Saturday, 21 November 2015

Charity or Business: Funding for water aid projects in Cameroon should be strictly based on a business model

At the heart of modernity, on the hilly slopes of Njinikom Subdivision, lies a small village of 1,700 people called Asuchu. The place is situated some 54 kilometres from Bamenda town, near the Njinikom national highway, Boyo Division, North West Region, Cameroon. On travelling to this village, you might be fooled by the graded roads, cabling, good houses, and the numerous signs of development projects.
This uninhibited well water system is found in Babessi subdivision, North West region of Cameroon, where more than 90% of the existing community water supply schemes do not have maintenance equipment and trained technicians to carter for the tanks and standpipes.

But that is not the case with Asuchu, one of the 14 villages that make up the Njinikom Sub Division. The village lacks clean water and electricity. Water is the biggest challenge these days as 11 water-borne disease cases were recorded at the state hospital, the Njinikom Health Centre, for the first five days of the month of August. The Chief of Centre, Olivia Kisseh said the situation is becoming recurrent and disturbing, because this is the first time she has seen this level in over the last three to five months.

For several years Judith Yung, 46 years old, and the other 1,699 inhabitants of Asuchu, have been suffering with the problem of potable water, despite the fact that the community have benefited from a government and two NGO water aid projects in their area. “The water that comes out from the tap systems here is dirty because the catchment was poorly built, water runoffs from the rain easily get into the catchment and so we get dirty water here. Our real needs for development are electricity and water.” Judith cries.

In the past three years, the government of Cameroon, with loans from the African Development Fund (ADF) of the African Development Bank (ADB) of about 12.5 billion Francs CFA, has been supporting rural development in a project called Support Project for Rural Infrastructures and Participatory Development (GRASSFIELD II) in the North West Region. Under the framework of this project, the Asuchu water problem was addressed with a water catchment for many communities and pipe connections into the village.

At the same time, the Swiss Government gave material donations worth thousands of dollars through a middle-man (who people refuse to name openly because of fear for their own security) to the community to build a water tank. “When the middle-man who was working with the white men from the Swiss Government, came here to supply the materials, he asked us to pay a huge sum of money, which we did.” Madame Flora, Municipal Councillor for Asuchu, revealed. Money set aside as a community contribution for the project was therefore given to the middle-man. This led to the poor installation of the water tank and some taps in the area. At present, the source is getting drier and the community’s grief is welling up.

However, the community had sensed the danger of the drying source at the catchment, partly donated by the Swiss Government, and consequently built another catchment with a new source worth about 200,000 Francs CF (US $400). But because of poor construction and lack of good maintenance, the water that flows down the pipes is most often worse than the springs and streams where people have traditionally collected water.

In Asuchu, just like almost everywhere in the North West Region, “most of the existing potable water installations have poor sanitation conditions,” said Mbanga Lawrence Akei, researcher in the Department of Geography at the University of Bamenda in his recent publication titled: Regional Institutions in Rural Council Area Development in the North West Region, Cameroon at the Journal of Sustainable Development; Vol. 8, No. 1; 2015, earlier this year.

“More than 90% of the existing community water supply schemes do not have maintenance equipment and trained technicians to maintain the tanks and standpipes.” Mr Lawrence added.

Currently, the Asuchu community development association is looking for other NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), governments or personal and institutional donors that can help them to repair their broken water systems or construct a new one.

Are the failures due to lack of will? Or are they because the aid projects were not based on a sound business model?

In the meantime, the Swiss government has agreed to invest a total of US$150,318 on projects in Cameroon. The UN OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) financial tracking reports on aid and development project in Cameroon as of July 11, 2015 says the US is the highest donor in Cameroon with total funding of US$50m, in second place is Japan with US$17m followed by the European Union at US$16m.

The success of this very significant level of funding will depend on whether it has a sound business model and not a charity model. However, Ryan Yoder, the Executive Director of ACTIVE SPACES, tech hub, argues that aid projects must have a sound business model in order to succeed.

Ryan is very clear. “The most important part is that the person who is investing his money is able to get a return on his investment. Impact investors have realized that if you are looking for a completely social outcome and there is not a real business outcome behind, it is not going to be sustainable. Yeah, we want to have impact, we want to make some change happen, but if it isn’t able to sustain itself, then the impact is not going to be there for long.”

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