Technology helps local water vendors unlock their business potential

Millicent Adongo, a water vendor in Kisumu’s Nyalenda slums, is running what she admits is a booming business. The length of the queue tells the story of her success.

But the businesswoman is upbeat about something else: the pre-paid water meters. “The new water meter enables me to determine the amount of water I use and I am able to plan my finances more prudently,” Ms Adongo says.

She is one of the 20 vendors, who, for nine months, have been participating in a pilot by the Kisumu Water and Sewerage Company (Kiwasco) that is testing the ‘smart’ meters for a possible roll-out. “In the past, we used to sell water and get the bill at the end of the month. We couldn’t determine the amount of water we used and how much was wasted but the new technology has changed my operations”.

Kiwasco joins a growing list of water companies that are embracing technology expected to cut costs and enhance service delivery.

“A water company is about service and top on the agenda is to ensure clients are able to get accurate water bills on time and access to clean water,” said the company’s managing director, Mr David Onyango.

“The development in technology, especially GSM, has made it possible for the transfer of data and information from any part of the world,” he said.

“We want to use this technology to improve our customer service by making it easier for clients to interact with us and at minimum cost to ourselves.”

Water companies have been accused of ineptitude, especially on quality of service in urban areas, where the bulk operates from.
The introduction of pre-paid meters was seen as one of the remedies to the discontent that has walked in tandem with the service providers over the years.

The Water Services Regulatory Board (Wasreb) affirmed that improved technologies should help water suppliers to curb payment default, theft and cut their operational costs, enabling them to channel financial resources towards upgrading infrastructure.

“The prepaid billing is aimed at improving the financial position of the water companies by increasing their revenue collection capabilities,” Mr Robert Gakubia, the Wasreb chief executive officer, said in a past interview with the Business Daily. “It will increase the urgency of paying water bills and put it on the same level as paying rent or electricity,” he said. There are 120 water companies in Kenya that were formed from 2002 as part of the sector reforms.

They have been grappling with unpaid bills running into billions of shillings and ageing infrastructure, which have added to the pain of consumers who brave erratic supplies even when the dams are full. On the prepaid meters, customers will buy only the amount they need, reducing the turbulent relationship between the service provider and the user.

“The advantage of the smart meter is that it confers to the consumer the ability to determine how much water they use as opposed to the past where they had to wait for a month for the bill,” said Mr Onyango.

“It helps to determine where there are leakages in the system and we can move fast to sort them out without billing the consumer an extra shilling.”

Using the meters also means that the companies may cut on staff costs, especially the readers of manual meter.
Namibian firm vendor TagMeter Namibia supplies the hardware and software for the entire project.

The Kisumu pilot started in March last year and has just concluded.

“We are awaiting an independent evaluation of the pilot project but according to the draft have seen, the customers like the initiative and are willing to embrace it”, said Kiwasco’s corporate affairs official Frank Ochieng.

Public education

Before the project is rolled out, the company says it will educate the public to sensitise them on the effectiveness of the new technology.

The technology is sensitive to rust and particles but the MD says this can be overcome “by placing strainers because pipes will always age and we can’t replace the entire pipe network.”

Kiwasco serves about 40 per cent of the population of Kisumu County and has been striving to introduce a raft of technological solutions to improve its service delivery. Last year, it announced a partnership with mobile service provider Safaricom to enable customers pay their bills via M-Pesa.