‘The Covid-19 crisis negatively impacted SWEEP’s private operators. We couldn’t get enough customers to cover our fixed operational expenditures. Without Aqua for All’s support, some SWEEP enterprises would have been forced to suspend operations and leave many households without basic services’, said Ayub Khan, Project Manager, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP).
In partnership with local public authorities, SWEEP offers septic tank emptying services to low-income communities in Dhaka, Rangpur and Chattogram through a network of private operators. Safe disposal of waste is a serious health challenge for millions of people in Bangladesh. Many households depend on onsite sanitation systems (septic tank or pit latrine) in rural and urban areas, especially people on low incomes.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 affected SWEEP’s operators. The demand for their services reduced due to perceived increased risk of transmission. In addition, door-to-door marketing campaigns were impossible because of the measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Marketing campaigns are the backbone of SWEEP’s business generation. Awareness for mechanised pit emptying is low, which posed an education challenge next to marketing issues.
Supporting SWEEP and its local operators
SWEEP’s private operators suffered losses and faced additional costs to address the high risk of transmission among frontline workers and their families. Bangladesh struggled to contain the pandemic and had an exponential growth in the number of cases. Operators could not access to capital from financial institutions because they lack collateral. At this point, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), which set up SWEEP in 2015, reached out to Aqua for All to apply for support from its crisis response funds.
In July 2020, Aqua for All granted WSUP €24,578 to roll out SWEEP’s marketing and awareness campaigns to increase the demand and reach the most vulnerable people between September 2020 and February 2021. Grants were also spent to increase the safety of frontline workers. SWEEP provided personal protective equipment and training on hygiene practices and COVID-19 myth-busting to its private operators and faecal sludge treatment plant employees to improve work safety.
Adjusting marketing strategies
Digital marketing and advertising through local retail agents and SWEEP’ support agents enlarged SWEEP campaigns’ outreach in Dhaka, Chattogram and Rangpur. It also strengthened the SWEEP brand as a safe service.
The ‘SWEEP Talk’ was a 3-episode, 30-minute radio show featuring government officials, experts and SWEEP representatives from SWEEP’s private operators. The show was simultaneously broadcasted on Dhaka FM 90.4 and the radio’s Facebook page. This was supported by the ‘Be the Sixer in Protecting the Environment’ radio campaign that involved a famous cricket commentator voicing the advertisement.
SWEEP promoted its services through social media, especially Facebook, and using a microphone and loudspeaker in low-income areas of the city. It also organised events for people with disabilities, such as courtyard sessions and sessions within urban health care projects.
Transformation leads to growth
By changing its campaign strategies, SWEEP successfully increased its customer base. The average monthly number of customers grew from 34,394 between April 2020-August 2020 up to 50,090 between September 2020 and February 2021. This created 40% more jobs. Many demand leads were generated, which would contribute to hiring more staff from March 2021 onwards.
Efforts to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 paid off. SWEEP frontline employees and faecal sludge operators’ staff did not report Covid-19 incidents or staff absences.
Marketing is instrumental to reach scale by getting new customers. Aqua for All’s funding enabled SWEEP to trial marketing through social media (Facebook) and radio for the first time at this scale.
‘Aqua for All was an excellent supporting partner and showed trust in the team. The flexibility offered was critical in achieving the results in such a challenging and variable context,’ said Habibur Rahman, Sanitation Lead, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP).
SWEEP will continue with demand creation and capacity building activities. People are very receptive, which helps generating customer leads, even with modest marketing budgets.