Five lessons for sustainable business development

Themes: Business Plan Market development Sanitation WASH Water

Highlights from a global knowledge exchange with WSUP’s business development leads.   

By Annie Hall, WSUP Marketing Specialist

The WSUP London office was recently joined by seven of our Business Development Leads representing each of WSUP’s programme countries. The purpose was to further develop WSUP’s approach to business modelling, investigating the concept of business maturity and how to work with different financiers, particularly around how ‘value’ is defined.

Throughout the week the group met with key WSUP stakeholders and discussed the UK’s leading work in the areas of sustainability and the furtherment of the SDGs.

WSUP’s latest Business Plan outlines how, as an organisation, we’re becoming even more focused on new and innovative ways to deliver on SDG 6. Our business development champions in-country are core to realising this ambition.

The week brought together speakers, trainers and practitioners from within and outside the WASH sector. We shared ideas and experiences from a variety of backgrounds, yet we discovered the same themes kept coming to the fore, and not by design of the agenda.

WSUP’s business development leads during a session

Whilst the specific steps on the road towards SDG 6 may be diverse and dynamic, there is evident consensus that successful strategies will have some core principles in common:

A true shared vision

Whether we were talking about launching a brand, aligning a project team or pitching for impact investment, building a shared vision around the real value in your proposition came up time and time again.

Early in the week, Caroline Copeman, a consultant at CASS Business School and the Centre for Charity Effectiveness introduced us to dynamic strategy. She challenged us to resist thinking in terms of programmes and interventions and instead think about the customer and what they value the most. An example she gave was a telephone-based debt advice service, stressing that service users don’t really want great debt advice, they want a debt free life! It was clear that with this perspective in mind, far more valuable solutions could be designed.

Lisa Hawkes, Sustainable Behaviour Change Manager at Unilever really brought home the true value of having a clear vision and purpose to any product or business. She talked about Unilever’s commitment to designing for sustainability but stressed that this commitment is not simply a CSR initiative. It is core to Unilever’s success as purpose-led brands grow 69% faster on average.

During the week, these ideas were put into practice as we explored different brand strategy models and how they might help utilities or sanitation SMEs, identify their core value and use it to guide their culture and business growth strategy.

Passion for the problem

Another salient piece of advice came again from our partners at Deloitte and links closely with the concept of purpose and vision – “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution”.

This statement is all about user focus, human centred design principles and customer centricity, but more fundamentally it’s about not getting caught up in the excitement (or perhaps the safe familiarity) of your solution. Doing so may mean that you fail to notice there are better ways to solve the problem.

The consensus agreed that when it comes to tackling challenges as large and complex as the WASH crisis, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Any favoured solutions should always be held lightly to make space for continued interrogation and learning. When reflecting on recent projects, Jane Olley, Technical Manager of WSUP Advisory, summarised “you don’t use business modelling to give the answer, you use it to explore the question”.

Solid stakeholder management

Throughout the week we shared learnings from WSUP countries. Our colleagues in Bangladesh shared their experience in developing a public-private partnership between the municipal authorities and local entrepreneurs to transform pit-emptying services in multiple cities across the country.

Blog: How a sanitation waste partnership is transforming cities in Bangladesh

When trying to engage key stakeholders and influencers, change-makers must often answer an all-important question: “What’s in it for me?”. This topic prompted much debate when discussing how to encourage service providers to adopt a customer-centric approach. An increase in customer focus can involve seemingly more laborious ways of working due to the inherent need to optimise operations to enhance the end user experience. Consequently, being able to present the business value to be gained i.e. through increased customer satisfaction and retention is crucial.

SWEEP: A public-private pit-emptying service in Bangladesh

Making the business case is all about tapping into what motivates stakeholders to act. Andy Wales, a WSUP board director and Chief Digital Impact & Sustainability Officer at BT argued that bringing about real change always involves effort from lots of people. However, when the incentives are right, human beings adjust their behaviour quite happily. Using smartphone adoption as an example, he challenged us to consider how quickly populations might react to climate change if the adjustments in their behaviour were as rewarding as learning to use a new phone.

Capacity building at the core

Capacity building was a common thread that ran throughout the week. As another key message from the UN High Level Political Forum, there was much debate around the role of organisations like WSUP in supporting service providers to become more efficient, effective and accountable – especially to low income communities.

Kendal Atcliffe, Public Sector – Programme Leadership at Deloitte proposed that capability strengthening is the key differentiator to a programme and should be a necessary pre-condition of working with any organisation.  

‘Stronger service providers’ is one of the primary focus areas for WSUP’s latest business plan which explains how we intend to strengthen and extend our technical and business support to utilities, municipalities and WASH enterprises. However, each of our external strategic focus areas are supported by two internal commitments to develop our own organisational skill sets and strengthen learning capabilities within WSUP. This event is a prime example of this commitment in action.

Rigorous evidence

WSUP is well-known for our evidence, research and learning efforts with programmes such as the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative seeking to influence large-scale sector change. However, we also recognise that sector change requires innovation and new approaches – and with innovation comes pilot activity, business case development and careful market assessments.

During the week each Business Development Lead contributed their own experiences of trial and error in their respective markets. For example, our colleagues in Zambia spoke about how rigorous market assessments were crucial to building necessary relationships with utility Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company to implement innovative WASH models.

Faecal sludge management services in Lusaka

It’s clear that having a strategy with supporting research is a project component that knits each of our themes together. It helps to align multiple stakeholders around one vision, maintains focus on the problem and win over stakeholders while gaining necessary buy-in from the staff that need to be engaged for capacity building.

Managing all the moving actors and factors required to effect real change is a sector-wide issue and something we hope WSUP’s innovative, multi-partner approach can start to refine. Strengthening internal and external partnerships with learning activities is just the beginning.

If you’re interested in finding out more about WSUP’s latest thinking on a change in approach for tackling citywide WASH, check out our Systems Reboot report.