Findings of one of the earliest pieces of research under the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative are now emerging, and they’re fascinating.

In a nutshell: this research indicates that water utility customers in Kenyan cities would be willing to pay an average of US$ 3 per month (about 8% of the average water bill) as a “solidarity surcharge” to support sanitation improvements in low-income communities. Median willingness to pay (WTP) was lower than the average, at about US$ 1 per month. But even if we take the lower median value, that could potentially generate about US$ 0.5m annually in a city of around 1 million inhabitants: a pretty useful amount in the Kenyan context.

This research was led by researchers Rachel Peletz and Ranjiv Khush of Aquaya, a US-based research consultancy with a permanent presence in Kenya. Aquaya collaborated with University of California, Berkeley, researchers, Charisma Acey (Asst. Professor, City and Regional Planning), and David Levine (Professor, Haas School of Business). The study received excellent support from the Kenyan water services regulator WASREB (who are considering the possibility of introducing some sort of sanitation surcharge).

The work was based on focus group discussions with key stakeholders, followed by survey of about 400 utility customers in two Kenyan cities. [Bear with us if we don’t yet disclose the names of the two cities: these are pre-publication findings, and we need to give the utilities in those cities the opportunity to review and comment first.] The study looked not only at WTP (assessed by an approach called contingent valuation), but also factors potentially influencing WTP.

Specifically, the researchers hypothesised that WTP would be influenced 1) by trust (“will the authorities spend this money properly?”), 2) by perceived own-benefit (“will improving slum sanitation mean benefits for me?”), and 3) by solidarity (feelings around helping those less fortunate).

The findings are rich and complex, and can only be briefly summarised here; but essentially they indicate that trust and solidarity are both important, and that it will be easier to introduce a surcharge of this type if it’s associated with improvements in the quality of water and sanitation services as experienced by bill-payers themselves. As one respondent put it: “I would feel it’s okay to pay for someone else, because it affects me… when I am going outside my house, whatever he did outside, I will meet it. I’m the one to see it, my children might be affected because they might go and step on that waste.

These findings provide a useful basis for WASREB and other actors to think about whether a sanitation surcharge on water bills would be accepted by consumers, and to consider how such a surcharge might be designed and messaged.

As noted, these are pre-publication findings still undergoing review, but look out for publication of full methodology and findings in coming months. We’re delighted with the way this work has panned out: as far as we’re aware, it’s the first rigorous study of the willingness of non-poor utility customers to pay a surcharge amount to support sanitation improvements for poorer residents of their city.

Drawing on this experience, the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative is likely to be commissioning related research in Kenya, in Ghana and in Bangladesh.