Silver Mugisha“Africa as a continent has the lowest share of the world’s total freshwater resources with an estimate of only about 9% and there are also large disparities among countries, and also between the urban and rural areas.”

Exclusive interview with Engineer Silver Mugisha, the Managing Director of National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) who will be on the high-level speaker list of the water track at the upcoming African Utility Week. NWSC also won the coveted African Water Utility of the Year Award at the 2015 African Utility Week Awards in Cape Town.

Please introduce yourself to our readers – who you are and a bit about your current role at your company.

I am Dr. Eng Silver Mugisha, the Managing Director of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC), one of the well performing water utilities in Africa. I am an engineer with a PhD in engineering and economics. I have over 20 years’ experience in water utility operations, international policy, research and advisory services.

I also hold several positions in a number of international institutions. Currently I am the Vice President (East Africa) of the Executive Board of African Water Association (AfWA); and also a Board member of the International Water Association (IWA). I am also a fellow of IWA; a fellow of Netherlands SENSE Research School; and a Senior Research Associate at PURC, University of Florida, USA.

I have authored a book (published by IWA Publishing) titled, Utility Benchmarking and Regulation in Developing Countries: Practical Application of Performance Monitoring and Incentives, and published a number of policy and research papers in several peer-reviewed journals.

About the company I work for – National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) is a Public Utility Company, 100% owned by the government of Uganda. The Corporation was established in 1972 and its mandate, as defined in the NWSC Act, is to operate and provide water and sewerage services in areas entrusted to it on a sound commercial and financially viable basis.

Our Vision as a Corporation is “To be a Leading Customer Centred Water Utility in the World” and our mission is “To sustainably and equitably provide cost effective, quality water and sewerage services to the delight of all stakeholders, while conserving the environment”.

The NWSC’s Mission is anchored on three pillars namely the proliferation and sustainability of services, the focus on the customer, and lastly the contribution towards the conservation of the environment. As of June 2015, the Corporation operates within 125 Urban Centres across the country.

What is the current state of water availability in Africa, and Uganda in particular, and who are our biggest consumers?

Africa as a continent has the lowest share of the world’s total freshwater resources with an estimate of only about 9% and there are also large disparities among countries, and also between the urban and rural areas. This presents a huge challenge to our governments and the utilities as well.

Uganda has made substantial progress in terms of increasing coverage in the last decade and reducing disparities in the availability of water across the country and especially for the most marginalised and poorest people in the country. As a utility we have a very ambitious plan of achieving 100% water service coverage in our towns by 2018.

At NWSC, we are aware that different customers have different needs and are bound to use our water and services differently. We therefore have four customer categories i.e. industrial/commercial, institutional, domestic and the pro-poor.

What is the link between access to clean water and the healthy functioning of the economy?

We all know that water is fundamental in greening the economy and the transition to social sustainability. So, the social and economic consequences of lack of clean water penetrate into realms of education, opportunities for gainful employment, physical strength and health, agricultural and industrial development, and thus the overall productive potential of a community, and the nation. Sub-Saharan Africa alone is estimated to lose about 40 billion potential work hours per year collecting water

Can you tell us more about the importance of access to clean water specifically? How does it compare to access to untreated water, and are there uses for untreated water in an industrial context?

Much of the water we supply comes from surface water (rivers, lakes and other surface water sources) and ground water. Before it is delivered to our customers, it is treated to remove chemicals, particulates and bacteria. The quality of the water is directly linked to the quality of our lives and that is how important clean water is. According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme Report 2015, about 79% of Ugandan population (both rural and urban) have access to safe drinking water and only 21% have not access to safe drinking water.

The water quality requirements for the water used for industrial purposes differ significantly depending on the nature of the industry. There are industries that require high quality water for the manufacturing processes and preparation of the final product. But there are also industries given the nature of their process can use untreated water.

Who are our biggest polluters and what is being done to curb this?

Pollution is said to be the biggest killer in developing countries.

Pollution in most water sources is worsening so fast that soon it may be too costly and impossible to treat the raw water to a level safe enough for domestic consumption

The biggest pollution is as a result of destruction of the natural catchment areas due to the human development and industrial activities.

A series of initiatives are being undertaken to curb the situation and some of them include; Engagement with the communities and other key stakeholders to restore and maintain the natural catchment areas; Strengthening IWRM; massive investment in waste water treatment facilities; increase in the budget earmarked for water catchment protection; ensuring that all catchments are rehabilitated and protected from the removal of trees, shrubs, grass and other protective vegetation

Tell us more about the importance of natural water catchment areas in the supply of clean water. How well are they being managed at the moment in Africa and Uganda in particular?

