In Mathare, one of Nairobi’s most populous slums in Kenya where some 500,000 people live, a visitor may be surprised to see queues of people in front of ATMs, not waiting to withdraw money, but instead safe, clean drinking water.
In Kenya more than 16 million people – 36% of its total population – do not have access to clean drinking water. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas that often lack even the most basic infrastructure to deliver this vital resource.
In Mathare, however, water can now be accessed using a smart-card. This is the result of a public-private partnership involving the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the municipality, Safaricom and Danish water engineering firm Grundfos, which provides the systems and builds the capacity of Nairobi Water to manage and operate the service. The CEOs of both Safaricom and Grundfos are members of the Business Commission.
The water reaches the water ATMs, called Grundfos AQtaps, after traveling several kilometres of pipes that connect the city’s main supply lines with treated water from the Ndakaini Dam, the main reservoir that fulfills the needs of more than 3 million residents in Nairobi.
Customers charge their smart cards, which are free-of-cost, with credit bought on-site, or via their mobile phones, thanks to an agreement with telephone provider Safaricom.
Through Safaricom’s mobile banking service, M-Pesa, payment is collected from customers more efficiently, while a cloud-based system receives and publishes all transactional and operational data from each water dispenser, ensuring accountability and reducing service costs.
Increased efficiency and cost-effectiveness means customers need to pay less for water, which is otherwise purchased from independent vendors without verification. As a result of Grundfos' water ATMs, a family’s weekly expenditure on water has been reduced from Sh250 ($2.5) to Sh2.50 cents (25 cents).
The AQtap systems are also set up in safe and well-lit neighborhoods, which are selected by residents, who also monitor and maintain their use. Before the set-up of these ATMs, pipes were often vandalised by cartels that sold the stolen water to locals at inflated rates. The new system includes an alert function, allowing the utilities to immediately detect and respond to operational problems and theft attempts, so maintenance can be carried out in a timely manner.
“Now everything is controlled, safe and transparent, and the money the utility makes is reinvested in operating and maintaining the system,” says Rasoul Mikkelsen, director of Global Partnerships at Grundfos.
This is an important development, not least because water projects in Africa collapse on average after just two years due to lack of proper maintenance and investment.
Since 2009, Grundfos has set up 40 Lifelink water projects across Kenya, reaching some 100,000 people, mostly in remote rural areas in the north of the country. In places where no pipes or water systems have been set up, the company uses solar and wind-powered submersible pumps to tap into underground water. So the systems are low-carbon as well.
In partnership with World Vision International, a total of 60 new sites are currently being planned across Kenya to reach 20,000 people in the country. The partnership is also global, with the aim to reach 2 million people worldwide in the next five years. This venture is directly helping achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6, “ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”
But as Mikkelsen emphasises, this is a for-profit venture. The company provides the platform, the technology, the training and the know-how for effective revenue collection.
“Governments, donors and international NGOs have a heavy influence on water services, so we need to work through them. Our initiative is generating great branding for Grundfos, and creates lots of credibility with decision makers because we’re doing a good job, which helps attract new business,” says Mikkelsen.
Last year Grundfos signed an agreement with the Ministry of Water in Uganda to build capacity to install water pumps as well as in other African cities, and is picking up interest in their off-grid water solutions.
Globally, Grundfos is currently present in 56 countries either directly through subsidiaries or via partners. Grundfos is hoping to scale the AQtap solution to India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines and Bangladesh, where it is currently running two pilot projects in the capital city, Dhaka, via its subsidiaries and partners.
The company is also eyeing other business opportunities in sectors traditionally seen as falling in the realm of governments, international agencies and NGOs. This includes providing water to refugee camps in places such as Jordan, and trying to set up card payments in collaboration with other companies like MasterCard, or through NGOs and the United Nations, which would offer these cards directly to refugees.
”The global water issues pose a very real and very serious challenge. We need new ways of working to solve this. New businesses, new business models and new partnerships. This is not least the case for vulnerable societies in the developing countries," says Mads Nipper, CEO and Group President of Grundfos and member of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission.
"Our water technology can play a part in dealing with some of these grave issues, and in my mind this means we have to put our efforts into solving the problems. We want to do this by applying our own expertise in close collaboration with partners all over the world, spanning the civil, political and professional spheres."
 Nairobi Water is currently planning to scale up this service to other slums in Nairobi.
 The ATM bringing cheap, safe water to Nairobi's slums