Grassroots Innovation | Water, Poverty and the role of the ubiquitous Mobile Phone

In my attempt to point out that the most compelling nature of Innovation is one that touches and changes lives, I’ve decided to focus on the grassroots-level innovation (please see my previous posts on the subject), on how this type of innovation is making a difference in the lives of “the other 90%” of the world’s population, the urban and rural poor, many of whom survive on a measly $2/day or less.

Here’s a look at Water Matters, the most fundamental of all basic human needs and its most challenging, and how the simple mobile phone is bringing about changes that are probably unthinkable to most of us living in the developed economies.

I came across Water & Poop, a blog on water and sanitation, and the various ways mobile phones (via SMS texting) are making a difference across Africa and Asia pertaining to water matters.


1. Community Led Total Sanitation Tracking via SMS – In a World Bank WSP funded project in Indonesia, Health Officers and Sanitarians started using SMS to report on baseline conditions and progress on the path towards Open Defecation Free Communities.  The officers text in the number of latrines contructed and other key information to a SMS server which processes the information and puts it into some sort of database.  According to WSP they will plan to replicate this in 29 districts in the Province.

An excerpt from Water and Poop:

When we talk about cell phones for water and sanitation we are talking about a broad range of uses and technologies.  On the simple end we can use basic cell phones to transmit data through sms (text messages) or voice.  We can get more fancy and utilize smart phones that run more serious operating systems and have powerful features like internet connectivity, GPS, and cameras. The above is an example of mobile phone use to improve Here are some examples of how people have started using cell phones to improve water and sanitation-related services in Africa and Asia.


2. Questions & AnswersIRC International Water and Sanitation Center piloted an SMS based Question and Answer service to link communities and individual users with information related to their water supply.  Questions submitted via SMS are (or were) answered by one of the members a Water and Sanitation Network.  Questions ranging from the costs of spare hand pump parts to inquiries about low pressure in a piped system in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania have been answered by this service.  This pilot project started back in 2005 and I have not received any response by the operators whether they are still in action.


3. Water from Cell Phones Grundfos, the Danish Water Pump Company, launched a new business model called LifeLinkLifeLink is a small water enterprise (see previous post on SWEs) that uses cell phones to transfer “water credits” from the user’s bank account to that of the pump operator.  Lifelink constructs a solar powered water kiosk in a community and when someone wants to buy water they add credits to their account thorugh a simple text message transaction.  The kiosk displays the users balance after they swipes some sort of pass.  After that they are free to have as much water as they can afford.


4.  Information Broadcasting – A number of programs throughout Africa and Asia have attempted to use SMS to broadcast information about everything from handwashing to water conservation.

These four cases are by no means comprehensive, however, they illustrate excellent examples of how people are using mobile phones related to water, sanitation and hygiene.  In summary, the uses can be categorized into the following uses:

  • Monitoring and Evaluation – Cell phones can be used to collect information and relay data back to some central location.  This fucntionality can be extremly useful for tracking progress of work and maintaining transparency.
  • Information Services (for the end-user) – People can get information by calling or texting a specified number (in addition to the example above check out Google sms in Uganda).
  • Gateway – The cell phone can act as a mechanism to enable a service (think about the Grundfos example above).

To date, none of these projects have really gone to scale.  As you could imagine there are some huge barriers to success including poor cell phone networks (including poor coverage and a lot of system downtime).

Inspiration: Water and Poop


About dianhasan

Brand Storyteller, Travel Writer, Speaker, Creative Writer & Thinker - avid observer of randomness in everyday life - Sustainable Business, Eco Matters, Sustainable Urban Issues, Architecture, Heritage Conservation, Innovation & Brand-Strategy, Cross-Cultural Communications, Travel, Tourism & Lifestyle.
This entry was posted in Africa, Asia, BoP (Bottom of the Pyramid), Grassroots Innovation, Indonesia, Tanzania, Uganda, Water Matters and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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