STRONG PARTNERSHIPS PREPARED THIS SOCIAL ENTERPRISE TO DOUBLE ITS SALES DURING THE PANDEMIC

How Aqua Clara Kenya made use of partnerships to serve vulnerable communities

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Kenya, social enterprise Aqua Clara Kenya expanded its services from providing clean water education and tools to installing handwashing stations and selling soap to schools, prisons and healthcare facilities.

WATER-BORNE DISEASES WEREN’T STAYING AWAY EVEN THOUGH COVID WAS A MAJOR CHALLENGE.

MILESTONES:

2010: Aqua Clara Kenya received recognition from the local government, which also donated an operations facility.

2012: Started receiving carbon credits as a revenue stream for selling water filters.

2014: Launched a new scalable water filtration technology.

2016: Rolled out new products aimed at schools, urban markets and rural communities.

2020: Pivoted to door-to-door education and sales, and introduced soap to the product line.

WE BELIEVE WE ARE BETTER EQUIPPED THAN WE WERE IN 2019 TO SUCCESSFULLY GO THROUGH ANY CHALLENGES WE MAY EXPERIENCE IN THE MARKET.

Millions of people around the world have difficulty accessing clean water everyday. According to the World Health Organisation, 1.8 billion people across the globe use water from contaminated sources. Drinking dirty water can lead to diarrhoea and dehydration, as well as serious diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis A and polio. Water-borne diseases can be deadly, particularly to children under the age of five, and can have a huge impact on a community’s general health. Knock-on effects include reduced national GDP due to lower employee productivity and higher healthcare costs. 

But some simple behavioral changes can help. Effective handwashing, covering drinking water sources and boiling or filtering water before consuming it can significantly reduce the prevalence of water-borne diseases and their impact on communities. Aqua Clara Kenya was tackling clean water access by teaching these methods in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda using a social enterprise model. But when COVID-19 arrived, it had to rethink its way of doing business.

How Aqua Clara Kenya improves access to clean water

Aqua Clara Kenya supports communities in gaining access to clean drinking water by providing Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) training and by selling water filters. Founded in 2009, it uses an education- and market-based approach rather than a charitable structure with an overall goal of increasing access to safe drinking water in Africa by building local capacity, providing effective solutions and implementing sustainable approaches. 

The company also works with microfinance institutions to allow people to buy its water filters in monthly installments. Though most of the organization’s work is in Kenya, it also has operations in Tanzania and Uganda through partnerships with local NGOs.

John Nyagwencha, the organization’s CEO, is based in Kenya’s western region, close to the port city of Kisumu on the edge of Lake Victoria. He explains that this region, like many, has adequate access to water but that the water sources are polluted due to high population density.

John has years of experience working in the water and sanitation sector, but says that he truly realized the impact of water-borne illness when he contracted one himself. In 2011, he came across Aqua Clara Kenya. The organization was only a couple of years old and was working in one community at the time but John was impressed by what it had achieved so far. He joined as an Operations Manager before becoming CEO in 2016.

Rethinking plans

Aqua Clara Kenya was on track to achieve ambitious goals in 2020. The company had doubled its sales every year since 2017 and John says that it was prepared for further growth. “We were betting on growing at least five times in 2020,” he says. 

But then COVID-19 hit. John says that when the first case was reported in Kenya in March 2020, confusion was rampant and no one really knew what to do. Out of caution, the organization closed its offices in Nairobi and Western Kenya. “Not in our wildest imagination did we think that it would affect us, not least in the way it did,” John says.

The offices were closed but it quickly became apparent that the organization was needed more than ever. Local government organizations, NGOs and community volunteers who had worked with Aqua Clara Kenya asked the organization to help prepare their communities for the pandemic. “We realized that this very moment is why we exist,” says John. “We had to do something while trying to stay safe. We had to figure out how to be supportive and help communities respond better.” 

