for their families, some of them since they were as young as four years old … the women know water," Cincotta said.

Women can bring that expertise to the design process of any SWE, rather than simply inserting them into a standard solution, Cincotta said.

Saha Global, which works with local governments to identify villages that rely solely on contaminated surface water sources and nominate up to five women to establish a water treatment center, has launched 210 such businesses in Ghana, reaching nearly 100,000 people with safe drinking water.

Women who run their own Saha SWE and sell the water to community members make $1-$2 for five to eight hours of work, allowing them to supplement their main source of income. Just being empowered with a new skill set is not enough to keep the business open, Cincotta said. The women need to be paid for their time, and community members have to be willing to pay for the clean water.

"Even though this is an enterprise that earns the women a small income, the men were never really interested in it," Cincotta added, explaining that the women are still doing the hard work of collecting and treating the water.

Saha Global supplies the materials to build the water treatment centers and provides a three-week training on how to decontaminate collected water and the ins and outs of running a business, including classes on affordable pricing, frequency of treatment, and social marketing.

The NGO also offers business advice and monitoring of water quality for a minimum of 10 years. Taking a similar approach, Safe Water Network's iJal women's empowerment program in the district of Medak, Telangana, India, established 49 "self-help groups" that give women the skills to manage water treatment stations that access ground or surface water.

Each station is sited and sized for the community's needs and utilizes a water treatment technology such as reverse osmosis, slow- and rapid-sand filtration, or ultrafiltration to address the specific challenges of the water source in question.

Convenience is what drives use of safe water, said Safe Water Network's Winkler. One station can provide water to between 3,000 and 5,000 people.

"We wanted to transform lives [of women] from being water carriers to water operators, entrepreneurs, and managers," said Poonam Sewak, vice president of knowledge and partnerships at Safe Water Network India, adding that they provide information on bookkeeping, dispensing water, and conducting maintenance and repairs via the self-help groups.

Such training helps to tackle the self-doubt and sentiments of unworthiness that Bharat says are systemically built into women in India. "When they become entrepreneurs they become empowered … empowerment in the water and sanitation sector actually translates in other spheres as well."

Aside from the women themselves, Winkler said it's important to also work with the wider community so others understand why they are being charged for water and the link between revenue and the service's sustainability. Demonstrating to the local community the need for safe water and how to identify what water is safe to drink can lead to behavior change.

Saha Global visits households to educate families about clean water, explain the business model, and distribute safe storage containers to prevent water re-contamination in the home. Working with the community is important to a business's success, Cincotta said, adding that any community with surface water can become home to a women-led SWE.

There are numerous ways to decontaminate water and products and filters are widely available. However, Sewak said the ability to scale such projects further is inhibited by a lack of funding for women enterprise programs. WASH funding is also often directed to urban utility projects or rural solutions like handpumps instead of social enterprise, Winkler said. 

"While these are both necessary, we are serving a missing middle between those very dispersed rural communities and those highly urbanized communities," she said. According to Safe Water Network, although billions are being invested into safe water solutions, around half of projects fail within a few years.

Governments and development agencies need to be sensitized to the demand for SWEs as a solution and such programs should be included in the charter of development agencies because, aside from providing clean water, the projects go on to support public health, livelihoods, and gender parity, Sewak said.

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