Corporate

Tech firm hits on solution to water scarcity in slums

Queuing for water is a common occurence in Nairobi but Residents of informal settlements have a reason to smile following a new mobile application developed to facilitate the distribution and acquisition of water in Kenyan slums. File
Queuing for water is a common occurence in Nairobi but Residents of informal settlements have a reason to smile following a new mobile application developed to facilitate the distribution and acquisition of water in Kenyan slums. File 

Residents of informal settlements have a reason to smile following a new mobile application developed to facilitate the distribution and acquisition of water in Kenyan slums.

The application, dubbed m-maji, is a mobile phone-based database management information system that provides water vendors and their clients in slums with an interactive platform to seamlessly carry out their transactions.

The database is free and open to all users regardless of the type of phone they have and uses a combination of USSD, Mobile Web and SMS technology.

M-maji has been developed by tech firm WezaTele in partnership with a group of Stanford University students and Umande Trust, an organisation based in Kibera that addresses water and sanitation issues.

The pilot project of m-maji is being carried out in Kibera and according to Sam Kitony, Chief Technology Officer at WezaTele, the application is a much- needed enabling platform to address several aspects of water scarcity and sanitation in informal settlements.

“According to research, about 65 per cent of Kibera residents rely on water vendors and when the commodity is scarce, a resident of Kibera may trek for miles in search of it with no guarantee of success,” he said.

“Simply finding the water takes up valuable time and energy, but m-maji makes it possible for vendors to advertise for clean water at specific landmarks and allow customers to look up the vendors closest to them through the use of their mobile phones.”

What happens is that users who comprise mainly water vendors and their clients connect to the database and are prompted to provide or obtain information depending on their designation.

The vendors send a notification to the system via SMS stating that they have water , the price at which they are selling it and the selling point.

The database collects this type of information from other vendors in the area and aggregates the data, presenting it in the form of an indexed map familiar to the client and ready to be accessed on demand.

The clients log into the system in a similar fashion and are presented with a user interface providing them with information on the vendor that is closest to them and the different prices on offer.

The buyer can also use the system to report any cases of malpractice by the water vendor.

This is done through logging in a complaint regarding the quality of water, quantity, or price.

The complaint warns other users of m-maji thus exposing unscrupulous water vendors whose names can also be forwarded to the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company for appropriate action.

“The application is on a five- month pilot project and at the same time we are evaluating the success of m-maji by having a control group that is not using the application,” says Mr Kitony. At the end of the pilot project, we shall compare the results of residents who have used m-maji against the control and in this way we shall be able to know how to tweak it according to the preferences of the users.”

According to a Mr Ongweso, the Kibera area chief, who was at the launch of the application, water access and contamination in the slum are the biggest challenge to the residents and needs to be quickly addressed.

“The issue of contaminated water is something that can be controlled if people took responsibilities of where they dispose of waste,” he said. “Sarangombe has five tanks for water and pipes that direct water to different locations but people always interfere with them and cut them so as to get water. This exposes the clean water to germs and external waste that could cause diseases.”

On average, residents of Kibera pay between two and three shilings for a 20- litre jerrycan of water from any of the 650 water vendors in Kibera.

About 98 per cent of the vendors are self-employed while the rest are run by community- based organisations or NGOs.

But their charges are much higher than the one shilling that is recommended by The Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company and residents complain that this is too high for most households.

Data from Nairobi Water Company indicates that demand for the commodity in Nairobi stands at about 650,000 cubic metres per day against a supply capacity of 431,000 cubic metres.

Illegal connections

The water company is further beset by the perennial headache of illegal connections, most of which are reported in slum areas and informal settlements.

Last year, illegal connections was reported to cause a disparity in the billing estimate and actual collections and Sh350 million was collected per month against a target of Sh450 million.

The data collected through m-maji could be used by water companies to weed out water vendors who have no licence to operate and those who are doing so through illegal connections thus saving up on lost revenue.
fsunday@.ke.nationmedia.com