At the frontier: how DfID innovation is improving access to water in Tanzania and WiFi in Nepal

Written by Kim Thomas on 1 June 2018

With nominations open for the Civil Service Awards 2018, we speak to the 2017 Innovation winners about their achievements, and the impact of winning on their project

Children standing by a water pipe in Northern Tanzania. Credit: Leif Rother/PA

In parts of rural Tanzania, sourcing your family’s supply of water involves walking to a public pump and then waiting in a queue for up to three hours for the vendor to arrive to take your cash. About a third of public water points don’t work, partly because the inefficient payment system means that there isn’t enough money to maintain them.  

In two Tanzanian villages, that has changed. Technology from eWaterPay, a Staffordshire-based company, enables villagers to pay for their water electronically, using a token – rather like the Oyster cards used by Londoners. The public taps are now available 24 hours a day, rather than just five hours, so waiting times have been cut to 10 minutes. Remote monitoring via the internet means that broken taps can be immediately identified and mended. All water used is accounted and paid for, so wastage is reduced and money is available for maintenance.

The water payment project is one of 18 pilots funded as part of Frontier Technology Livestreaming (FTL), a project from the Department for International Development (DfID) that won last year’s Civil Service Award for Innovation. Between them, the pilots are testing how seemingly intractable problems can be approached differently with ingenuity and technical knowhow.

The project began with DfID asking its staff to suggest some “frontier” technologies that could open up big new possibilities for development, or change the way DfID does its business. These, says Steven Hunt, senior energy and innovation adviser at the department, are “new and emerging technologies that haven’t necessarily found applications in development yet but which could have the potential to accelerate, unlock and create a different way of looking at problems that we have been dealing with for a long time”.

In response, 30 technology ideas were submitted, whittled down by online vote to 10, and then reviewed in an independent report that assessed the potential and challenges of the technologies. The FTL programme launched in October 2016 with a call for pilot ideas from DfID staff. These were selected through a Dragon’s Den process, described by one employee as “the most exciting thing I have been allowed to do at DfID.”  FTL provides up to £100,000 for each pilot, enables pilots to run using the lean and agile methodologies of tech startups, and matches the particular challenge in the field to a suitable technology partner, using a database of providers registered with the DfID Funding Finder.

The pilots are demonstrating the dramatic impact technological innovation can have. In Zimbabwe, a country dogged by power cuts, smart solar battery technology is enabling clinics to keep lights and fridges on. In Nepal, children in 30 rural schools are able to use the internet, using a Super-WiFi connection transmitted through the white spaces between television channel frequencies. In the latest wave of pilots, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as drones, will be used to speed up collection of TB samples in rural Mozambique, with the aim of improving diagnosis rates, while other UAVs will be tested for their humanitarian delivery capabilities.

There are now 18 pilots in all, with the first due to complete this summer, while the programme as a whole is currently scheduled to run until 2019. But the successful ones are likely to continue past the pilot stage, says Hunt: “One of the big objectives is to enable these technologies to be mainstreamed into our work, so I’ll be looking to see how many of these technologies start to become normal practice for us.” In some cases, outside organisations are taking an interest: the World Bank, for example, is evaluating the eWaterPay technology used in Tanzania.

Winning the Innovation Award last year has given the project an extra boost, says Hunt, gaining “substantial recognition from the permanent secretary down” and leading to “a more permissive and encouraging environment amongst managers for trying new technologies and approaches”. It was also “perfect timing” he adds, as the award was announced with about 10 days to go in the third call for proposals: “In the previous round we had had nine proposals from across the organisation, but in the third round we had 21 proposals and the buzz around the programme was palpable.”

The programme has been a great example of how government can play a role in fostering innovation. But Hunt thinks still more could be done, suggesting that “big, rigid structures” could be replaced with more flexible programming approaches that can better “adjust to outcomes and push things which are working, and cut things which aren’t.”

It’s not just the countries where the technologies are being piloted that have benefited. In a department that naturally has few frontier technology specialists on staff, the programme has brought about a shift in ways of working, says Hunt, enabling “a network of people around the world, civil servants and DfID staff, to engage and work better with specialist technology providers.”

Nominations are now open for the 2018 Civil Service Awards.

The Civil Service Awards Community is a new section on Civil Service World that aims to celebrate past winners, inspire people to nominate in 2018, and help us all to learn from good practice. If you’ve ever won or been shortlisted for an award, register your interest to hear about future events and projects for awards alumni