Unlocking Women’s Potential Through Clean Water

In communities like Kubacha, Nigeria, Sunlight Water Centers are providing access to clean, safe water and freeing up thousands of hours of productive time for women and girls.

This story is part of our month-long #SheFightsPoverty blog series in honor of International Women’s Day 2017.

Before the establishment of a Sunlight Water Center in her community, Binta Musa spent hours collecting water every day. Freeing up time through easy access to water means Binta can spend more time on her palm oil business and increase her income.In sub-Saharan Africa, as many as 319 million people lack access to improved, reliable water sources. The burden of providing water falls disproportionately on women and girls, who are responsible for approximately 75 percent of water collection, spending an estimated 40 billion hours on the task each year.

Binta Musa lives in Kubacha, Nigeria, in a household of 10 people. As the female head of house, Binta is primarily responsible for looking after other family members: preparing food, bathing the children, washing clothes and cleaning the home. To get through her daily chores, Binta needs about 15 jerry cans, or 300 liters, of water.

For many years, Binta collected water from a stream, risking the health of her family and wasting hours in travel and wait times. “It used to take two to three hours to go to the stream and get water. At that time, it was even a gamble – you might go and spend the whole day there and still not get water since people are waiting in line from very early in the day. So we used to go with all our containers and sometimes fill four or five.”

Mercy Mohamed (left) helps lift a jerry can of water onto a neighbor’s head at a Sunlight Water Centre. Previously, Mercy was only able to access contaminated water from a well that often ran dry.

Binta’s neighbour, Mercy Mohamed, shares in her experience. Although Mercy has access to a well near her home, the water supply is low and the water carries disease. “At times we would only get one bucket or one basin, if you could get it at all. My children are allergic to drinking that water. So I would also have to buy water in small sachets for them to drink.”

In 2016, TechnoServe and Unilever opened one of eight Sunlight Water Centers in the small community of Kubacha. Now Binta travels to the Center to collect water. She says, “the Sunlight Water Center helps a lot because whenever we need water we get it. We don’t have to suffer or stress.” Mercy’s problems with water have now ended: “Now we get water in abundance. If I want I can fill up my whole house with water.”

Sunlight Water Centers fulfill a perpetual and critical need. Each center is a business, run by a local woman entrepreneur like Charity Dangana at Kubacha. The center extracts water through a deep borehole, and sells it at very low cost, alongside other everyday products, such as food and toiletries. The centers also provide services like mobile phone charging and mobile banking, all powered by solar.

Essential to the Sunlight model is the idea that water should be sustainably managed and distributed. Many water projects around the world fail because of a lack of incentive structure to ensure their ongoing operation. Since Charity is generating steady profits month by month, she has the ability and incentive to maintain the water hole, and even repay the initial cost of capital. This means that the model can not only provide long term water access in Kubacha, but can be scaled to other places as well.

Charity Dangana stands in front of her Sunlight Water Center. Profits from the store’s sales allow her to maintain the water hole and pay off the initial capital invested in the center.

Besides lowering the risk of waterborne disease, the water center is transforming Mercy and Binta’s daily lives by enabling them to spend more time on themselves and their businesses.

“Having water just here means I can do more palm oil business,” says Binta. “I want to be a better businesswoman.” In this respect, Binta takes inspiration from Charity’s entrepreneurial attitude toward running the water center. “We relate well and she runs the Sunlight Water Center well. We laugh and talk together about business and family.” Mercy has also found that time equals money, “Really, the Sunlight Water Center has made a difference. You simply come to get the water and then you can cook and do your business… you are able to go smoothly throughout your day. Clearly our income has increased. I use clean water to make snacks and sell them in the community.”

In the future, Unilever and TechnoServe hope to scale to 1,000 water centers across Africa, using a franchise model that empowers women like Charity to run an important community asset, and helps other women like Binta and Mercy to reclaim all of those hours spent fetching water. As each center able to reach approximately 2,500 community members, the ultimate vision is to reach 2.5 million people across Nigeria and other parts of Africa with clean water, unlocking tens of thousands of hours of productive time for women and girls.

As for Mercy and Binta, their vision is for a world with no water burden on women. “I have plenty of hopes,” Mercy says. “I believe in this water system, maybe someday we will just wake up and see water in our houses, maybe everybody will have enough water.”

Binta agrees: “I hope they will create another water center so the people who are living far can benefit from it, as we are benefiting from it.”