Quiet Heroes in the Fight against Ebola

  • IMPACT Highlights

This article was originally and published by Global Communities here

While the Ebola crisis was at its peak, a small group of WASH entrepreneurs helped in a significant way by repairing hand pumps in clinics and other health facilities in some of the country’s hardest-hit counties. By restoring access to water — not only for drinking, but also for infection prevention and control — these WASH entrepreneurs ensured that facilities had the resources they needed to promote hand washing and safe hygiene practices that could help combat the spread of the disease.

Liberia’s Bong, Lofa and Nimba counties were some of the areas most affected during the Ebola crisis. The communities in these counties are largely rural and hard to get to. Roads and infrastructure are poor and government services are limited. In these rural communities access to water and sanitation facilities are extreme challenges. According to the latest data from the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, nearly 80 percent of rural Liberians do not have adequate sanitation facilities. At the same time, 47 percent of rural residents do not have safe, clean water sources.

Market-driven solutions

To tackle these issues, USAID launched the Integrated Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (IWASH) program in 2010 which targeted communities in six counties and parts of Monrovia to improve water supply systems, sanitation facilities and hygiene practices. To increase water access, rather than just paying contractors to fix wells and pumps, Global Communities trained local entrepreneurs to fix them and to market their services to communities in the future.

Through IWASH and ongoing PACS, more than 200 WASH entrepreneurs were recruited and trained to work closely with communities and increase the demand for and the use of WASH facilities and products.

Entrepreneurs were trained in hand pump repair, hand-dug well construction and rehabilitation soap making, and latrine construction. In addition to providing these services, they also served as vendors for WASH-related equipment supplying local communities with materials needed to repair hand pumps and latrines. To help the entrepreneurs be successful, they also received training in key business topics including job costing, financial management, profit reinvestment and marketing.

Establishing trust with communities

Once the WASH entrepreneurs had graduated they were introduced to their target communities. The entrepreneurs either served the communities where they were from or other nearby communities. This means they were familiar with the communities where they worked. As the Ebola crisis worsened and the need for WASH services grew, these locally-based entrepreneurs proved they were more cost-effective and able to more quickly access these clinics than pump mechanics from larger towns farther away.

The entrepreneurs proved their effectiveness working very closely with humanitarian organizations and government counterparts to construct, rehabilitate and repair protected water sources in their rural communities. They went the extra mile into hard-to-reach areas and as a result of these efforts, community members have grown to trust in them. While the technical training and skills development of the entrepreneurs has been critical to their success, the long-lasting relationships they have built with the residents they serve has been equally important. These relationships built on cultural understanding, trust and friendship are contributing to the long-term sustainability and ownership of communal and individual WASH facilities within these communities.

Defying stereotypes

Esther Moye
Esther supervises the excavation of a hand dug well. To date, Esther and her team have built or rehabilitated 40 wells.

Esther Moye exemplifies that type of long-lasting relationships that WASH entrepreneurs have with their communities. She was one of the first WASH entrepreneurs trained under the IWASH program. In her small village of Maluquille, she began constructing latrines, repairing hand pumps and building wells. Despite being a woman, word of her skills got out and she received more contracts in neighboring districts to repair their WASH infrastructure. She describes how people would just stand around with their mouths open in disbelief as she made repairs.

To date, Esther and her team have built or rehabilitated 40 wells in five districts throughout Bong County. In addition to her repair and construction skills, she has produced more than 14,000 bars of soap which she has sold to clinics, schools and communities to improve hygiene and encourage handwashing. Esther has also been very successful in promoting and selling WaterGuard — a chlorine solution for treating water so that it is safe for drinking. Esther and her team have been so successful that they decide to officially register their business. With this official registration, they can now solicit contracts from other entities like NGOs and private construction companies. In fact, they were just contracted by a private firm to construct three new hand dug wells fitted with hand pumps in three different districts.

In her role as a successful technician and business woman, Esther is challenging traditional stereotypes. She explains how some people in the community have openly confessed to her that they never believed a woman could do such a great job. Esther is proud of her work as a WASH entrepreneur and example she is setting for her community and her family. The training “changed my life,” she says. “Before we were just making charcoal. Now I am able to support my family. I am able to buy clothes, food and register my children for school. I am also helping my community.”

Private sector contributions

As the WASH entrepreneurs became established and demonstrated their effectiveness, Global Communities was able to attract private sector donors to support the model. The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation made investments to support the training of an additional 114 WASH entrepreneurs through the WASH Entrepreneur Livelihood and Learning (WELL) program in Bong, Lofa and Nimba counties. With support from ExxonMobil and NOCAL, Global Communities recently launched the WASH Entrepreneur Economic Empowerment (WE3) program. Through WE3, an additional 120 new WASH entrepreneurs are being recruited and trained and will be rapidly deployed to yield immediate benefits to communities. At least 50 percent of new recruits are women. In concert with Government of Liberia and the Ministry of Public Works, these new entrepreneurs will conduct in-depth assessments on WASH facilities at schools, clinics and in communities that need repairs and rehabilitation. Other key activities under the program include vendor identification and supply chain mapping. Global Communities will work with entrepreneurs to identify WASH product vendors, companies and suppliers which vital to ensure the availability of WASH products at all times within target communities to promote sustainability and ownership.

Having a well-trained cadre of WASH entrepreneurs offers promising potential to provide essential WASH services as Liberia recovers from Ebola and seeks to establish stronger and more sustainable health systems. By providing a market-based model for WASH services, gains made through infrastructure investments and health programming can continue to grow independently even after donor-funded programs are complete. WASH entrepreneurs have demonstrated success by providing localized and affordable services to communities typically left out of the WASH market and through continued training, formalization and investment, these entrepreneurs can better link community demand and private sector supply for WASH services in Liberia.