Thursday, 13 December 2012

11th Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP) Meeting: Learning from Failure in Sanitation

by Aliki Zeri for BPD Water and Sanitation 

The main river crossing in Kibera slum, Nairobi
Credit: BPD Water and Sanitation
What do we mean when we talk about ‘failure’? How can NGOs in the development sector and in particular in the field of sanitation, use ‘failure’ as a learning mechanism? Is it prudent to ‘market’ ‘failure’ and if so is there a right way of doing it? 

These were just a few of the questions the 11th SanCop, which was held on the 14th of November 2012 at WEDC (Loughborough University), strived to answer. ‘Strive’ appears undoubtedly to be the right word, since after considerable debate a number of issues still remained unanswered. And although this may be perceived by some as a ‘failure’, for me it represents a clear indication of the meeting’s success. Bringing together more that 40 academics, engineers, NGO representatives and sanitation experts the meeting provided a ‘safe space’ where ‘failure’ was recognised and embraced as part of the development-aid organisations’ learning curve. 

Is there a difference between ‘lessons learnt’ and ‘admitting failure’?
‘Failure’, ‘lessons learnt’, ‘learning opportunities’ and ‘learning return’ were used interchangeably by participants throughout the debate; illustrating the difficulty of defining the precise context and the ambit of this concept. Is in fact the term ‘lessons learnt’ radically different from the term ‘admitting failure’? Participants appeared to think so. The former was perceived as indicating a backward-looking process, a mechanism of revisiting a project/programme and assessing what went wrong. On the contrary, an ‘admission of failure’ is associated with a process of learning which is embedded within the project’s/programme’s structure, allowing implementers to constantly re-assess the project/programme and adapt it to changing and often unforeseen circumstances. 

Reassessing perceptions of failure
Within this context participants were implicitly prompted to reassess their perceptions of ‘failure’. The commonly shared understanding that, a failed project or programme means that potential beneficiaries are no worse off than they were before the intervention took place, was accordingly challenged. The need to “reframe the public image of development”  (traditionally perceived as something that is inherently benign and could therefore have no negative effect) was commonly agreed.  

Incentives and disincentives of recognising failure 
Having recognised the malleability of ‘failure’ as a concept, participants shifted their attention to the incentives and disincentives of recognising ‘failures’ - the fear of displeasing donors and the associated ‘competition for a piece of the donor pie’  appeared to be the main concerns. Could EWB Canada’s ‘safe spaces’ counteract these disincentives? And more generally could they provoke a fundamental change in the ‘donor culture’, one that would result in donors not only actively promoting an honest reflection of what is not working, but also rewarding NGOs that are openly admitting their failures? 

The dilemma of marketing failure in WASH
Building a ‘safe space’ across the development sector (the WASH sector included) is unarguably challenging; expanding this ‘space’ outside this limit is expected to be even more difficult. ‘Marketing failure in WASH’ was the title BPD Water and Sanitation chose for its discussion group. Is it indeed advisable or even prudent for NGOs to ‘market’ (i.e. communicate) their ‘failures’ to the public? Could Bellemare’s cynical argument that: “admitting failure is the not-for-profit world equivalent of corporate social responsibility in the for-profit world”  be the answer to this question? As Terence  argues: “if you’re the first NGO trying to do it you’ll find yourself at the sharp end of a ‘first penguin to leap off the ice sheet’ type collective action dilemma (i.e. it’s the first penguin that has the highest chance of getting chomped by the sea lions). Who’s going to keep giving money to the one NGO that’s forever feeding journalists with stories of what it did wrong?”  Even though there is some truth in this argument, it is equally true that:  “the more people who are honest about how challenging the work is and how rife it is with failures - not because of incompetence but because we are courageously taking on some of the most complex and dynamic problems- the more the public will see the admission of failure as a sign of transparency, humility and learning/innovation cultures and not as a sign of weakness.” 

