By Bridget Teirney

Life in small towns is rapidly changing for communities across Africa. In the next twenty years the urban population is expected to double, and urban land cover to triple. But urbanisation isn’t just impacting the continents’ large and mega cities.

Small towns are also undergoing significant transformation. Straddling both urban and rural life, they are at the forefront of this change, and systems and structures need to be adapted to keep up. Provision of water supply is one example of an essential service that needs to adapt to this evolution.

In Uganda, many of the country’s water supply systems serve dispersed populations in rural areas or small towns, but these communities are rapidly outgrowing the systems that have been deteriorating due to operations inefficiencies and minimal maintenance. In response, the government is tackling this challenge by bringing typically urban structures of utility management to small towns and rural growth centres. The new WSUP Advisory report The challenge of small towns: Professionalising piped water services in Western Uganda provides an overall view of the progress achieved with that initiative.

Professionally managed networks

The sector change began in 2006, when the Government of Uganda restructured the national framework for water supply to establish six regional support organisations (Umbrellas) to provide technical support to private suppliers and communities in these small towns. Then in 2017, the Ministry of Water & Environment took the next step to transform these umbrellas into utilities, water supply and sanitation authorities known as Umbrella Authorities.

Establishing these Umbrella Authorities is just the beginning of the transformation story. Their mandate is to extend water services to 100% of urban areas and 85% of rural areas by 2025. And the challenge to achieve this is significant: to navigate the journey from dispersed, quasi-independent, micro-scale water supply systems to professionally managed networks of piped water supply systems in rural growth areas and small towns in eight years.

Kyenjojo town, in Western Uganda. Credit: Bridget Teirney

WSUP Advisory, with funding from the Conrad N Hilton Foundation, have been supporting the Mid Western Umbrella (MWU) to navigate this transition since 2018. The overarching goal of this support is to help the MWU to become a ‘performing utility’ that can provide safe, sustainable water services for all its customers. The strategy for the utility wide support programme has been for each business improvement initiative to be developed with and led by MWU staff. In the early days of the programme, within a busy and changing operating environment, the support activities were planned to contribute directly to operational priorities.

This created scope later on for more strategic development activities, such as government improvements, strategic planning, and talent management.  From the offset, it was clear that the MWU would need to operate to some extent as a ‘virtual’ utility, keeping overhead costs to a minimum while operating remote systems that generate limited revenues.

Organisational change

The MWU initiated a decentralised approach of area management with a secretariat, driven forward by the core programme management team using the Area Performance Management Framework (APMF). In addition to creating a lean, decentralised structure, the support programme enables and facilitates organisational change by engaging, motivating and helping improve the working practices of staff at all levels of the MWU.

WSUP Advisory have been supporting Uganda’s Mid Western Umbrella (MWU) since 2018. Credit: Bridget Teirney

For the MWU to succeed in becoming a performing utility, the support programme recognises that its staff must manage and operate the utility as a business, not just a water service provider. The APMF energises the utility’s staff and helps management to institutionalise a professional approach. The publication The challenge of small towns: Professionalising piped water services in Western Uganda explains in much more detail the role of the Area Performance Management Framework as the driver for change in the MWU.  The APMF has contributed to significant performance improvement:

  • Billing and collection rates increased
  • The Umbrella is regularly recovering its operational and maintenance costs
  • Water quality tests are performed more regularly
  • Incentivised area teams have the confidence to set and meet increasingly challenging performance expectations

There are five key recommendations the WSUP Advisory report makes to help other utilities serving small towns:

  1. Adopt a decentralised management structure to remain lean, cost-effective and responsive
  2. Develop talent and empower middle management
  3. Start with short-term performance improvement and track simple metrics
  4. Meet operational costs to create breathing room
  5. Align support programmes with operational priorities

The WSUP Advisory Uganda report provides further insight into each of these recommendations and provides specific experience and insights for all those concerned with sustainably managing water supply in small towns across Africa.

Top image: Construction of water quality filter at Bundibugiyo. Credit: Stephen Mwesigwa