Kenyan company believes ‘water can be a profitable business’

Maji Milele

Marcel Schreurs

By 2030 the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates the number of Africans living in cities will increase to 742 million. This is expected to increase pressure on already limited essential services such as water and sanitation. Currently millions of Africa’s city dwellers live in sub-standard housing without individual water connections, and rely on public water points and private water vendors.

Water service providers grapple with many challenges, including huge debts, mismanagement of resources, dilapidated systems and limited financing that hamper efforts to expand water to rapidly-growing populations.

Dutch entrepreneur Marcel Schreurs started his business Maji Milele (Swahili for ‘water forever’) in Kenya a year ago. The company seeks to revolutionise water service delivery through automated revenue collection from public water points using a prepaid system.

“One of the main problems in the water sector is revenue collection,” says Schreurs. “In Kenya people pay for water at public water points in cash, but a good part of that money ends up in pockets of water meter readers, revenue collectors and water committee members. Moreover there are leakages and illegal connections. Hence the water service providers struggle to manage and maintain the water point because they are incurring high costs and losing more than half of their revenues. We can reduce the percentage of non-revenue water to between zero and 15%.”

Maji Milele installs prepaid meters for water service providers and offers transparency through online monitoring systems that track daily payments and water consumption, plus detecting leakages and illegal connections. It is setting up prepaid water systems in urban centres such as Nakuru, as well as in remote villages.

In Nakuru, for instance, Schreurs explains landlords often limit the hours during which people can access water to keep the water bills down. When the taps are open, tenants wait in long queues and often won’t be able to fetch as much water as they need. Their other alternative is to pay exorbitant sums of money to commercial water sellers.

But with prepaid meters, tenants can access water whenever they wish, at a fee. Users must have a key card, which is uploaded with ‘water credits’. They then present their key card at the water point to access water.

“Governments and NGOs have invested millions of dollars in water supply infrastructure. If you go back to those projects after five years you find broken water infrastructure because of lack of maintenance. We ensure the water system keeps functioning – and the benefit to local communities is that they have water today, tomorrow, and forever,” says Schreurs.

The use of prepaid water systems is expanding in Africa but it is controversial and faces opposition in some countries. A World Bank study in eight African cities says although prepaid metering is not a magic wand to fix management issues in the delivery of urban water supply, it can deliver several benefits to consumers and water service providers.

“Many of the investments done over the last 30 years are gone, the pipe systems don’t function and the hand pumps are broken. The problem today is there is too little investment in water supply. If we can show that you can have sustainable businesses in water, financiers will be more willing to back providers. Water can be a profitable business and with increased viability it can come to scale, and eventually access to water is achievable for everybody. I believe prepaid metering is the way forward for Africa,” says Schreurs.