Maji Wazi – exploring how digital technologies can support access to water in slum areas in Nairobi

We have recently concluded an exploratory research project together with UN-Habitat (United Nations Programme for Human Settlements) and Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (responsible for water distribution in the Nairobi area). The project’s main ambition was to explore how digital technologies can support access to water in slum areas in Nairobi, and the primary research was done in Mashimoni Village on the south side of Mathare Valley, the second largest slum area in Kenya’s capital.


Insights Lead at Design and Technology at Ericsson ONE

Insights Lead at Design and Technology at Ericsson ONE

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The project represents one of the activities in the partnership with UN-Habitat that investigates how ICT can enable social change. It emerged from a previous activity that had the scope to develop a number of tangible concepts to frame discussions about the potential relations between future mobile networks and urban prosperity in Nairobi. The 'Citizen Field Engineer' concept, which illustrated a crowdsourced maintenance of public infrastructures, inspired a subsequent social impact assessment of how this concept could apply in Nairobi's slums in order to improve water distribution. One thing led to another and eventually to the joint explorations together with Nairobi Water.

About 784 million people worldwide lack access to safe and affordable water, and nearly half of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. While urban areas generally have better access to water supplies, there are big intra-urban disparities in cities like Nairobi where more than half of the population live in slums and the poorest people pay a lot for the little water they consume. In Nairobi, 38 % of the approximately 200 million cubic meters yearly 'produced' is so called non-revenue water. About half of it (19% or 38 million cubic meters) is lost due to leakages. The other half is informally tapped and somehow delivered to residents. Although this is a very important distinction, the yearly cost for Nairobi Water from non-revenue water directly affects the capacity to expand services, especially for the poor.

In the project area in Mashimoni Village the gaps in water provision are, just as for many other basic urban services in informal settlements, filled by community groups. In some cases they can be referred to as 'cartels', but we do not always feel fully comfortable using that language. They are also fulfilling an important need, ensuring that water is always available, even though at a higher cost. However, there is a large number of informal pipes and public water taps that are being managed and maintained by local groups, who sell 20 litre jerrycans each at a price of 0.02-0.25 USD depending on water availability. There is also a mutual distrust and limited interaction between Nairobi Water and the community, partly stemming from previous authoritative and unsuccessful interventions.

To better understand how digital technologies can help this complex situation, several partly parallel and iterative research activities were done in Mashimoni. They included a household and vendor survey, informal infrastructure mapping, community workshops, concept and prototype development and small-scale technology tests. In addition, the continuous Mashimoni presence gave us a unique opportunity to visit peoples' homes and observe the complexities of water distribution.

Among the key insights from the fieldwork was the general lack of reliable information in the whole ecosystem. We did, for example, learn that it is quite difficult to classify connections and distributions as either formal or informal. There is the whole range from regularly maintained Nairobi Water pipes to ad-hoc connections that only some groups or individuals know about. The presence of cartels may contribute to the disinformation as they attempt to protect their investments and maintain a situation where residents pay much more than the maximum price stipulated by Nairobi Water.

Another key insight was the impact the rationing schedule can have on water availability in Mashimoni, with piped water often only being available on weekends and at night during weekdays. The rationing schedule is designed to handle the fact that the production level cannot cover more than 70% of Nairobi's water demands, and to provide an equitable distribution of water according to the predicted demands. One problem is that the demands are based on previous consumption patterns, which for various reasons are much lower in the slum areas that lack a sufficient infrastructure.

Based on prior work as well as new insights we formulated a concept that we named Maji Wazi (Kiswahili for 'open water'). Three key dimensions of this 'Internet of Things-powered data commons platform' were outlined in line with the goals to strengthen accountability, increase mutual trust, and promote good governance:

  • Understanding – better tools for the water provider to know what is happening in the system and to identify relevant interventions
  • Transparency – objective information that all stakeholders can relate to, and fact-based information that can serve as a base for decision-making
  • Collaboration – mechanisms for the water provider and the community to work together, helping to bridge formal and informal systems in a responsible way

We have worked along two complementary tracks of conceptualising and prototyping to concretise the Maji Wazi concept. The first was the Grassroots perspective, which has been about understanding and highlighting the water situation in slum areas, and from that finding ways to gradually integrate and semi-formalise water distribution. The image below illustrates one example of how this materialised: 'Citizen field observers' are responsible for keeping sensor equipment safe and charged, and ensuring that data is continuously collected (and as an add-on, being able to use excess energy for own needs).

