South Africa’s success with onsite sanitation social franchising

Photo credit: Jay Bhagwan, WRC

Kevin Wall, Oliver Ive and Jay Bhagwan explain the progress made in developing and applying social franchising to maintain onsite sanitation systems in homes and schools in South Africa.

Centralised sewered systems are a proven way to dispose of faeces and urine safely, but billions of people around the world do not enjoy this option. This is particularly so in the many cities and towns in developing countries with informal peri-urban settlements that lack formal utility coverage.

Onsite sanitation is the alternative to centralised systems. Like any other sanitation infrastructure, however, it must be operated and maintained correctly, or it will fail to provide an adequate service. In South Africa, lack of maintenance has rendered much onsite sanitation infrastructure unusable. This is ascribed to a lack of skills, or to lack of incentives or support for those who do have the skills to undertake the maintenance.

The issue is evident beyond urban areas, too. Especially hard hit have been many of the country’s rural schools, where water and sanitation infrastructure is either dysfunctional, needing radical intervention, or serviceable but deteriorating, and under threat of further deterioration unless supported by good operation and maintenance.

Several thousand previously unusable school and household toilets have been restored to – and kept in – working condition

The negative impact of poor sanitation and lack of clean water is that learners do not have the basic infrastructure to support them in their studies. This spills over into communities, as students should be taking their understanding of good water and sanitation home to improve practices there.

The challenge for onsite sanitation is one of technology, because of limited ease of operation and maintenance – but this is exacerbated by the social and institutional aspects that determine if a given solution will work in a real-world situation. The South African experience also offers a potential answer: social franchising.

History of the franchising initiative

The concept of for-profit franchising is well established around the world, including in South Africa; here, there are more than 400 for-profit franchised businesses, which – by means of tens of thousands of outlets – provide a great variety of services, from fast food, convenience shopping and education to undertakers. Thanks largely to the system’s use of proven business models, which are set up specifically to be copied widely – and to the mutual support inherent in the franchise system – franchisees are far less likely to fail than independent small businesses.

Social franchising is a well-known worldwide adaptation of for-profit franchising. The emphasis is on providing a social service and is less commercially driven. In 2005, social franchising in the area of water services was pioneered through funding from the Water Research Commission (WRC). Through work undertaken by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the first WRC scoping report was published on the possibilities of the social franchising model being adapted for operation and maintenance of water and sanitation infrastructure. This report identified the potential for such franchising to simultaneously deliver services and promote local economic development.

Subsequent studies and reports went into more detail about how this concept would work, what resources were required, and the legal implications, for example. The outcomes of these studies helped prompt private sector water services provider Amanz’ abantu to adopt this approach in its operations.

The studies then led to an extensive pilot project, led by Amanz’ abantu and funded by the WRC, that ran from 2009 to 2012. This proved how effective the concept could be in maintaining onsite (off-grid) water and sanitation services, simultaneously creating and nurturing first-time micro-entrepreneurs – mostly women – and training them and their employees.

The result was the creation of a subsidiary, Impilo Yabantu (‘hygiene for the people’ in the Xhosa language), to take on the role of franchisor and support local franchisee partners. Implementing the approach under the Impilo Yabantu brand name, franchisees have been working with municipalities in Eastern Cape and the provincial Department of Education to tackle operational issues around sanitation and water infrastructure at a significant scale. The service objective of the pilot project was simple – clean household and school toilets, and remove the faecal sludge, disposing of it in a way that is safe for the franchisee workers and the environment. At its peak, the programme was servicing more than 1,200 schools regularly. Unfortunately, institutional and governance challenges at the Department of Education resulted in the schools contract not being extended beyond 2016.

The most recent extension to the programme was funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB), through its African Water Facility. The objective was to partner with the sanitation programme of the Department of Education and help enhance and scale up the programme to all schools, as well as adding a set of innovative products and systems to its operation.

Evolution of the approach

In an early evolution of the franchising approach, franchisees also repaired the toilets and rainwater harvesting facilities. In addition, when access to sludge pits could only be obtained by removing the toilet top structure, the franchisor designed and built a trolley that enabled the top to be manhandled to one side – a further advantage of the franchise arrangement. It is unlikely that a stand-alone micro-enterprise would have had the expertise or resources to do this.

The approach has since become more ambitious. For example, the sludge is no longer disposed of, but put to good use. The follow-on programme funded by the AfDB involved the franchisees recycling biosolids into beneficial byproducts and providing hygiene education to schoolchildren. Impilo Yabantu has again played the franchisor role, and has supported and empowered the franchisees to transition to this new offering.

The franchisee teams visit schools and collect the biosolids using ‘honeysucker’ trucks. They treat the sun-dried biosolids using extensive heating by pyrolysis, which kills bacteria and pathogens, and turns the biosolids into a safe biochar for soil amendment. Biochar improves the soil by helping it to retain organics and nitrates. It also acts as a host for microorganisms that assist plants by breaking down nutrients in the soil, thereby helping the roots take up these nutrients.

Impilo Yabantu also developed software for the franchisees to enable them to lodge reports of problem areas. One of the mobile apps is used to collect data, map service areas and monitor repairs being undertaken.

Messages for wider application

Although the programme is not currently at the scale envisaged, the impact of this intervention and progress is that, in less than a decade, several thousand previously unusable school and household toilets have been restored to – and kept in – working condition. At the same time, sustainable jobs have been created and skills brought into the workplace.

While water services franchising shows great promise, there are challenges. Like any business, a franchise has to be financially self-sustainable. The South African experience shows there needs to be a wider climate that creates and nurtures micro-enterprises. Nonetheless, it offers valuable lessons for wider application in the rest of the continent.

It was important that a franchisor was established as the designated lead service provider, independent of any other responsibilities. This ensured a focus could be maintained on overcoming implementation challenges. Scaling up has to be financially viable – which, among other things, means there must be on-time payment for the service. The income stream has to be steady, and sufficient for each franchisee to cover all costs, including a reasonable wage for the franchisee and fees to the franchisor. The income must also be sufficient to build up reserves to cover lean times, when clients are slow to pay or work is hard to come by.

For franchises to succeed, clients have to monitor compliance with predetermined standards effectively, and franchisors have to nurture and guide their franchisees to ensure they learn and grow. Projects need to be structured so that, when they come to an end, the franchisees are sustainable microenterprises with the skills, workload and income stream to carry on as viable and profitable businesses.

The WRC is greatly enamoured by social franchising and sees it as a key element in improving operation and maintenance of sanitation and water facilities, and in resource recovery, microenterprise development, skills training, and the empowerment of women. A cabinet minister recently used the word “phenomenal” to describe the work done by the women franchisees, and the programme was widely recognised for its innovation at the recent AfricaSan 5 event.

Social franchising could close the gap in water services operation and maintenance, an area in which local government is struggling and failing. It also contributes to meaningful local enterprise and job creation. More such social innovations are required to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.