In every day of 2020 water firms had to adapt and innovate. In addition to supplying their usual customers they had to supply hand washing water and facilities. At the same time their revenues were falling as the government closed schools and businesses.
March 2020 was the beginning of financial pressure for water services firms. Businesses and education institutions were closed because of Covid-19. This led to fall in revenues.
Nyahururu Water and Sewerage Company saw the amount of water it sells fall because of hotels, schools, colleges and universities were closed.
Further, the firm’s revenue dropped since some of the consumers were unable to pay their water bills because they either lost their jobs. Others had closed their businesses.
In addition, the firm faced internal difficulties.
Employees worked less. The firm reduced the number of employees at work in a given day so as to keep physical distance.
Also, the firm was unable to all its customers’ meters because it had to cut home visits by water meter readers.
How did the firm survive will this thin income?
Managing Director Peter Mwangi said the firm had to remain afloat. It had to find ways to continue supplying water and sewerage during the pandemic.
“We minimised capital expenditure by scaling down on capital investments to secure funds for critical needs such as operations and maintenance,” he said.
Further, the firm cut other expenses such as training and travelling.
The government and Japan International Cooperation Agency gave the firm water treatment chemicals which helped it save money.
The government gave one million kilogrammes of water treatment chemicals to 74 water services firms.
Some water firms are now seeing their incomes returning to levels before the pandemic. This follows the reopening schools and colleges for some students and reopening of the closed businesses.
Mr Mwangi said that water firms must have a business recovery and continuity plan to enable them survive business disturbances. He said that the difficulties of Covid-19 have taught him that a firm must have a plan to keep business moving all the time.
“Company [must] have business continuity strategies that address unforeseen situations such as pandemics and other misfortunes,” Mr Mwangi said.
Mr Mwangi said that information and communication technology is one of the business opportunities he sees coming from Covid-19 pandemic.
He said his firm would increase investments in information technologies.
Mr Mwangi said that from March to now the firm was able to successfully hold virtual meetings using modern technologies.
“The company was presented with an opportunity to identify areas that can be improved through technology,” he said. “This will minimise people interactions during work thereby reducing chances of infections.”
The firm is planning to use smart meter reading technologies. This would enable billing officers to obtain water meter readings while at the office without travelling to meter locations.
“We need to adopt technologies that minimise people interactions at workplace,” Mr Mwangi said. “This will ensure work continuity during crisis such as Covid-19 pandemic.”
Lockdowns and movement restrictions have accelerated search and adoption of digital solutions that enable remote control.
So, the ability to improve the analytics and provide high quality remote control solutions is essential.
Mr David Leffler, director general, Israel’s ministry of Economy and Industry told Digital Water Israel Virtual Expo on 10 November that innovative solutions were necessary.
For example, when a water firm installed electromagnetic meters in its line it found out that it was losing 52% of its water.
Here is the interview in full with Mr Peter Mwangi, managing director, Nyahururu Water and Sewerage Company.
Water Tower: What were the main difficulties in 2020?
Mr Peter Mwangi: Upon world declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic and its entry to Kenya in March 2020, the Kenyan government imposed far reaching measures meant to contain the spread of the pandemic within the country. Among the measures taken were closure of all learning institutions, entertainment joints, hotels and restaurants, restricted movements in and out of counties on Mombasa, Nairobi and Mandera and reductions on public transportation among others. These measures resulted in the following difficulties.
- Reduced water consumption due to closure of hotels, schools, colleges and universities
- Reduced revenues due to reduced billing and inability of consumers to pay their water bills occasioned by negative economic impacts of Covid-19 pandemic
- Demand for urgent investments in hand washing facilities in public places such as bus parks, markets
- Reduced work efficiency due to the need of scaling down workforce to minimise physical contacts among employees
- Difficulties in meter reading due to need for reduced visits to individual homes by meter readers
- Reduced morale in workforce due to scare of contracting the virus.
- Difficulties in meeting the operations and maintenance cost due to reduced revenues.
- Challenges in holding ordinary meetings including monthly performance monitoring meetings as well as board of directors’ meetings
- Challenges in meeting electricity cost due to reduced billing arising from low water consumption. The company spends Sh2 million monthly in paying electricity bills for power used in pumping water.
How did you tackle those difficulties?
To remain afloat and continue offering the much needed water and sanitation services during the pandemic, the company was forced to take the following measures.
- Reduce the number of employees working in the offices by letting those with special conditions to work from home
- Minimise on capital expenditure by scaling down on capital investments to secure funds for critical needs such as operations and maintenance
- Seeking assistance from the national government and other development partners, such as Japan International Cooperation Agency.
- Minimise cost by scaling down administrative activities such as trainings, travels, games, benchmarking trips.
- Provision of protective equipment to staff such as face masks, hand gloves and sanitisers.
- Holding virtual meetings where necessary.
- Cushion customers by not disconnecting water supply due to non-payment of their water bills.
What were the main opportunities or positive things you saw in 2020?
Despite the challenges experienced in 2020, a few opportunities also arose. The following are some of the opportunities experienced during the year.
- Opportunity to participate in enhanced personal hygiene through installation of hand washing facilities at public places such bus parks and markets. Through this undertaking the company took this opportunity to create awareness to the public about the services offered by the company.
- The company got water treatment chemicals from Japan International Cooperation Agency and ministry of Water, Sanitations and Irrigation. This enabled the company to continue supplying high quality potable water to consumers.
- The company was presented with an opportunity to identify areas that can be improved through technology to minimise people interactions during work thereby reducing chances of infections. This includes use of smart meter reading technologies that enable billing officers to obtain meter readings at the comfort of their offices without having to visit the meter locations.
- The national government was challenged to have more focus on water utilities and provide assistance during crises such as the one occasioned by Covid-19 pandemic.
- The company found an opportunity in conducting virtual meetings where it has been realised that modern technology can be used to deliver results.
What have you learnt this year, which you will carry to 2021?
The difficulties experienced in 2020, the remedial actions taken and the opportunities therein taught use the following lessons.
- The need for the company to have business continuity strategies that address unforeseen situations such as pandemics and other misfortunes.
- Need to adopt technologies that minimise people interactions at workplace which will ensure work continuity during crisis such as Covid-19 pandemic.
- Need for collaboration between water utilities and county governments, national government and development partners in ensuring continuous provision of water and sanitation services and increased coverage for the same.
- Water and sanitation services are essential and there is need for continuous and coordinated investments in them.
- Provision of water and sanitation services is a delicate undertaking that requires concerted effort by all key stakeholders. All levels of governments should invest heavily in provision of water and sanitation services to cushion the public against pandemics such as Covid-19.
What opportunities do you foresee in 2021?
As we approach 2021, we expect the following opportunities.
- Increased capital investments in water sector by the national and county governments.
- Increased investments by the company in technology.
- Increased collaboration between the water utility, national and county governments and development partners.
What would you request the national and county governments to do to help water firms?
The following are the proposals to both levels of government.
- Ensure enhanced collaboration between the two levels of government and the water utility to enhance service delivery.
- National government to increase funds to county government for water and sanitation services.
- National government to enhance investments in the water sector through its bodies such as water works development agencies and National Water Storage and Harvesting Authority.
- County government to invest more in community based water projects so as to reach the unserved populations in rural areas.
- County government to enhance investments in infrastructure renewal in areas served by water utilities to minimise physical water losses and ensure service sustainability.