Using existing partnerships to have the largest impact

Aqua Clara reopened operations in May 2020 with a plan supported by Procter & Gamble and Transform International to provide handwashing stations and soap to schools, prisons and healthcare facilities in two counties of western Kenya.

In 2019, the Aqua Clara Kenya team had realized there was a gap in its services – people who had undertaken WASH training and understood the importance of clean water but couldn’t afford to buy a filter right away. To provide these people with access to clean water, they teamed up with Procter & Gamble on the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program (CSDW) in 2019 and were preparing to roll it out in 2020.

The program is based on providing people with P&G Purifier of Water Packets to use while they save or gain financing for a filer. The product can purify 10 liters of water in half an hour. Users add a sachet of the product to dirty water, stir and strain. The result is water clean enough to drink without risk, which has had over 99% of common water-borne bacteria, viruses and protozoa removed.

When COVID hit, John and the team realized they weren’t going to be able to reach as many people as they had hoped with the program because of restrictions on movement and group gatherings. They went back to Procter & Gamble and proposed that part of the funding for the program be used to provide handwashing stations and soap to community locations that currently didn’t have any. The team agreed and Aqua Clara Kenya got to work.

By the end of 2020, Aqua Clare Kenya had distributed over 1.2 million water purification packets, enabling over 234,000 people to have access to safe drinking water. Additionally, it installed 700 handwashing stations at health facilities in Nyamira and Bomet counties in western Kenya and provided WASH training to more than 21,000 households and 460 schools and health centers.

“By standing with the community during this period, we could build that relationship as a business as we grow and be identified as an organization that cares about these people,” John says.

Introducing new sales methods and new products 

Before COVID, a large part of Aqua Clara Kenya’s model relied on meeting with big groups of people to provide training and education on hygiene and water sanitation. With new physical distancing measures in place, these types of events were no longer possible. 

“With the restrictions on movement and meeting people in groups, it was now a matter of life and death for the company that we were able to change how we operate and how we engage with our customers,” says John. 

Aqua Clara Kenya worked with mentors from the Acumen Academy, a global organization aiming to educate the next wave of social entrepreneurs, and IKEA as part of the Acumen and IKEA Social Entrepreneurship East Africa Accelerator. Supported by this mentorship, the company evaluated its business model, improved its financial forecasting and trialed new sales and outreach approaches that complied with social distancing restrictions. 

Instead of meeting in groups, the Aqua Clara Kenya team pivoted to door-to-door education and sales. “We provided guidelines on how to wash hands, what they need in order to be able to wash their hands and the need for safe drinking water,” says John. “Unfortunately water-borne diseases weren’t staying away even though COVID was a major challenge.” 

The team also collected phone numbers from these door-to-door visits, which Aqua Clara Kenya office staff would use to run targeted SMS and phone campaigns. ”We targeted phone calls to those who had some good promise and were able to start increasing the sales again,” John says.

The Aqua Clara Kenya team also tested the demand for soap. Accelerator mentors supported John and his team with setting up and trialing the product, as well as interpreting the results. They were ultimately able to verify a demand in their markets and begin selling soap as part of their product offering. “We had an opportunity to supplement the business we already had in water filters and handwashing stations,” says John. 

Lessons learned and future plans

Aqua Clara Kenya was able to not only weather the impact of COVID-19 but to expand its offerings during the pandemic. John explains that this was only possible due to the strong partnerships it had created in 2019. Although the organization didn’t achieve its goal of increasing sales five times in 2020, it did double its 2019 sales. 

John says that the team is more resilient because of the crisis and that it has learned a lot from the pandemic experience. Aqua Clara Kenya hopes to leverage the company’s partnerships with NGOs and governments to grow further. Equipped with better financial forecasting and cash flow predictability from its accelerator experience, John hopes that the company will continue to increase revenue and become a cash-flow-positive company in 2022. 

“We believe we are better equipped than we were in 2019 to successfully go through any challenges we may experience in the market,” says John. The company is looking for investment to help with product development and improvements that it identified during the accelerator program, including growing inventory and volume to increase profitability. 

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