How Human Centered Design can Help ICTs to Innovate for WASH

Usman Khaliq
iDT Labs
Published in
7 min readDec 4, 2017


Background to the Water and Sanitation Situation in Sierra Leone

When the civil war raged in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002, it disrupted and upturned most of the systems in the small West African country. Amongst the worst affected was the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in both urban and rural areas. About 15 years later, the country still faces massive challenges in the WASH sector. According to WASH Watch, by 2015, 58.1% of Sierra Leone’s population had access to at least basic water, 75% of whom lived in urban centers while 47% lived in the rural areas. However, these statistics cannot be taken at face-value. Moreover, despite plenty of natural water resources and high annual rainfall, water access continues to be a major barrier to poverty alleviation (60% of the country lives below the national poverty line).

At the moment, there are a number of both state and public actors working to improve the state of WASH in Sierra Leone. The government has taken the following steps over the years to improve the performance of the sector

  • Developed the country’s first National Water Policy to provide guidelines for implementing long-term, sustainable policies for managing water resources.
  • Granted more power to local councils to enhance community participation
  • Implemented policy changes to the water utility companies, i.e. Guma Valley Water Company and the Sierra Leone Water Company to attract private sector partnership
  • Encouraged local and international NGOs, such as the DFID, GOAL, Oxfam, Action Aid etc to provide implementation support in the WASH sector

However, several gaps in the delivery of water services still exist due to the complex and pervasive nature of the problem

The Challenges in the WASH sector in Freetown

In Freetown, the country’s capital and largest urban center, water access is a nuanced issue. With the population of the capital increasing every year, the resources are already stretched to their maximum capacity and the demand for water often does not meet the supply. Despite the reported amount of 75% urban dwellers having access to at least basic water, the statistic does not highlight more subjective concerns such as the quality of the water, duration of availability or the time it takes to access the water. Owing to the slow pace of national level surveys, acquiring updated information about water access, particularly in urban areas like Freetown, can be a slow and tiresome process. It was precisely in these conditions in which Code for Sierra Leone, the local chapter of Code for Africa and supported by iDT Labs, started exploring how ICT can be used to innovate for better WASH services.

Our Solution: A Web Based Water Mapping Platform

Using open source code and crowd sourced information, Code for Sierra Leone prototyped a real time web platform to do water point mapping across the country. Along with showcasing the total number of water points available at any given time, the prototype could also filter the water points by province, by seasonal availability as well as by functionality. By using Telegram, a free-to-use messaging app, Code for Sierra Leone enabled citizens to acquire as well as provide information about any water point via messages. Through this water point mapping activity, we provided a sort of living map which could be accessed and updated by citizens and used by public and private institutions to improve on WASH service delivery.

The MWASH Water Point Mapping Platform
A Map of Water Points Across Sierra Leone

The Challenges of Implementing Successful ICT Initiatives in the WASH Sector

Water point mapping using ICT based solutions has been increasingly undertaken by ICTs in several countries across sub-saharan Africa. In Liberia for example, a platform called FLOW, an open source mapping software, was able to map out 10,000 water points in under 6 months in 2011, which proved critical to the national WASH sector investment plan from 2012–2017. Apart from water point mapping, ICTs in sub-saharan Africa have also provided context-specific solutions in areas such as collecting payments, highlighting citizen concerns and improving the overall experience of WASH delivery. In Benin for example, an ICT platform called mWater made it easy for local banks to invest in water service providers. In Kenya, the Kiamumbi Water Trust (KWT) used M-PESA to allow 550 families to pay their monthly water bills through mobile money, and in Nairobi, an ICT based platform called MajiVoice was used to enable citizens to swiftly register complaints with water service providers. Sierra Leone however, has unfortunately very few ICT-based solutions in the WASH sector, with Code for Sierra Leone’s water point mapping prototype among the first to innovate in this space.

Our Approach for Ensuring A Successful ICT Implementation: Human Centered Design

Due to the lack of precedents, and a general lack of understanding by public and private institutions about how ICTs can provide critical assistance in WASH in Sierra Leone, Code for Sierra Leone has had to push and test its approach. Even though there are several possibilities of using ICT in WASH, what has worked in other West African countries will not necessarily work in Sierra Leone. With its unique history and political, social and economic landscape, any ICTs hoping to innovate for WASH locally must adopt a user centric approach which can build upon the experiences of the different stakeholders. Keeping this in mind, Code for Sierra Leone partnered up with The Engine Room through its Matchbox project to understand how ICT based solutions can play a bigger and more critical role in the WASH sector in Sierra Leone. With specialized assistance from Nonso Jideofor from The Engine Room, Code for Sierra Leone conducted field research using human centered design principles.

Following are some of the key learnings and insights from the exercise:

1.There are many different solutions being pursued by different stakeholders, and some of these solutions might actually be working against each other: Addressing water access challenges in Sierra Leone is a collective and difficult to coordinate effort involving the ministry of water resources, private sector funds, community managers and citizens, simultaneously chiming in at different points. This can sometimes result in instances where some efforts can appear to be working against each other. It is common for citizens to organize and repair public water infrastructure out of their own pockets in their immediate community, this in turn breeds into open disregard for responsible government agencies because of the long history of institutional neglect.

2. Citizens have honed context-based solutions on a-need-by-need basis: This can go from out of pocket repairs to damaging of public infrastructure in pursuit of improvisation. It is common to find pipes severed and gushing water in street gutters. On the average a citizen relies on 2 of 4 waterpoints: a) piped connections from the water company b)taps found in the streets either from a donor, water company, political contributors and rarely local CSOs iii) fetchers, economic intermediaries hurling water with carts, vehicles, bikes or bare hands saving their clients time and energy for a fee iv) packed water company, thriving on the bargain of safe drinking water.

3.Water enterprises are disparate and un-integrated into Freetown’s water strategy:The most progress maybe around piped connection but it is only a quarter of waterpoints. The remaining third quarter hold equally important water transaction (volume of water, amount of money exchange and level of human interaction) and in some cases, maybe more significant. The biggest blind sight for investor seeking to improve this situation, at least in Freetown appears to be acknowledging only the role and working with only a quarter of the enterprises — piped connections into households. Enterprises are a crucial leverage point to move the needle; MDAs are significant but maybe unable to move quickly due to limited resources and bureaucracy, not to mention being saddled with political realities.

4. Access to water needs to be prioritized before hygiene and sanitation: citizens need water education and information in general but without access to water there are no incentives to engage in meaningful ways.

5. ICTs can offer diverse solutions to water enterprises: Integrating into water governance institutions, improving their business processes and client engagement, creating hub of accurate and real-time data and involving journalist and media activities in amplifying citizens voices.

Ideating Future Prospects

1.Water Enterprise Application: an online and offline database of water enterprises, organized by communities, built for and managed by the ministry and accessible to the general public.

2.Water Enterprise Integration Program (WEIP): a phased adoption of water enterprises into the framework which the ministry of water resources oversees towards holistic operations.

3.WataMita: a community rating of government performance based on water point coverage and services only.

4.Packed Water for All: allows customers to give packed water to nearby communities whenever they make purchases. As a business model water companies can build on customers loyalty to the product type to raise extra resource for free distribution of packed water to those who may not be able to afford it.

The Next Steps

We are now actively looking into scaling the learnings from our HCD exercise and launching a pilot to test our understanding of the system. An effective WASH sector is critical for ensuring that the basic standard of living in Sierra Leone is improved, which in turn is a necessary pre-requisite for the economic growth of any nation.



Usman Khaliq
iDT Labs

data science. healthcare.