Pandemic Impacts on Rural Water Services in Uganda: An Interview with Whave Director Adam Harvey

A Whave technician conducts a regular maintenance check. Photo credit: Whave

Restrictions on gatherings and movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected essentially all aspects of life around the world—from movie theater closures in India to November’s 2020 G20 Summit being held virtually. Even essential services like water have seen an impact. But according to Adam Harvey, managing director of Whave Solutions Ltd., in Uganda, restrictions have resulted in some unexpected positive impacts in the way water services are delivered.

In recent years, Whave and its Ugandan government partners have been building a sustainable model for rural water service delivery in nine pilot districts. Previously, water points in these areas were not adequately functional as much as 70 percent of the time. “Mechanics actually had a financial incentive not to keep hand pumps maintained regularly and didn’t have access to quality parts” Harvey says. 

Rather than paying mechanics only when they fixed a broken hand pump, Whave linked payment to the number of days the pump was in good working order. As a result of this performance payment, preventive maintenance is now regular, and when breakdowns do occur, they are repaired promptly. “We’re now servicing more than 500 communities where the water source is functional more than 98 percent of the time,” Harvey says.

Personal contact at the community level has been essential to Whave’s approach, both for signing up new communities, and collecting user fees. During the COVID lockdown community meetings were stopped, which meant payment collection dropped along with the rate of enrolling new communities. Whave complied with a government call for fee exemptions on essential services so income dropped further. “Our customer base expansion decreased, and our revenue suffered as well,” says Harvey, “but there were some silver linings.”

Harvey says that before COVID-19, Whave had started pushing for payments by telephone and incentivizing technicians to collect payments and enroll communities to reduce travel. In Uganda, the cost of traveling in rural areas is very high. When COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, travel was limited to essential visits by Whave technicians who were granted special permission. “The pandemic jump-started our efforts around telephone payment and technician incentives, as they suddenly became urgent,” he explains.

Although payment of fees by mobile phone is a common method across Africa, Harvey says it wasn’t working well in rural communities mainly due to glitches between customers and the service provider, such as unexpected charges being made causing customer resistance. “During COVID, we spent more time working on those glitches,” he says. “So, in a way, the travel restriction triggered important cost savings we were pushing before the pandemic happened. It motivated our team to get the whole thing rolling. It also made our internal management more efficient and less costly.” Whave regional managers are spread widely across the country, and during COVID-19 they were able to shift to online platforms for meetings, which had previously seemed cumbersome.

Harvey encourages other NGOs like Whave to find similar opportunities to rededicate staff time and focus, given the restrictions. “Use COVID as an opportunity to be efficient,” he says, noting the great expense of bringing services to rural areas everywhere in the world. These improvements in cost-efficiency can strengthen the service delivery system and give communities self-sustaining services as we all emerge from the pandemic.

By Christine Chumbler of the SWS Learning Partnership


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Whave is a member of the consortia supporting the USAID–funded Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS), which is investigating systems approaches to improve the sustainability of water, sanitation, and hygiene service delivery. SWS is supporting the scale up of Whave’s preventive maintenance model to study and learn from their implementation approach.