An encouraging first step in the ‘development-aid failure’ debate 
Acknowledging the novelty of the issue and the breadth of arguments that could be raised within each of the aforementioned themes is unarguably the first step in engaging the sanitation sector with the ‘development-aid failure’ debate. Taking this first step within the context of the 11th SanCop, was for me a particularly challenging, yet fulfilling experience. The high-level of discourse, the enthusiasm and commitment of all participants, not only during the formal sessions but also during the breaks and the group-discussions was indeed admirable. In this sense, the participants’ promise to revisit the issue in the future SanCops was particularly encouraging. 

For examples of 'failure' in sanitation and also water projects, see this ongoing blog from Improve International.

Read more about Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP)

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

BPD Board Members' Blog Series: Part 2

Welcome to the second of a series of guest posts by BPD’s Board members. Please share this with others and feel free to make comments through the site or by emailing us.

How to couple ‘innovation’ with the realpolitik of local level implementation?   

by Darren Saywell, BPD Board Member and WASH/CLTS Technical Director at PLAN International USA

Do all development sectors suffer from the constant search for the (Holy) Grail, the ‘silver bullet’ that will bring transformational change to everyday implementation? I suspect so; it being part of human nature to challenge expectations and question norms.

Currently, the Grail for the WASH sector is how to achieve ‘scale’ (scaling-up, or if this is anathema to your instincts, operating at scale) and accelerated change. At times it seems we are awash with examples from other sectors achieving huge leaps and bounds in coverage by thinking and doing differently. Consider the often quoted examples of mobile telephony in Africa as a metaphor for innovation or large scale conditional cash transfers in the health sector to alter the incentives for large scale behavior change.

In the bewildering array of new information being released in the sector (I blame Twitter and, ahem, bloggers), I observe a trend towards what I would call ‘disruptive influence’; the clarion call of individuals and organizations who argue for bold, radical, fearless, revolutionary scale thinking as a way to deliver change in the sector.

The basic idea is that we need to ‘disrupt’ normal thinking to shake ourselves out of a collective WASH stupor. These calls are typically accompanied by excellent marketing, attractive imagery and articulate and charismatic spokespeople that seduce us easily. Perhaps this is the modern day equivalent of paradigm shifts compressed into a 30 second Youtube video, a mobile phone app or brightly colored infographic.

I doubt that it will do my career any good to be cast as a naysayer to bright and bold ideas, and this blog is not advocating for conventional approaches and a return to almost glacial-length timelines for the achievement of international development goals. Like everyone, I passionately want WASH programs and outcomes to be more widespread, accessible to all and sustainable for everyone. And I want it now.

My main point is how do we best couple advocates of disruptive influence with the realpolitik of local level implementation? This trend needs to acknowledge the challenges. Local champions already struggle to translate policy level rhetoric into action and maintain it over time. They fight to adopt new standards and norms in regulation that allow engineers to innovate with technology that serves the vulnerable and marginalized better. We need to understand that the sector is woefully understaffed and that the supply side of bringing new capacity into WASH is one that simply takes time to achieve.

There is inter-dependence and synergy here that the WASH sector must grasp. Disruptive influence without continued analysis/diagnostics is an empty and futile exercise, one which will ultimately be prone to failure and disappointment.

My best answer to this may appear blindingly obvious, but this doesn’t make it any less relevant – disruptive influencers are key in building our upstream constituency in the High Level Meetings and High Level Panels of the day. We will continue to need their sharpness and savoir-faire in turning heads and keeping resources focused on our sector. At the same time, we need the continued analytics and diagnostics for the sector – BPD’s constant and comprehensive learning is a great example – that informs us of tried and tested approaches, signals promising paths ahead and warns us of pitfalls on the road.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

BPD Board Members' Blog Series: Part 1

Welcome to the first of a series of guest posts by BPD’s Board members, which we hope you will enjoy over the coming year. Please share this with others who may be interested and feel free to make comments through the site or by email to info[at]

Conflict and collaboration - water resources in Angola’s post-war cities

by Allan Cain, Director, Development Workshop (an Angolan NGO)

After more than four decades of war, Angola has been in the recovery phase since 2002. The war resulted in mass displacement of people, destruction of infrastructure, and diversion of investments away from maintenance and infrastructure development, which have produced chronic public health problems. In addition, social exclusion, inequality and poverty - problems that originally seeded the conflict - are still rife in the post-war era.

