Global Waters
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Global Waters

An Audacious Plan to Deliver Safe, Reliable Water to All of Rural Benin… Profitably.

Can an ambitious public-private partnership lead to the successful delegation of rural water supply management to small businesses for an entire country in sub-Saharan Africa? Benin offers a test case.

In a 2020 article, Dr. Rob Hope and collaborators in Oxford University’s REACH program described aspects of scale, demand, institutions, and finance that make rural water economics so fundamentally different (and more challenging) than urban water supply.

Recognition of these kinds of obstacles motivated the government of Benin to engage in a decade-long effort to first test and then scale a novel policy approach to delivering rural water supply services, with support and technical assistance from the World Bank. In this approach, known as regional affermage, the government assumes the capital costs for water infrastructure and formally delegates responsibility for the operation and maintenance of rural water supply services. Private sector contractors competitively bid to manage very large consolidated service areas. In Benin’s case, the rural areas are divided into three service areas of approximately three million inhabitants each.

To explore the potential of the Benin experiment, the REAL-Water podcast (available on Anchor, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts, among other platforms) recently invited Thierry Barbotte and Mikael Dupuis of UDUMA to drill down into the details. UDUMA is part of a consortium that was awarded two out of the three regional affermage awards for Benin.

Providing sustainable water access in rural Africa: addressing a vital need. Credit: UDUMA

Affermage contracts supplying large service areas were meant to address several of the challenges laid out in Hope’s article: “the economic logic of one supplier to avoid duplicating costs (storage, treatment, delivery, waste, billing, customer services) makes it a natural monopoly, which can reduce costs and raise standards for consumers, if properly regulated. Rural water at the community level lacks scale and provides a lower-quality service due to the physical time and effort required to collect water from off-site supplies, such as handpumps or kiosks.” Consolidating service areas should, in theory, increase economies of scale and pool risks (particularly financial risk).

The Benin regional affermages were also intended to “crowd in” commercial investment for rural water supply, using both development finance and public finance strategically to attract private sector financing. UDUMA is convinced that end-user tariffs for reliable, high-quality water supply can cover the costs of operating rural water supply systems (including the costs of capital maintenance) and even generate a modest return for investors. Importantly, the costs of capital are assumed by the government or by development finance via concessional loans or grants.

Thierry and Mikael describe what led to the creation of UDUMA — a rural water service provider — out of Vergnet Hydro, a company that manufacturers and supplies pumping and conveyance hardware. Initial pilot efforts in Burkina Faso offered evidence for the potential of private sector models for rural water supply system operation (again, conditioned on co-investment by government or development institutions). Incorporation of UDUMA as a service provider followed, with expansion first into Mali and now Benin.

Podcast quote. Credit: Vanessa Guenther

Just getting to the contracting stage represents years of legal and institutional reforms in Benin, the culmination of which was the competition for the three contracts and resulting awards. The contracts are only now being finalized, but over the coming years, the financial performance of UDUMA’s consortium (as well as another consortium led by Tunisia’s SONEDE International) and the operational performance of the hundreds of water supply systems for which they are responsible will provide an indication of if and how these regional affermages can bring reliable water supply to Benin’s rural communities.

By the REAL Water team

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USAID Water Team

USAID and its partners improve access to clean water and safe sanitation to create a healthier and more #WaterSecureWorld. For more, visit Globalwaters.org.