Research on water innovation in Africa

with VIA Water as a case study


In the past 2 years, the VIA Water team has been enriched by the presence of Dr Silas Mvulirwenande. He conducted Postdoctoral research on water innovation in Africa, using the VIA Water programme as a case study, and studying VIA Water projects in Ghana, Kenya and Mozambique. The research, which was commissioned by VIA Water and jointly conducted by the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA), has now been wrapped up. Time to share some of Silas’ main conclusions.

To start with the good news: according to the research, VIA Water has clear added benefit to the water innovation systems in Africa. The programme provides essential inputs to water innovation processes (through seed capital, knowledge and network), increases the visibility and credibility of supported water innovations, and triggers behavioural changes in the water sector (namely entrepreneurship spirit). In short: it fills major gaps in local water innovation systems. In his research, Silas describes VIA Water as a virtual incubator.

Through a variety of innovation support activities, VIA Water helps water innovators to innovate systematically and purposefully. By asking fundamental questions at every step of the innovation process, the programme not only helps  innovators to ensure that they are pursuing relevant innovation opportunities. It also allows them to be realistic in their innovation efforts - avoiding complex innovation processes by starting small - and to start with grounded assumptions. All in all, the support provided by VIA Water helps water innovators to build convincing innovation cases and to conduct planned, focused and predictable innovation processes.

The programme has also faced some challenges, limiting its impact. According to the research, VIA Water has not been able to stimulate interactive learning beyond the incubator/project level; yet this is an important building block for well-functioning water innovation systems. The programme also faces the challenge of weak local embeddedness, which is mainly associated with its limited physical presence in the target countries. Finally, the short-term nature of the programme threatens not only the innovation momentum created by the programme but also the sustainability of supported innovation projects.

© Annemiek Kool

Some of Silas’ main conclusions regarding water innovation in Africa are as follows:

  • Most water innovations in Africa are incremental (they build on already existing systems) and they are very often initiated by small scale organisations (such as SMEs, NGOs, consulting companies) and away from conventional innovators (science and research institutes, large companies);
  • Fostering water innovation in Africa requires more than cash: innovation actors also need advice, mentoring and network resources;
  • Virtual incubators such as VIA Water are a good tool to foster water innovation, but are not a panacea to all innovation challenges. They have inherent limitations to perform some functions in local innovation systems;
  • Existing water innovation support initiatives in Africa are already creating promising proof of concept innovations. It’s now time to build models that help to bring these to the next level (scaling);
  • Partnerships appear to represent a potential framework for fostering water innovation in Africa;
  • Effective water innovation in Africa can be achieved by promoting interactive/learning-based approaches to innovation.

From these conclusions, Silas formulates a number of (policy) recommendations. He argues that future programmes on water innovation can increase their chances of success by:

  • Deploying complementary support approaches: using virtual incubators along other innovation support mechanisms, such as Communities of Practices, innovation alliances, etc.;  
  • Providing multi-level innovation support (micro, mezzo and macro) to create great impact;
  • Going beyond the piloting innovation approach, by providing commercial funding and/or investing directly in scaling water innovations, and
  • Embracing a visionary thinking about water innovation in Africa by shifting from programmatic thinking.

Silas’ findings will be used in our future Knowledge Products, which will be published starting this spring. Silas himself has produced 5 scientific papers that are planned to be published in peer-reviewed journals in the coming period.  They cover the issues of ICT-focused water innovations, innovation partnerships, innovation processes, innovation incubation and ecosystem.

The content of this article is drawn from Mvulirwenande, S. (2019). Determinants of Water Innovation in Africa and possible implications for (Dutch) policy. Presented at the workshop on Water Innovation in Africa. IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. Delft, 14 February 2019