Gamifying Urban Sanitation Services

By Steve Metcalfe

It’s a real challenge to support the private sector to provide sanitation services to the poorest urban residents.

On the one hand, the private sector will only get involved if services can be profitable; on the other hand, low-income customers with very little disposable income will only pay if a service is extremely low-cost. And shouldn’t the public sector be involved, too?

Amid poor regulation in the sector, unlicensed operators with questionable business practices dominate– making it hard for formalised, licenced operators to compete. And of course, if operators don’t deliver safe services, any public health benefits will be minimal.

It was the interplay between these different variables that inspired us to create a game that models how the private sector plays a role in urban sanitation service delivery.

The game – The Bottom Line – challenges players to imagine themselves as an entrepreneur who is seeking to expand into faecal waste collection in a fictional African city. Play the game now: www.wsup.com/the-bottom-line

Clearly, faecal waste collection is quite a specific topic for a game to explore – but our intention is to bring to life the challenges and day-to-day decision that a small business owner must overcome if they are to successfully develop an urban sanitation service.

WSUP’s position on the role of the private sector

To be clear: successfully engaging the private sector in this area of work is tough; but it’s WSUP’s view that in many cities, services simply can’t improve without them.

The public sector does not have the capacity to deal with the huge sanitation needs in a rapidly growing city; and innovation from SMEs, if supported in the right way by the public sector, can be highly effective.

Last year, I met with the owners of two SMEs that WSUP is working with to develop improved sanitation services.

From a small office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Kamrul Islam runs Gulshan Clean & Care, a cleaning company which also offers septic tank emptying services throughout the city. His partnership with the city utility Dhaka WASA, facilitated by Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor under our SWEEP brand, is helping thousands of low-income residents benefit from safe and affordable sanitation services.

In the city of Kisumu, Kenya, Dickens Ochieng is the owner of a company called Gasia Poa and has spent the last 12 months expanding from solid waste management into pit-emptying services, thanks to WSUP-supported collaboration with the city utility KIWASCO and the Kisumu County government.

WSUP’s experiences with these two private sector-led services, as well as others that WSUP has supported, formed the basis of the development of The Bottom Line.

A complex chain

We conceived the game as a way of showing the connections between different dynamics: cities are complex places where citizens, and businesses, are subject to much that is out of our control.

What happens, for example, when a cholera outbreak happens in a low-income community where a sanitation business is working? As a sanitation business goes through its lifecycle, when and how should it engage with the public sector?

Sometimes, an entrepreneur might make decisions that have contrary consequences: limiting the ability of the business to improve public health but increasing its cashflow. The game helps to bring this nuance to life.

The Bottom Line takes players through four stages of running a business – starting up, building a customer base, maintaining a viable business and scaling up.

Along the way, random events will help or hinder your progress. The random events will significantly impact your chances of success – you can do everything right, but if you get hit by a cholera outbreak, and then have your equipment stolen, the business will struggle. We think this is fairly close to the reality of services that are operating so close to break-even, where there really is little margin for error. On the flipside of course, get lucky with celebrity endorsement and a pro-sanitation Mayor, and you’ll be flying.

Gamification is a fun way of bringing to life complex issues in urban WASH. But there are limitations.

We spent a long time debating the scoring for different answers, aware that other practitioners might question the way in which certain answers affect the three variables of government support, health and cashflow.

It’s a simple game, and we admit it doesn’t reflect all the nuances of life as a private sector operator (thanks to the WASH specialist who pointed out that leasing a vacuum tanker, having it stolen and then being forced to buy a new vehicle is a bit harsh: wouldn’t the city authorities have insured the asset?)

But notwithstanding these caveats, we hope it gives people some insights into involving the private sector in urban service delivery.

And if you’d like to know more, then we encourage you to watch two videos we have produced on public-private collaboration in Bangladesh and Kenya, and to read our report: A guide to strengthening the enabling environment for faecal sludge management.

Note – we are very open to people using the game in different ways, particularly for educational purposes. If you would like to use the game in an educational setting, then please do let us know by emailing us at smetcalfe@wsup.com

Steve Metcalfe is Head of Communications, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP)