The more visible low-income customers are within a utility, the better the quality of the service they will receive.
And so, the decision by Ghana’s national water provider, Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL), to upgrade the Low-Income Customer Support Unit (LICSU) into a full department is excellent news for many under-served Ghanaians. WSUP has been proud to support the team in this journey, since the creation of the low-income team a decade ago.
“The Board and Management approved the upgrade to a department because they understand the benefits of serving low-income customers and driving transformational change in enabling the provision of safe water services for all, including the vulnerable,” says Faustina Boachie, the chief manager of the department, about the utility’s decision to elevate the unit’s position.
Boachie has been leading the LICSU since its formation, when it was basically “a desk office managed by one person”. “At the time I was appointed as the Pro-poor coordinator with responsibility for promoting and coordinating pro-poor projects, especially Water for Life (W4L) projects in Ghana,” remembers Boachie.
With a BA in economics, she comes from a humble background, having had to walk over two miles, as a young girl, with her sisters, in search for water in Obuasi, in the late 1980s. As head of the GWCL’s group assisting low-income customers, she has been working with partners such as the sector ministry, donors, citizens, and water and sanitation service providers to ensure more reliable, more affordable and safer water services to low-income customers across Ghana.
According to her, the recent change in status indicates that her department’s work of the past ten years has had positive impact on the general perception around the needs of the sector in Ghana. “There is better understanding of the social and economic issues around access to water.”
This better understanding has helped place the low-income consumer group closer to the highest authorities within GWCL. “The promotion means access to financial resources, as the department now has a voice within the organisation at the highest level,” explains Boachie. “For the first time in our operations, a budget line for the department has been established and presented to the board.”
This was, by no means, a mere bureaucratic change. “It means a lot,” stresses Faustina Boachie. The team now have a much more prominent position within the company, with direct access to GWCL’s Managing Director. “Reporting to the MD is no little achievement from where we started,” she says. “Within the GWCL organisational structure, only the 3 deputy managing directors together with the legal and communications departments report directly to the MD. This implies a higher rank for LICSU.” The new department now has, as she puts it, “a voice within the organisation at the highest level.”
This new level has also meant more people in her team. “The number of staff has increased to 11, working across 5 GWCL operational regions,” says Boachie, who is also leading an internal restructuring, with a new organogram for the department, already presented to the company’s board. “The approval of the structure will allow for recruitment of community development officers to form and support water user associations.”
This new structure will serve a larger ambition, of expanding its services territorially and improving its interactions with the wider water sector. “A donor and partners relation officer will also be recruited,” says the head of the low-income consumer team. “The ambition is to go nationwide, and this is possible with the support of the management and the board.”
This growth is already happening, as a direct result of the better access to resources and the enlargement of the team. “We are now able to reach more low-income customers,” says Boachie. “Under the World Bank/GAMA project, we worked with the project team to provide access to about 750,000 low-income residents. We have also worked with other partners, including Water4Life, under the waterworks initiative where we have connected about 3200 reaching about 60,000 people. We are also working with UNICEF to connect 1350 households.”
Proud history and more work ahead
Back in 2011, when the unit took its first steps, promoting the idea of treating low-income residents as valuable customers was a challenge in Ghana, as in many parts of the world, including developed countries. In Ghana there was a clear need to strengthen that idea, and WSUP was directly involved from the beginning.
“What we are witnessing today is because of WSUP’s support,” says the head of the low-income customer department. “WSUP triggered the need for GWCL to establish LICSU. The partnership has been very effective because results have been achieved.”
With the first steps taken, WSUP then assisted the Ghanaian team, which was progressively becoming stronger and more independent. “We appreciate the capacity building support and the learning exposure visits over the years,” says Boachie, who stresses how that new capacity has allowed her team to establish new partnerships and grow. “Now we can attract other partnerships including with Water4Life, UN Habitat, UNICEF and others.”
As a child, Faustina Boachie experienced herself the harsh reality of lacking easy access to clean water and good, reliable sanitation. She believes that Ghana has advanced significantly since then, and today citizens, including young girls, know more about their rights and how to demand better services.
“Today a lot more households have access to safe water than when I was a young girl,” she says. “Girls have a better appreciation of their rights to demand for services. They know the importance of WASH in their homes and schools. The educational system has also helped in educating young people.”
More needs to be done, according to her, particularly in, “identifying the pockets of households where access is still significantly low.” Boachie is optimistic and enthusiastic about the future, though, for both their department and the communities it works with. She says that low-income residents should expect more support from GWCL in the coming years.
“We are currently working on a strategic plan for the department. We will map the low-income communities nationwide where the department will operate and prioritise areas of operations for the department,” she says. “We are committed to providing services to the low-income communities, so the poorest residents can expect continuous improvement in access to water in the years ahead.”
The road ahead is long, and Faustina Boachie is aware that there are a lot of challenges for the water and sanitation sector in Ghana that cannot be sorted by a utility such as GWCL on its own. “A commitment has been demonstrated by continuing to extend our services to low-income communities. But support is still needed. A utility alone cannot adequately service low-income communities,” she says. “Sharing knowledge with partners, sharing strengths and weaknesses together will ensure that effective solutions are found to adequately serve low-income communities. Strong partnerships and knowledge sharing is the only way that we can leverage our influence, stabilise service, and make performance improvements to advance towards sustainable operations.”
Top image: Inauguration of a network extension in Kumasi, led by GWCL and WSUP in 2018