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“Agents for change” for better water and sanitation in Africa and Asia

On a global scale, 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and more than half of the global population does not have access to safely managed sanitation services. Unsafe water and sanitation conditions pose hazards to health and well-being and hamper educational, economic development and gender equality opportunities. Money is not the only resource needed to address these challenges. Human capital, new skills and strengthening capacity in the institutions and organizations that provide the services are critical.

Published on 28 November 2022

The original article was written by Sarah Overby Ridha, NIRAS, and adapted for the SEI website by Daniel Ddiba.


Daniel Ddiba
Daniel Ddiba

Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Nelson Ekane
Nelson Ekane

Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

For the past six years, NIRAS has run Sustainable Urban Water and Sanitation (SUWAS), a Sida-funded water and sanitation training intervention, in Africa and Asia that has led to remarkable changes. At the end of March and the beginning of April 2022, symposia were held in Rwanda, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda to mark the successful closure of SUWAS. Similar events are planned in Asia, bringing together alumni from participating countries, as well as representatives from relevant sector institutions, ministries and the Swedish embassies to share outcomes and discuss synergies and future opportunities.

Participants at the SUWAS closing event in Kenya. Photo: Daniel Ddiba

Participants at the SUWAS closing event in Kenya. Photo: Sarah Overby Ridha/Niras.

SEI has been partnering with NIRAS, WaterAid and several other organizations in facilitating this training program. SEI researchers run a number of seminars for the SUWAS participants during the phase of the training held in Sweden (for both the Africa and Asia programs), and in addition two SEI researchers served as mentors for participants from Kenya (i.e. Daniel Ddiba) and Rwanda (i.e. Nelson Ekane) during the development of capstone projects in the program. Below are key highlights from the symposia.

The ITP programmes that Sida has provided, together with our partners all over the world such as NIRAS and WaterAid, have proved that not only within a country, but between countries, they have increased awareness and financial resources for one of the most basic human rights – access to water and sanitation. It has also raised awareness among politicians, who are usually not directly involved in these issues.

Annika Otterstedt Counsellor, Head of Section for Kenya Development Cooperation, Embassy of Sweden

500: people have participated in the SUWAS intervention

10: number of countries involved (five in Africa, five in Asia)

17: programmes completed since 2016

Several participants from: water utility companies, local governments, NGOs and academic institutions and private sector actors – represented

Calling all ‘agents for change’ for participation in training programme

For SUWAS to be effective, the right kind of people had to participate in the programme – those with the mandate to effect change within their sphere of influence and the vision and drive to make it happen. To identify such individuals, when the programme launched in 2016, the project team reached out to key stakeholders, namely utility companies, local and regional governments, ministries, regulatory agencies, NGOs and universities, after which the institutions nominated relevant candidates for participation. Since that inaugural effort six years ago, SUWAS has completed 17 programmes, each running for approximately 15 months. This model has led to the successful participation of 500 stakeholders from various institutions across Asia and Africa. As the geographical focus has remained on certain cities and urban areas, certain institutions had multiple participants over time, which has enabled a concerted and long-running approach to several change projects.

In my opinion, SUWAS is not like other training programmes. It comes with a big budget for driving change, but builds upon participant and institutional engagement and its own change projects. Supported with tools and skills for problem analysis and change management, they would identify the kind of change that was needed in their organisation and city and then map out how to make progress. Discussing as a team, they define the problem and then plan from there how to create buy-in and identify which stakeholders should be engaged. Ownership has been key to making it work.

Jenny Fredby, NIRAS programme director for the Africa programmes.

Annabell Waititu, who worked as national facilitator for the Kenyan participants, agrees with the importance of participant and organizational engagement.

“The good thing about SUWAS is that it focuses on helping participants to change their approach to WASH interventions and also helps them look at what can be changed in their organization, that way making their organisations more effective in the delivery of services to the people in their communities”, she said.

Lisa Andersson, Florence Gatome, NIRAS Africa country director, Annika Otterstedt, Counsellor, Head of Section for Kenya Development Cooperation, Embassy of Sweden, Jenny Fredby, NIRAS programme director for the Africa programmes, and alumni Rono Obadiah, Narok County Government.