Natural water catchments areas are critical for sustainable clean drinking water supply. However, in most countries in Africa Uganda inclusive, human activities such as urban development, agriculture, and land clearing have negatively impacted on the health of our catchments. Like I indicated before, there is now concerted effort by governments to rehabilitate and restore the natural catchments

Do catchment areas only channel water to residential areas or are they of importance to industrial Uganda too?

Healthy catchments not only provide clean water for the community but also ensure; natural areas for recreation, safe habitation for plants and animals, reliable and clean water for stock and irrigation, and opportunities for sustainable agriculture and industry

What are the most sought after skills in terms of water treatment and management at the moment?

In Uganda, and NWSC in particular, we ensure that our water and waste facilities are operated and maintained by skilled technicians and qualified personnel. Through this, we guarantee that the high demands placed on keeping our water clean are also met permanently. Our experiences show quite clearly that the satisfactory operation of the facilities on a continuous basis is not possible without qualified specialists.

Today in all water and waste water operations and management you find that; computer applications, databases, analyses, simulations, GPS systems and GIS applications belong to the daily tools for operating personnel. Hence in addition to having the basic and necessary technical skills, the personal needs also to be well embraced with the technology advancement skills. There is hardly any water treatment plant in which the control and the data management are still carried out manually on paper.

How can desalinising of our oceans assist in alleviating the strain on our water supply? Is it economically viable and is this a possible entry point for private sector investment?

Desalinating the seas and oceans would seem to answer every prayer to fixing the water shortage challenges. But as you know turning the sea into drinking water requires a lot of energy and also comes with a number of environmental concerns. It is still much cheaper to use freshwater than to desalinate seawater.

This price gap, however, is closing with diminishing fresh water sources and also advancement in desalination technology, desalination is becoming increasingly attractive as we run out of water from other sources.

A number of countries in Africa and other parts of the world have already embraced desalination as an option and I believe it is an option where it proves cheaper than other fresh water sources and it’s a god entry point for the private sector given the resources and the technology involved.

What are some of the latest technologies being used in water treatment?

There are a lot of new and upcoming technologies for advanced water treatment processes. There are new inventions in the clarification and filtration processes, membrane separation and ion exchange and also use of polymers for treatment processes

What efforts are we seeing from government to safeguard the quality and availability of our water for the future?

The government has established Integrated Water Resources Management Policy and strategy that is aimed at ensuring that water resources are protected and also safeguard the quality and availability of water for the future

As a visionary leader and strategic thinker, please share more about NWSC operations and management, including your challenges; and how water utilities in Africa can be transformed to become viable entities for sustainability and quality service delivery.

As I indicated earlier, NWSC is a public utility 100% owned by government. Unlike many public utilities in Africa, NWSC has undertaken a series of successful reforms since the 1990s and is one of the well performing water utilities in Africa. NWSC’s success especially in the last two years can largely be attributed to the following ten success factors which also provide lessons for the other African Utilities

  • Participative formulation of Strategic Direction- In November 2013, under the leadership of the Board and new management team, the Corporation changed its strategic focus and launched a Five Year Strategic Direction that provides the Corporation’s outlook and key strategic interventions taking into account the wider stakeholder expectations, policy directions and competitive environment. The Strategic Direction was developed using a participatory involving all key stakeholder which was critical for ownership and full support from stakeholders.

The Strategic Direction also came at a time when the Corporation was at cross roads with a good historical performance record, but increasing demand for services across the urban divide in Uganda. The Strategic Direction therefore aimed at gearing the Corporation for transformational changes in its operational and geographical mandate and highlighting the Corporation’s contribution towards the National Vision of transforming Uganda from a Peasantry to a self-sustaining economy.

  • Systematic translation of Strategic Direction into smart tactical action plans –Within the framework of the Five Year Strategic Direction, the corporation over the last two years has developed and implemented smart tactical action plans to operationalise both at Macro and micro level.
  • Adoption of service rather than profit maximisation model – The Corporation’s business model has been that of service rather than profit. With this model, the Corporation has undertaken systematic and aggressive expansion of the geographical coverage that resulted in an increase of the number of NWSC service towns from 23 to 125 towns across the country in a space of just 2 years.

In addition Water for all’ has become the official policy direction for the Corporation. A Water Fund has been established purposely to facilitate network expansion especially in the new towns/centres added to NWSC operation areas or to low-income areas within existing towns/centres that are currently without network services. The main contributors to the Fund are the rich and closer access to the network shall significantly benefit the poor. We have systematically increased the number of pre-paid public water points in a bid to improve services for the urban poor communities.

A total of 1,600 pre-paid public water points have been installed and the technology has proved successful due to the community involvement from project conception through to implementation and operation. Public Sanitation facilities (over 200) have also been built to complete the water and sanitation chain.

  • Prioritising development rather than consumption behavior – NWSC focus has been on development expenditure and not consumption expenditure. This has resulted in massive infrastructure growth with an annual average of 1,400km of water pipe network extended across the country compared to an annual average of only 80km that used to be extended. This unprecedented growth has enabled the corporation reach out to the unserved population and as a result the customer base has grown from 345,000 water connections in 2013 to 413,907 water connections in 2015.

There are also a number of major projects being implemented by the corporation as part of its effort to provide improved water and sewerage services in the areas of urban hygiene, sanitation and environmental protection such as the Kampala Sanitation Programme (Lake Victoria Protection Project), the Kampala Water Lake Victoria Water and Sanitation (KW-LV WatSan) Project and Water Management and Development Project (WMDP).

  • Strong focus on cost and operating efficiency – The Corporation has also put a lot of emphasis on cost optimisation and leveraging IT to promote efficiency in its operations. Specific in-house IT innovations have been developed that have, greatly enhanced customer services and promoted cost effectiveness and operating efficiency.

Such initiatives include; the E-Water Payment system, new billing system (which was developed in-house, has not only made it extra convenient to settle bills for the customer but it has saved the corporation almost $800,000 per year on licensing fees). Efficiency of the utility is also measured by the level of Non-Revenue Water (NRW) which is one of the biggest challenges facing most water utilities in developing countries.

NRW includes both physical and commercial losses (mainly caused by illegal water use and water theft). To combat this the corporation initiated a pro-active community-based illegal use reduction programme through the WALOPU (Water Loss Prevention Unit) where the corporation partnered with the Police and community to fight illegal water use and reduce NRW.

This has enabled financial performance of the Corporations to continue to improve despite the numerous key activities such the takeover of new towns with low functionalities. Our monthly turn-over has increased from about UGX13bn/= in 2013 to UGX22bn/= in 2015 and it is worth noting that during this period there was no tariff indexation as has been the case in the previous years.

  • Infusing a high sense of customer focus – Social media has also been adopted as a powerful tool for customer engagement. NWSC had to rethink how it interacts with customers and social media which in the context of NWSC is referred to as “social care” provides a direct path to customers and the NWSC has opened a 24hr social media customer care platform on twitter and Facebook that serves customers on a 24hr basis. This has enabled NWSC to drive customer delight and loyalty, and in many cases better revenue performance.
  • Incorporating organic community and stakeholder connectivity and consultative systems – Emphasis has also been put on improved engagement with local authorities, communities and other key stakeholders. Water Community Communication (WACOCO) Clubs, and Water Baraza have been introduced in order to improve communication between NWSC and the communities and also to gain feedback on NWSC services, successes and failures. School Water and Sanitation (SWAS) Clubs have also been launched in over 100 schools mainly targeting the next generation.
  • Prioritising staff welfare and motivation – In 2014, the corporation completed a restructuring exercise to realign the corporation structure with its strategy to enable the Corporation to cope with the current and expected changes in the business environment. Staff welfare and remuneration packages has greatly been enhanced. A Provident fund has been established to further enhance staff welfare. In addition, the strategic direction identifies human resources development as a key strategic goal commensurate with NWSC’s core value of continuously developing and imparting relevant skills to staff, so as to improve service delivery.

The Corporation’s Strategy is to strengthen and pay more attention to vocational skills development and the corporation is in advanced stages of building its own vocational training facility, Kachung Vocational Skills Development Facility (KVSDF), that will not only serve the corporation skills development needs, but also provide vocational training for the country and the region as a whole.

NWSC has won recognition globally, winning many awards over the years, how has NWSC maintained such excellent performance levels and such good customer relations?

The awards and recognition we have received have further motivated us to serve our esteemed customers with renewed vigour. What is driving us and sustaining our excellent performance is; our clear strategic focus – we know where we want to go; innovation and creativity – every day we try to do things differently and keep challenging ourselves; highly motivated and professional staff – this is the biggest resource for the Corporation; and most importantly our customer focus- from the vision to the mission the customer is KING to us and the reason we exist.