Access to water through informal vendors

Informal water provider in Angola
Informal water provider in Angola
Credit: Tim Hetherington
Access to water reflects the biased distribution pattern of other resources in Angola. The majority of low-income, urban communities still have no permanent access to affordable potable water and are mainly served by informal water vendors. In  Development Workshop's more than thirty years' experience of implementing practical projects in Angola, it has gathered a lot of knowledge on the functioning of this informal water economy that continues to provide the bulk of water services to the population of Luanda, the country’s capital. DW estimates that the annual value of the informal water economy has grown from about US$60 million during the war to almost US$250 million in 2012. 

Turning community conflict over water into collaboration

In this environment of uneven and inequitable access to scarce urban water resources, conflict born out of competition for access to water is inevitable. However, poor communities in Luanda have found collective solutions and built on neighbourhood cooperation and social solidarity to improve their access. These experiences demonstrate the important role that community water management can play in promoting a more equitable distribution of water resources at affordable prices in the poor peri-urban musseque settlements of the city.

Relationships as a ‘currency’ for water

In such an environment, neighbourhood water access and prices are not determined solely by commercial factors - social relationships and community solidarity play an important role. For example, householders who possess a water tank are in a position to choose not only the price but also the neighbours to whom they wish to sell. The price of water often varies, depending on the relationship between the owner of the tank and the buyer, often being lower for people with whom they have built a relationship or mutual solidarity (Lindblom, 2010).

However, home water tank owners do not always have sufficient capital on hand to buy a truckload of water every time their tank becomes empty. Until they can accumulate such a lump sum, they may themselves become consumers of water from other tank owners in the neighbourhood. Social networks evolve locally among neighbours, who may be both buyers and sellers at different times. It thus becomes essential for each water consumer in a poor, unserviced musseque to maintain amicable social relationships with a range of water suppliers within walking distance of their homes.

The above post is an abstract from a chapter of a forthcoming book by Allan Cain. Please email BPD at info[at] for further details. 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

BPD/ SEI Sanitation Entrepreneurs Series: Part 3

Is the pendulum swinging back? Will centralised sewerage systems soon be eclipsed by decentralised waste treatment?

by David Schaub-Jones

In November 2011, Jefferson County, Alabama made world news by filing for the largest ever American municipal bankruptcy.  Bad housing loans?  Pension liabilities too great?  No, it was the huge cost of investing in new sewers that tipped them over the edge. 

Around the same time, a thousand miles to the North, the municipalities on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, were holding public meetings to discuss options for dealing with their own waste burden.  Nitrates from the tens of thousands of on-site facilities are leaking into the groundwater, posing pollution concerns - decentralised treatment seems to them to offer a robust and perhaps cheaper alternative to investing in a centralised system.

In a hundred years time, American historians looking back may see these two events as signalling the moment the pendulum started to swing back – i.e. the point at which the dominance of sewage systems (that rely on treated water to flush waste into our rivers, streams and oceans) started to erode.

History has certainly had its impact on sanitation.  A hundred and fifty years ago those living in Minneapolis, USA, hired ‘scavengers’ to periodically clean out and remove the contents of their privy vaults.  Night soil got its name as it was removed at night; indeed city ordinances across the USA required latrines to be emptied solely at night.  Minneapolis’ first sanitation ordinances sought to control the process of night soil removal and disposal, and the means and hours of transportation, by requiring all the scavengers to be licensed.  Amendments to this licensing process continued up until the mid-1930s.

By then however, massive investment had been made into centralised treatment works to channel and treat sewage.  Public sanitary reforms in the United States took their lead from the sanitation revolution that had spread from Britain – from where a drive for urban drainage and centralised sewerage had spread to most of the developed world.  Huge public investment was poured into centralised sewerage and the business of emptying latrines and transporting the waste to the fields was relegated to a backseat (except in China where waste was valued as manure). 

