Tuesday 17 December 2013

Creating the space for innovation - eThekwini Water and Sanitation Unit

by Tracey Keatman for BPD

Innovation comes out of sheer desperation – you just sit down and do it!” This sentence, on the origins of innovation, struck me while talking to one of the area engineers from the eThekwini Water & Sanitation Unit (EWS) in Durban. I was there in June on behalf of the IDB / MIF team and the Innovation and Technology for Development Centre of the Technical University of Madrid (itdUPM) to prepare a case study on innovative business models for WASH. 

We had been discussing some of the technical, financial, social and business innovations developed and then delivered by EWS across the municipality to increase or enhance service delivery to the un-served. Necessity is clearly a major driver for innovation – but can innovation (of any nature) on its own have the impact we need to provide services to all? During my week with EWS I saw how the potential for developing innovative ideas and approaches can best be harnessed by an organisation that has an enabling and open culture; where an ethos of incremental learning and a willingness to learn by doing goes hand-in-hand with evidence-based strategic decision-making.

Community stand-post, Frasers informal settlement. Tongaat: Phindile Nyawose, EWS.

Since the extension of the municipal boundaries in 1996 to create a Metro and then again to become a ‘Unicity’ in 2001 (EWS, 2012), the current ‘customer’ base of EWS has significantly increased to over 3 million people – with many living in informal settlements and rural areas. Given current water and sanitation coverage and funding levels it would take 29-37 years to provide everyone with an in-house water supply and an estimated 23-28 years to deal with the sanitation backlog (EWS, June 2012). To meet this huge need and to address technological, financial, environmental and practical constraints (Sutherland, 2012) EWS had to act creatively to develop different types of service delivery for different customer segments and to get buy-in from communities, politicians, the media and others for this spatially differentiated approach.

By working through various multi-stakeholder partnerships with the private sector, civil society, academia and donors, EWS has sought to leverage the skills, capacity and knowledge required to rise to the challenge. This proactive multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder approach aims to unearth and meet the ‘right’ incentives for all partners. For the communities, this is primarily about job creation and livelihoods; for the private sector it’s about providing clear and rewarding contracts; for academic partners their research can be ‘tested’ at scale and grounded in reality; for the municipality, public health and environmental protection remain key.

The Head of EWS, Neil Macleod, described to me how progress can best be made through this multi-stakeholder approach as it links together EWS’s strategic operations with informed, evidence-based research, by innovating with new, environmentally sustainable technologies and most importantly, by getting feedback through proactive community engagement (i.e. the human element going hand-in-hand with the managerial and technical). From each operational area of EWS’s approach (the social, technical, environmental, financial) I was able to witness examples of innovation – not only that, I also found an organisation whose culture positively encouraged its staff to learn incrementally and provided the space to try new things. As my engineer contact went on to say, “You can get things wrong… but you only do it once and you learn from mistakes!” This solutions-based approach, articulated by the staff I met from across EWS and their partners, was heart-felt and inspiring.

As with BPD, EWS recognises the importance of “the human element “as this informs and ultimately determines what happens on the ground – both externally in terms of engaging with communities and also internally by fostering an open, learning organisational culture.

See images of EWS's work at:

In an effort to gain knowledge and disseminate successful innovative business models, the MIF, in collaboration with the Innovation and Technology for Development Centre of the Technical University of Madrid (itdUPM),has commissioned a publication in which five innovative solutions involving partnerships at the local level are presented and analyzed. This is the second case study of the series and serving as a learning comparison with another region since it analyzes a water and sanitation service model from South Africa. To produce this case study, the MIF and itdUPM have collaborated with Building Partnerships for Development.

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