As a small-scale technology test, sensors that registers the water flows at three 'formalising' water vendors in Mashimoni was installed. To maintain this little sensor network we recruited two 'citizen field observers' – Arthur and Moses – that worked together with Mama Esther, Mama Gadaffi, and Gority that runs the three water points.

The second track was the Top-down perspective, which has been about a more fact-based management of the pressure-based infrastructure, and how the 70% capacity can be distributed in a more equitable way based on the actual demands in different areas. Today, most of Nairobi's water comes from the Thika dam north of the city, leading water into 11 reservoirs to build up pressure in the system. The inflows, levels, and outflows from the reservoirs are critical to maintain the right pressure without drying out or overflowing the reservoirs. This is a fairly complex operation in itself, but on top of that there is also the need for water rationing. Currently, the opening and closing of sluice valves around the city is largely based on the semi-fragmented knowledge of the many individuals involved in this operation.

Real-time information of reservoir levels can provide valuable insights into the Nairobi-wide perspective of water distribution. In combination with information about water flows in areas around the city, it could initially be used to develop a baseline for the effects of the rationing schedule. And eventually to motivate difficult choices related to water scarcities and distribution in a transparent way.

One of the visualisation prototypes exemplified how a data dashboard could serve as an exploration tool for staff concerned with overall system performance. For example, to help them analyse and find correlations on any scale, and support decisions on infrastructure upgrades or other interventions. In this first version, the data from the reservoirs has been simulated.

The water situation in Nairobi and its slum areas – with lack of reliable information, complex connections between formal and informal systems, large inequalities, and the challenges from water scarcity – have led to design choices that may differ from solutions that have focused on near steady condition systems. Informed by the field studies, the Maji Wazi concept and prototypes have focused on improved access to 'objective' data for all stakeholders as a baseline for collaboratively exploring interventions, with the main intention to address the systemic issues of inequitable distribution of water resources across Nairobi.

There are naturally a several parts of the concept that has not been realised in this first phase of the project, for example, an extended ecosystem for a more holistic view of the water sources in Nairobi. One valuable data set would be from Kenya Meteorological Department in order to get early indications of inflows to Nairobi, something that affects the reservoir levels and the amount of water that can be distributed across the city. Another would be information about boreholes, rainwater harvesting, and other initiatives to understand what type of infrastructure interventions that can have a large impact.

Continuing to work with the community it will be necessary to support different phases of advocacy, for example, gradually involving and semi-formalising informal vendors, helping them to develop their business while at the same time validating it. One important aspect is the community touch points and how collected data can be presented to residents in a format that is understandable. For now we have used printed-out infographics posters, but the way UN-Habitat has used Minecraft to engage citizens in urban planning can serve as inspiration for how the community and Nairobi Water could explore the information together.

Nairobi Water is definitely concerned with providing better services also to poor people, but the company is mainly evaluated based on economic performance and have few incentives to focus on equity. So it makes sense to target leakages and informal connections that are not generating revenue today. Platforms to make peoples' voices heard and stimulate a public debate about scarce resources are very important, but it is critical that Nairobi County and the water regulatory board also work towards policies for equitable water distribution. In this process, it will be necessary to somehow bridge informal and formal systems for the water utility to holistically and effectively address the situation.

Development towards more equitable water rationing in Nairobi is more a question of governance than ICT innovations. Nevertheless, Maji Wazi suggests how digital technologies can support citizens' need for fundamental utilities and their ability to influence decision-making. The project outcomes complements the extensive work around 'smart cities' in highly developed regions (where central utilities are already in place). This work is increasingly important given that much of the urbanisation take place in developing regions, which often suffer from poor infrastructure and poor governance.

The large informal system, the strong community organisations, and the inequalities in combination with resource and governance constraints may necessitate a more inclusive, accessible, and collaborative approach to urban technologies. Here emerging Internet of Things platforms that makes cheap and adaptable technologies such as, sensors, smartphones, and other electronics components available present interesting opportunities. These technologies can give organisations the ability to quickly build and test connected products, and offer new ways to get valuable insights from the users of services. As always, one critical aspect will be to not just push out these technologies without building peoples' capacity to use them.

What we have done so far is just the first step. Moving forward, we hope to concretely demonstrate how a connected water distribution can improve access to water in slum areas in Nairobi. But also to understand how ICT in combination with partly decentralised governance principles can be relevant for other public services as well as in other cities.

Many thanks to Arthur and his friends in Mashimoni Village for all the support during the fieldwork. Also many thanks to the whole project team at UN-Habitat, Nairobi Water, and Ericsson for their contributions.

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