The new sewage networks not only required public investment to build, but required significant technical skills and finance to operate – the diverse pattern of ‘small business’ that had previously dominated sanitation was swept aside, replaced by public ownership of a public service, paid for by municipal taxation.

In developing countries, where still now only 2 in 5 people have access to sewers, ‘on-site sanitation’ as it is known, remained a common practise.  Whilst towns remained small and urban agriculture commonplace, the reuse of the waste as fertiliser was widespread.  Over time though, towns grew into cities and fields separated from housing.  Industrially produced fertiliser became cheaper and more available.  As a consequence, the practicality and attractiveness of using latrine waste on fields correspondingly reduced.  But as recent events on the East coast of the United States show, perhaps the pendulum is shifting back.

‘On-site sanitation’ and other alternatives to large centralised sewage networks are starting to be taken more seriously.  The existence and potential of small, medium and large businesses working in sanitation are also increasingly recognised.  It is true that an increasingly urbanised world faces a growing sanitation challenge.  But taken together, these two trends are helping shed more light on what options there are to dealing with this challenge – not just in developing countries but also in the developed ones.

There are several contributing factors to this shift, including:

  1. Water scarcity. As economic growth continues and human population, industry and agriculture all grow, water availability decreases. In arid countries such as South Africa this is reaching crisis point – in South Africa fully 98% of available water has already being allocated to different users. In such contexts the wisdom of using water (and not only that, but treated water piped to the home) to flush toilets is starting to be questioned. 
  2. The large costs of sewerage. Sewage networks are not cheap. Nor are waste water treatment plants. These costs have succeeded in tipping more than one developed country municipality into bankruptcy. In 1850’s Britain, the cost of providing sewerage was thought to be a necessary investment in the face of worsening epidemics in its rapidly urbanising cities. We know more now about the spread and control of disease and we’ve also explored other ways of treating and re-using waste (as anyone who has ever seen the Space Shuttle will tell you).
  3. Climate events and resilience. As climate change becomes a reality we are becoming more aware of the need for our urban systems to be resilient in the face of stronger and more frequent climate ‘events’. As the flooding of New Orleans made us painfully aware. Sewerage networks are complex systems, with pipes and other infrastructure buried underground. They are thus especially vulnerable in the face of such events. Growing calls for resilience are pushing urban researchers in the North to rethink how they handle municipal services. As a consequence, interest in decentralised waste treatment and ‘resilient systems’ is growing.
  4. Environmental impacts. The flushing of household waste into our river systems and into the sea is being increasingly questioned. With less water in the rivers and more waste being generated, the carrying capacity of the environment to deal with and process our waste is being further strained. Greater environmental awareness is bringing with it wider appreciation of issues such as ‘dead zones’ in coastal areas (particularly where untreated waste is discharged through sea outfalls). 
  5. Rising fertiliser prices. Phosphorus is a finite resource and the concept of ‘peak phosphorus’ - akin to that of peak oil - is gaining adherents. A lot of phosphorus is carried in human waste; environmentalists and others would rather this was viewed as a valuable resource than as a noxious waste. For African farmers in particular there should be a solid business case – rather than transporting in expensive chemical fertiliser from afar they can turn to local sources of fertiliser ‘production’.
  6. The green economy. The notion of a green economy – where businesses and others contribute to growth and service delivery in an environmentally friendly way – is gaining ground. The idea is that businesses can “do well by doing good” and thus help to safeguard the planet for future generations.

How a pendulum swing could benefit slum sanitation

Are we really starting to see a significant move away from centralised sewerage systems that rely on water to carry our waste away?  Is the pendulum really swinging back?

Perhaps yes, perhaps no - no doubt any shift will take a long time.  But the ramifications for developing countries could be huge.  In Africa at least, very few countries have succeeded in putting in place sewerage networks of any great scale.  Many inherited their networks at independence and these have not always been well maintained (never mind kept pace with rapid urbanisation).  Yet attention to other forms of waste management has been minimal; mostly those ‘without’ have been left to fend for themselves.  Research and development into alternatives has been minimal and when it comes to technical choices, engineering approaches and norms and standards, professionals in the sector have generally taken their lead from developed countries.

