‘Inspiration from Malawi’


Earlier this year our Program Manager Hester Foppen started investigating a market based approach for filter distribution in Malawi. It appears there is a market for filters, but Hester was discouraged at first:

‘We started in Malawi with this bold idea to supply safe water for all for only USD 2 per person. After half a year of meetings and waiting for reactions, I was a bit discouraged: is this really going to work? Things were moving so slowly…  But today I was really inspired by a phone call I had with the first ‘champion’ NGO, Smorden Tomoka from United Purpose who told me he was interested in piloting a business approach for filter distribution. ‘This is really going to work’ he said.

United Purpose is a UK based organization with offices in many countries and one of them is in Malawi. They are strong in livelihood programs and set up an MFI (CUMO) to strengthen the ability of rural people to get out of poverty through rural enterprise- and food value chains. They also work in the WASH sector and are currently generating Carbon Credits for the boreholes they helped to construct.  In July, Aqua for All invested (25K) to assist United Purpose and CUMO in setting up a revolving fund mechanism to support the selling of filters to rural communities.  Today I heard how far they are, and most importantly, how convinced they are that there is a market for filters:

‘We had our staff and CUMO’s staff trained at the CCAP Smart Center to understand different treatment   technologies. We also heard about their experiences with a Try and Buy approach they did with filters (Safi filters, locally produced with a ceramic candle imported from China) In Usisya, a small fishermen’s   community. The whole team now knows how to assemble the filter and how to clean and maintain it. We already engaged in activities, baseline studies and water quality tests. We bought a small amount of filters for promotion. When I went to the field the other day, one of the community leaders insisted on paying for the filter – if he would get it for free he said it would not have the same value’.

Smorden Tomoka also demonstrated the technology and the revolving fund approach at two high level meetings, where the Minister of Health himself showed interest, not only in the product but also in the approach. A Chinese firm ordered 300 filters for their employees. ‘We have different distribution channels in mind’, Smorden says, ‘CUMO has a huge client database of 84,000 people. We found that many people are willing to pay 11,000 Kwacha (USD 15)  in cash, others would prefer to pay a total of 13,300 Kwacha if they can collect and pay in installments over 4 months. Entrepreneurs who buy in bulk pay the wholesale price of 9,250 Kwacha, and CUMO will ask them for a 5% cash collateral’. We are also approaching restaurants, tearooms, guesthouses and public places to show how the filter works’.

I asked Smorden what he expects from this approach in terms of sales volumes: ‘This is going to be big. We are so used to giving things for free and we know it does not work. We have formed a PPP through wihich we can show this is the approach that is working and we intend to grow the partnership.  This is how I look at pilots, I always look beyond. For example, with the Carbon Credits: first we did not really believe it would work, but now we generate income which covers the costs of maintenance of the boreholes’.