From left: Lisa Andersson (Senior Programme Manager, Environment and Climate Change, Embassy of Sweden, Kenya), Florence Gatome (NIRAS Africa country director), Annika Otterstedt (Counsellor, Head of Section for Kenya Development Cooperation, Embassy of Sweden), Jenny Fredby (NIRAS programme director for the Africa programmes) and alumni Rono Obadiah (Narok County Government). Photo: Sarah Overby Ridha/Niras

Problem-driven approach and collaboration enables strong impact

Interaction between stakeholders from the same cities and towns has been essential, as teams with participants from the same cities but different institutions have worked together often without knowing each other beforehand.

“We brought them together to solve a joint problem,” said Fredby. “We offered mentorship via the country mentors and national facilitators, both individual and team support, and provided training on both technical components, but also on managing change, how to involve stakeholders, how to communicate about change, how to define a problem and so on.”

“We brought in Swedish stakeholders from several institutions including water utilities. We then identified important issues of joint interest and looked into the issue of a changing climate, how to manage increasing amounts of rainwater and how to plan for it to avoid flooding, etc. Swedish utilities are good at this and they showed how they handle these issues and there was sharing of experiences and knowledge between the professionals from different countries”, said Fredby.

Participants were also exposed to water and sanitation practices in Nordic countries with scheduled training sessions in Sweden and in their own countries as well as online during the Covid pandemic.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Many of the change projects the SUWAS participants launched aimed to tackle concrete challenges identified during the programme. Waitutu mentioned how some projects in Nakuru, Kenya looked into how to provide access to sanitation facilities free of charge for homeless people and poor families, which the county government has now picked up, as reflected in policy changes, that also significantly reduces open defecation. Another challenge many change projects tried to address was inadequate access to safe water services. One of the water utilities scaled up the change project of its SUWAS participants and began serving poor people in informal settlements with individual household connections with an adjusted approach. The water utility was supported by an NGO while also working closely with the county government.

“It’s a win-win situation, which is also what the water utility discovered: once you give people water, they are happy and they will pay for it, although you may need to adjust how it is paid for, maybe in smaller instalments rather than big lump sums,” explained Waitutu. The SUWAS programme has really brought a lot of changes in practice, but also in the way people think and this is why it is actually making a difference.

I think the SUWAS programme is a very good example of how we can make progress to reach the SDG targets for water and sanitation globally – through collaboration, team work and bringing different stakeholders together where each can contribute within their mandate.

Daniel Ddiba, SEI Research Associate and mentor for Kenya participants

SEI Research Associate Daniel Ddiba facilitated specific sessions while participants were in Sweden and also worked as a mentor for the Kenyan participants. “One of the things that has been most inspiring to me in this programme is the fact that it has brought together different stakeholders – of course in each of the cities where SUWAS has been implemented, but also seeing the bridging between the different countries involved in the programme. Delivering progress towards SDG 6 – Sustainable Water and Sanitation – is not something that can be done by one individual alone, or by one organisation alone. It requires collaboration from the public sector, private sector, civil society actors, research institutions, and we have seen all these actors represented in the participating teams,” he said.

SEI Research Associate Daniel Ddiba, leading a session at the SUWAS symposium in Kenya.

SEI Research Associate Daniel Ddiba, leading a session at the SUWAS symposium in Kenya. Photo: Sarah Overby Ridha/Niras.

Although SUWAS is ending after six years of operation, the SUWAS legacy lives on in the change agents it has gathered and trained – and more importantly connected across the WASH sector. Many participants joined the programme to expand their knowledge in terms of sustainable WASH access and service provisions, be it from a utility company, government or NGO perspective, but walked away with so much more.

As Harry Njung’e, a water and sanitation expert from the water company in Naivasha, Kenya succinctly explained, “The programme has brought impact by gathering change agents across the WASH sector. The strong networks we have established through this programme will enable us to push the conversations further and even beyond SUWAS to ensure that we sustain the gains that we have started while ensuring WASH access in our country. I will work to ensure that we use these gains and continue to be change agents moving forward in the WASH sector both in Kenya and globally.”

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