If developed countries, for a range of reasons, start to take decentralised waste management more seriously, then we could see an important paradigm shift.  Suddenly decentralised sanitation could be an issue for new towns in the developed world and not just the preserve of slums in the South.  This would attract not only money and capacity into innovation and design, but would also alter the status of on-site sanitation more broadly.  The water and sanitation sector itself could start to take on-site sanitation more seriously and local governments become more likely to invest and support it.  Standardisation should see costs come down and processes become more sophisticated and robust.   Financing should become more commonplace and easier to secure, and business models more apparent.

A vision of the future?  Maybe.  But one thing is for sure - Jefferson County - and the investors underwriting its $4.2 USD billion debt - surely wish there had been alternatives to the sewerage investment that drove it bankrupt!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

BPD & SEI Sanitation Entrepreneurs Series: Part 2

When is it appropriate to expect business plans? The conundrum of the missing middle

by David Schaub-Jones for BPD and SEI

I just came back from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where an interesting experiment is going on around sanitation entrepreneurs. WaterAid are working both in Dar and in three rural districts of Tanzania to support small providers of sanitation goods and services. I say experiment partly because WaterAid are being open-minded about testing different models and approaches. But partly also because others (both in Tanzania and some of the neighbouring countries) are supporting sanitation with approaches that contrast somewhat with those of WaterAid. Hopefully, over time, some useful comparisons will be possible.

Figure 1: UMAWA - a pit emptying business
gets to work in Dar es Salaam ©Schaub-Jones 

One of the questions being asked of those providers that WaterAid supports is whether they have business plans. Yet when you meet some of these providers you wonder whether having a business plan is really going to bring any significant changes to the way they go about their business.

WaterAid has chosen largely to work with small groups that have roots in the communities that they serve. Some are fully-fledged CBOs (Community Based Organisations), some are entrepreneurial community groups with a private sector slant. You get the impression in talking with them that they know their own communities well and that this local knowledge both shapes and supports their work.

Analysis of their income statements suggests they are doing well. So well that many are asking why they don’t invest in more equipment and expand their business? While we cannot know for sure, it seems the answer has as much to do with their level of comfort and ambition as it does with the financial constraints (or otherwise) of expanding. If the saying is ‘think global, act local’ then these organisations are really taking the ‘act local’ bit to heart. For whatever reason they’re not about to scale up their business dramatically just because outsiders feel the need (and suggest that they’re making enough money to be able to do it).

This situation, one of many small-scale and scattered providers, seems to typify sanitation in many contexts around the world. Working with these providers (e.g. equipping them with accounting skills, introducing new technologies...) may help improve sanitation on a very local level. But if the sector is to 'go to scale’, then it is either going to need these small providers to scale up or something else needs to happen.

Two other scenarios seem feasible: 1) replacing the ‘small guys’ (where they exist) with larger operators; or 2) bringing in new intermediary organisations to ‘sit in the middle’ in some sort of pyramid where one larger operator oversees, manages, supports (and maybe regulates) a group of smaller ones.

For now this middle ground seems largely to be occupied by NGOs, particularly international ones. This seems, to me at least, both inappropriate and limiting – in that INGOs are never going to be able to support sanitation within countries at the scale required. Nor are they best placed to respond to local demands. Indeed they themselves find it hard to scale up even when they do happen upon a successful approach.

Recognising this, there are examples of others looking to fill this middle ground in different ways. In South Africa, the Water Research Commission (WRC) has supported a pilot programme of ‘sanitation franchising’. Here a larger organisation (Impilo Yabantu) with skills, business approaches, access to capital and technology supports smaller groups (mostly women) who go out and clean and empty school toilets on contract to the South African Department of Education.

In Ouagadougou, SEI has been involved in a project that supports the municipality, which in turn supports associations to play this role. The municipality has divided the city into four zones and an association exists in each that supports small providers with the emptying, treatment and selling of urine and faeces from around 600 toilets. 

