Dispensers for Safe Water: A 360-Degree-View of a Sustainable Water Service That Works

Editors Note: This guest post is co-authored by Jonna Davis, Senior Program Manager for Dispensers for Safe Water in Kenya, and Nabil Mansouri, Program Manager in Malawi, both of Evidence Action. Jonna and Nabil describe how the program maintains user adoption rates in Kenya, Uganda, and Malawi. To learn more about Dispensers for Safe Water, read Evidence Action’s post for WASHfunders on the evidence-based origins of the program. Another post describes strategic efforts to diversify the initiative’s financing models.

On the face of it, Dispensers for Safe Water is easy to understand. Dispensers for Safe Water is a fast-growing initiative of Evidence Action that provides access to clean and safe water for close to three million people in Kenya, Uganda, and Malawi. It is slated to grow to 25 million users in the next five years. We do this by installing and maintaining chlorine dispensers directly at the water source where people in rural areas fetch their water.

Customers simply add half a teaspoon of diluted chlorine to the jerry can in which water is typically collected, dosed correctly to safely disinfect the drinking and cooking water. Chlorine, of course, is a very effective additive to water used around the world in sanitation systems that kills 99.9% of harmful bacteria that, in turn, cause diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases such as cholera.

Using the dispenser simply means turning a knob to release a dosed amount of diluted chlorine into the jerry can used for water collection. Credit: Evidence Action

Using the dispenser simply means turning a knob to release a dosed amount of diluted chlorine into the jerry can used for water collection. Credit: Evidence Action

Conveniently, chlorine dispensers are installed directly at the water source — such as a borehole or simply an unprotected spring — and are very easy to use. We see sustained adoption rates between 42% and 80% (such in Malawi where we have just begun an aggressive expansion).

We keep tabs on these adoption rates by regularly sampling cooking and drinking water in people’s homes to determine whether there is actually chlorine present in their water.

But getting people to use the dispensers to make water safe to drink is not achieved by the installation of dispensers alone. As we have seen time and again, a new gadget in and of itself is not enough for behaviour change to occur. We see high and sustained rates of adoption because Dispensers for Safe Water is more than just the dispenser. It’s the underlying foundation of community engagement, delivery, and ongoing maintenance that makes the program effective.

Here is how it works:

Expanding into a new areas involves significant preparation weeks ahead of the actual installation. Dispenser for Safe Water team members meet with community leaders to get their approval for a dispenser as well as to familiarize these key stakeholders with how and why dispensers work. After approval is granted, we work with those leaders to engage users in the ‘barn raising’ of the actual installation of the dispenser.

Dispenser for Safe Water community education meeting in Malawi. Credit: Evidence Action

Dispenser for Safe Water community education meeting in Malawi. Credit: Evidence Action

There are additional community meetings to elect a community ‘promoter’ — typically a respected person in the community — who is charged with maintaining and refilling the dispenser, and who reports any problems. The promoter also educates community members on how chlorine and the dispenser work, and why it’s important to disinfect the water.

The promoter is a very important part of the success of the dispenser in a given community. Adoption rates have been as much as 17 percentage points higher when the promoter’s water tests positive for chlorine than when s/he does not.

Once the promoter is in place and installation and community education meetings have been completed, there is the ongoing maintenance of the dispensers. Dispensers that are empty or in disrepair are not going to be used by our customers over time. We know that the biggest driver of decreased adoption is empty or poorly maintained dispensers, which is why we have developed such a strong “last mile” delivery and maintenance network.

A promoter is trained on how to refill and maintain the dispenser she is responsible for in Malawi. Credit: Evidence Action

A promoter is trained on how to refill and maintain the dispenser she is responsible for in Malawi. Credit: Evidence Action

Evidence Action maintains the dispensers through a network of circuit riders on motorbikes who visit a target number of dispensers daily in their catchment area, deliver a three-month supply of chlorine to the promoter in charge of the dispenser in a given village, and repair anything that needs to be fixed.

Promoters and circuit riders use mobile phone technology for tracking this work–for issuing and resolving maintenance tickets, checking off steps in the supply chain and other tasks.

Tracking dispenser maintenance issues with mobile phones at the water points in Western Kenya. Credit: Evidence Action

Tracking dispenser maintenance issues with mobile phones at the water points in Western Kenya. Credit: Evidence Action

Economies of scale, combined with efforts to optimize the supply chain in the maintenance phase, ensure that the cost for Dispensers for Safe Water at scale is very low: just 50 cents per person per year. This makes Dispenser for Safe Water one of the most cost-effective WASH interventions with sustained high adoption rates on the market. With community engagement, promotion, and ongoing maintenance, users have a reliable product that is consistently used over time.