WHAT IF... you reduced investments into new infrastructure and instead made money from ensuring the use of existing infrastructure?
Customers want to receive reliable services – be it water supply, or waste(water) collection and treatment. Such services require functioning infrastructure to deliver on their promises promptly and without fail. Where technical personnel are not available or service providers cannot reach – for example in remote hamlets –maintenance and repair works can create a bottleneck. The results are non-functional water points, subpar service, and the inevitable decay of appliances. Developing a niche service allows you to optimise and scale maintenance and repair services and related logistics. If you can unblock the maintenance bottleneck, you can guarantee or extend services to underserved communities (through repairs) without having to make heavy investments into infrastructure. You offer customers what they really want – for example, reliable running water instead of struggling with a non-functioning tap.
Turning Challenges into Opportunities
The provision of sustainable and safe basic services (like water, sanitation or waste management) remains a challenge in developing countries, particularly in remote rural areas. Not only is it costly to build the required infrastructure, but it is also demanding to operate and maintain it. In many regions, non-functioning water points, public toilets, or irrigation systems are a key challenge.
Let’s take a closer look at the example of water points: Numerous international organisations committed themselves to increase water coverage in the developing world and have started to set up water points. Yet, they often break down or perform very poorly shortly after completion, since operation and maintenance is not properly managed (TRUSLOVE, J. et al., 2019) and surrounding conditions may be harsh. As a result, according to KLUG et al. (2018), one in three hand pumps in Sub-Sahara Africa are not working properly at any time.
In many rural water supply schemes, voluntary community associations have been taking on the responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the infrastructure for decades. Yet, they often lack the necessary skills and capacities to effectively provide sustainable and functional systems. The top-down approach of water provision and a lack of cost-effective approaches are additional reasons that cause systems to fail (SEWYA, L. et al., 2018). In villages without skilled technicians and areas where service providers do not show up, it takes weeks or months to get the water point repaired, if at all. Consequently, many water users are experiencing poor and unreliable services (CARTER and ROSS, 2016) even though they live next to a water point.
This water supply example shows the strong need to find new ways to make maintenance services accessible. But maintenance bottlenecks are not limited to rural water supply. Related challenges exist in different areas, including irrigation systems, urban plumbing and even in industrial water supply and wastewater management.
Moving towards a strategy
An innovative strategy to unblock a key bottleneck in water, sanitation or waste services is to develop, optimise and scale maintenance services. To do so you focus your efforts on a narrowly defined niche service for specific types of infrastructure or assets, that is critically important for enough customers to build and maintain your business. This strategy can help you to reduce costs while delivering on a value proposition that ensures functioning services for your customers.
By focussing on such a niche, you can optimise your workflows and tasks to deliver effectively on your value proposition. You’ll be able to spot inefficiencies and details that were missed by other actors like water utilities, who juggle dozens of other tasks.
Logistics, sourcing of spare parts in bulk, building specialised maintenance and repair skills, or increasing productivity of the team through better coordination and planning, are examples of areas that you can optimise to reduce your costs and increase your profit margins.
Since niching eliminates any downtime resulting from indecision and bottlenecks, implementing a subscription model around your niche service allows you to stabilise your revenues and increase customer retention.
Focusing on niche maintenance services further enables you to develop an effective marketing approach that is tailored to a clearly defined customer segment. You can tailor your marketing channels, language and sales pitch to these potential customers to generate qualified leads and develop the right incentives to generate referrals.
Case Study 1
Safa Group for Plumbing is the first commercial women-run company in Jordan, that focusses on providing specialised plumbing services for private households and business customers in Irbid and Amman.
Safa Group for Plumbing realised that plumbing services in Jordan “need women more than men,” one of the groups’ plumbers explains. Because, “[i]n our communities, male strangers are not allowed to enter a house when no other man is there” (WUNRN, 2017). To tackle this cultural challenge in the Jordanian context, Safa’s business model relies on building the capacities of a team of female plumbers.
The group initially catered to plumbing needs of households and then gradually expanded to service NGOs, public institutions and companies. At the time of writing this factsheet, the group worked with a team of 38 freelance plumbers and provided services to 32 schools, 15 CBOs, 4 training centres, 5 NGOs, 11 saloons, 3 gyms, a medical centre, and 217 houses.
Aside from directly fixing dripping taps and clogged pipes, the group’s plumbers also try to educate the women they work for on how to fix simple things (including over the phone when they call outside of operating hours). This approach helps to build trust between the group and their customers.
From entering the market as a business with an initial niche focus on plumbing services the enterprise is now gradually expanding; they also started fixing water filters, air conditioners and dishwashers.
Safa Group for Plumbing in action. Source: International Rescue Committee.
Case Study 2
In 2009 about 50% of Tanzanian water pumps were broken and abandoned. Pump for Life (MSABI) provides maintenance services for water points in rural areas of Tanzania to increase coverage and sustainability of water infrastructure in the region.
For their water point maintenance services MSABI promotes a fee per service and a subscription-based maintenance model. The novel subscription-based model consists of free maintenance and repair in exchange for a monthly premium.
The premium can be paid through mobile phones, making the system accessible to people in remote areas with no access to conventional banking systems. The service includes proactive and reactive maintenance visits by decentralised mechanics. Location and number of mechanics have been calculated based on the spatial distribution of water points. Their strategic position allows them to cost-efficiently serve the water points.
At the time of writing this factsheet, MSABI has:
A network of 16 decentralised mechanics
175 subscribers with 36,800 beneficiaries
Monthly insurance premium of 10,000 -30,000 TZS ($ 5-15)
100% of water points subscribed to the pump for Life system are functional and if defective, can be repaired within 24 hours. An advanced ICT water point monitoring and surveillance system is used to collect, analyse and visualise data in real-time. More than 10000 water point visits have been digitally tracked to date. The data is used to refine financial and service delivery models.
Aside from the network of decentralised mechanics, MSABI works with several other key partners, including water point drilling enterprises, a water point maintenance enterprise, three water pump production workshops, a ceramic filter production workshop, several sanitation private sector players and a drama education performance troupe.