WASTE is busy looking into the potential of a Sanitation Operators' Partnership (SOP), which will put in place and 'cross-fertilise', i.e. share learning among mid-size organisations that take on this intermediary role. They had started out hoping that city governments could do this but did not meet with great success, so are increasingly looking to the private sector. This is very much the route that Water for People has taken in Uganda – where they have gone through an elaborate screening process to find ‘new’ entrepreneurs that are keen to enter into the sanitation sector (often building on successful businesses in other sectors to do so).

Back to the opening question then: when is it appropriate to expect a business plan? Gut feeling - and some experience - suggests that asking business plans of very small organisations, particularly those with a community orientation, may be an exercise in frustration. For perhaps it is not the plan that is needed so much as a ‘business vision’ – significant impacts will best be achieved by groups who know where they want to go and who want to do it at some scale (and who plan and budget accordingly).

Figure 2: A lack of a business plan is not always
the most immediate challenge! © Schaub-Jones 

As organisations get larger and more sophisticated, business plans are more to be expected. But even here a note of caution is warranted – many successful businesses don’t have anything resembling a business plan – they ‘follow their nose’ and have great success in doing so.

Figure 3: A waste transfer station in Dar -
but localised treatment would be better © Schaub-Jones 

When it comes to sanitation, whilst a business plan may be useful, a “getting government buy-in plan” may be even better. What constrains sanitation entrepreneurs in many settings is not access to capital, nor finding the right technology, but getting governments to provide the support needed. For pit emptying businesses in Dar es Salaam that means the Government accepting and supporting waste transfer stations or decentralised waste treatment. In rural Tanzania it means acting as an enabler and supporter of sanitation businesses and not as a gatekeeper.

Now there’s a strange thought - perhaps it is governments who need a business plan more than the actual businesses themselves?!

Monday, 19 March 2012

BPD & SEI Sanitation Entrepreneurs Series: Part 1

The weakest link – thinking about urban sanitation chains

The thing about chains is that when one link breaks, the whole chain falls apart.  So when we talk about urban sanitation as a ‘chain’, it is worth bearing this in mind.
The typical chain as sanitation folk lay it out comprises ‘collection, removal, transport, treatment and re-use’.  To lay people this means building a toilet and using it, getting the waste out when it is full, taking that waste somewhere else, treating it to remove the pathogens and – maybe - reusing it as some form of compost so that the nutrients don’t go to waste.  

When I set out to write this blog I thought it would be obvious which link was the weakest ...

It had to be the pit emptying and transport.  For when that does not happen well the waste from a full toilet usually is emptied close to the house (and while the smell is bad the health impact is longer lasting and more devastating).  And there are certainly many times and places that pit emptying and transport does not ‘happen well’.  In which case the chain breaks high up and the rest of it lies unused and rusting.
Figure 1: Unhygienic emptying © S. Bongi
Figure 2: A hygienic emptying team in action - helmets not required © Schaub-Jones

...but on reflection maybe emptying and transport are not the weakest links at all; maybe the treatment and re-use links are weaker still?

For while many people are willing to pay to have their full toilet emptied (and some are even willing to pay the extra that usually takes to get this done hygienically), few are willing to pay the costs of treating this waste and preparing it for any re-use.  Thus the cost of treatment falls to the public sector. Too often, in too many places, this cost is not being met.  So even where waste does get removed from full toilets or septic tanks and is transported – it gets transported to a treatment facility that does not work as it should.  In which case what has been achieved is to transform a lot of diverse ‘point sources’ of pollution into one or two large ones (downstream of malfunctioning or defunct treatment plants). 
Figure 3: Yes they are dumping into the sewer, but does the treatment plant work?! © L. Tyers
Because the other thing about chains is that if you pull one end the other usually follows…

It is not a new idea, but what if we could pay for waste to be collected and delivered to one particular point? 

The money from this would have to either come from the value of the waste itself (as a resource and source of nutrients or calories for burning) – or from the public sector (as a recognition of the health and environmental impacts of not collecting and treating it).
By setting some transparent rules and regulations about what gets paid for where, we could then leave it to others (the private sector, sure, but also NGOs, CBOs and others) to decide how best to get that waste from where it is created (household, public and institutional toilets) to where it is treated (one or many treatment stations).  Perhaps collection, emptying and transport is the way to do this – perhaps a network of underground pipes is – it probably depends much on local context.  Maybe we’d be better off with lots of small decentralised treatment stations and not a few large ones?
Figure 4: Turning waste into a resource in Durban © EMWS
The sector may or may not be moving in this direction – but thinking about things in this way does help us understand where the chain is currently working well and where it is not.  What aspects of it can truly be considered a market and which are far from it.
In other words, if we were to strengthen the final two links in the chain, would the rest of the chain follow suit?

BPD & SEI Sanitation Entrepreneurs Series: Introduction

Interest in market-based approaches to solving development challenges continues to grow. Yet while smaller, local entrepreneurs are fairly commonplace, workable modus operandi for engaging them in sanitation up-scaling and service improvement are still being sought.   Recent work by BPD, SEI, WASTE and others has shown that numerous diverse entrepreneurs offer a range of sanitation services to communities, often with only limited oversight or support from public bodies, NGOs and others.  

  • Can efforts to spread market-based approaches to sustainable, socially acceptable and economically viable sanitation services in developing countries be scaled-up? 
  • What can be learned about the important brokering role that must take place if sanitation entrepreneurship is to ever really take off? 
  • Can the sanitation ‘business’ model develop more predictability, simplicity and rigour (especially in the eyes of bankers and small business consultants)?

This series of BPD and SEI blog posts, prepared by David Schaub-Jones, reflects on these questions currently facing the sector.  Over the coming month, a thought-provoking blog will be published weekly culminating in an overview paper on where we are now and where the sector is going in relation to this important topic.  

Join us in this conversation; we welcome your comments and feedback!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Social Entrepreneurs (contd.) – It’s Not All about Start-Up

by Ken Caplan

In our last post, we considered the meaning of the term ‘social entrepreneur’ and a few questions arose: The first was: Do social enterprises more aptly describe those who provide a service rather than a product? (Those that provide a product are inventors, aren’t they?) If it applies more to those who provide a service, the key is how the initiative or enterprise (though not necessarily the entrepreneur him or herself) relates to an ongoing customer base. The presumption is that, while ‘normal’ entrepreneurs seek a gap in the market and aim to fill it purely to generate profit, social entrepreneurs start with a social problem and then try to find a (business) solution to it, still requiring a financial return to make the venture viable. Presumably this suggests that social entrepreneurs are constantly moving – seeing problems, starting up initiatives and then passing them on or embedding them in the system? 

With this in mind, the question of how to support or foster social entrepreneurs comes up time and again. Initial support structures can help think through the business model, or provide credit lines, subsidised supply chains, free advertising, etc. After a while though, do these end up distorting the initiative by incentivising the entrepreneur to stay involved for too long? Or are they necessary to ensure take-off and consolidate markets that are often already distorted by price disparities, unfair competition, unsupportive public policy or environments that are not enabling?  

In contrast to normal entrepreneurs, if the key to social entrepreneurial efforts is to solve social problems, presumably the goal is to embed and encourage competition or copycats, moving from an initiative or pilot to a movement or an institutionalised change? Practically speaking though, once something is working and making money, doesn’t it become difficult for these individuals to walk away? Wouldn’t they rather seek to protect their (financial and other) investments? External supporters are busy thinking through how the original initiative should look and how it can be encouraged. Does time also need to be devoted to thinking not about how to protect these initial start-ups, but how to ensure that “first followers” or copycats also have at least some sense of social value in mind?  

Finally, of course one needn’t be “socially” minded to be an entrepreneur. However, to make progress on social issues, perhaps one must be entrepreneurial, given reduced public attention spans and struggling public sector finances. (As a Governor in my child’s primary school, I am even seeing this approach permeating through Government guidance on how schools are run, for example in suggesting the school can increase its budget by offering services to the community or other schools.) Whether this again distorts social agendas and the predictability required of ‘social’ services requires further discussion. Stay tuned…