Accelerating change – the WorldWaterDay 2023 on March 22nd is calling to action to solve the water and sanitation crisis. Back in 2015, the world committed to Sustainable Development Goal 6 as part of the 2030 Agenda – the promise that everyone would have safely managed water and sanitation by 2030. To support cause of the World Water Day 2023, German Water Partnership is shining a light on various projects aiming to drive change. In this special issue, we would therefore like to take a closer look at the project “Frugal Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water 4.0 in Africa”, an African-German cooperation to improve water security focussing on the nexus of water security, digital innovation, and young entrepreneurship in Southern Africa.
In her 2021 article “Africa goes digital,” Cristina Duarte argues that digital technology innovations can play an essential role in Africa to support sustainable development, fostering inclusion, and managing the continent’s natural resources. Currently, Duarte states, much of this innovation is driven by private industry and NGOs in a bottom-up manner. More than 600 technology hubs have already emerged across the continent to support start-up companies. At the same time, internet connectivity is missing in many places as are other basics, like electricity, literacy, and financial regulation that would allow people to use digital solutions and “Africa’s economic growth has failed to generate many good jobs—postponing, once again, the benefits of the demographic dividend of a large working-age population.” Many Africans struggle with life-threatening problems; and access to clean water on the continent is still far from being universal as envisioned under SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation for all). Eastern and Southern Africa ranks lowest in access to at least basic drinking water services with over 226 million people in ESA (47 per cent) having no access to at least basic drinking water services. The southern African region (SAR), particularly, faces two overarching challenges of making sure that all citizens have access to safe and reliable water supplies, especially in rural areas, and to foster resilience to climate variability, especially in subsistence agricultural production, on which many people in the region depend.
The project “Frugal Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water 4.0 in Africa” (short: “FIUWA”), focuses on the nexus of water security, digital innovation, and young entrepreneurship in SAR (see figure 1).
Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research BMBF within the program “Water Security in Africa-WASA,” the project team identifies and collaborates with key players in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa and Germany. Their work intersects the domains of digitalization, frugal innovation and water security aiming to contribute to the sustainable development of water supply and sanitation, specifically in Angola, Namibia and South Africa. Longer term activities of the project include the design of an open innovation process for the development of solutions to ensure water security and the planning of online and on-site trainings and incubator programs for innovators and entrepreneurs in Southern Africa.
During its initial phase in 2022, the project team conducted desktop research, workshops, and an online survey of water practitioners from government, non-governmental organizations, science, and private industry sectors, as well as focus group discussions with young entrepreneurs. In the course of these activities, the project team of African and German partners strengthened its collaborations and generated initial insights into the main challenges related to water security, which people in southern African countries are facing, and mapped the digital and frugal innovation landscape as well as the main stakeholders in the water sector of the region. In the survey of practitioners, challenges in water security are attributed most often to dynamics at community and local level (see, for example, text box 1), but respondents’ narratives also highlight the complex interrelatedness between governance scales and between different dimensions of water security (governance, technology, natural environment and geographic factors).
“Sustainability is one of the major challenges of water use in communities. Poor social inclusion, from assessment of needs to participation in decision making during implementation of water supply interventions affects the efficiency of water supply in the long term. … Most development intervention approaches tend to assume solutions to gaps or needs as identified by external experts, overlooking local stakeholders’ potential to identify and prioritize their needs.”
Quote from online survey of water sector practitioners about main challenges faced by the water sector southern Africa.
Many of the technical and socio-technical solutions to water security challenges identified in the FIUWA project are bottom-up, decentralized innovations driven by small to medium enterprises. Digital technologies come into play especially in innovations addressing water payment, monitoring and distribution systems (see, for example, text box 2). These innovations require policy and organizational governance mechanisms at a relatively larger scale than individualized solutions.
“Digital solutions in water are transforming how utilities and customers interact. Mobile money is a game changer for revenue collection while IoT devices have created new ways to monitor water services and automate processes. Combined with mobile payments IoT devices enable pay-as-you-go (PAYG) service models, and smart metering has become a clear use case. Finally, digital platforms and enterprise resource planning (ERP) apps are supporting more effective utility management and provide a foundation for digitalization across utility operations.”
Quote from online survey of water sector practitioners about most promising innovations they have seen or experienced.
Frugal innovations seek affordability, adaptability and social inclusivity and often consist of smaller scale, decentralized solutions. The complexity of addressing water security challenges through digital technology systems requires governance mechanisms, that leverage close collaborations between government, industry, civil society and science partners. In the long run then, a special challenge for young entrepreneurs involves striking a balance between fostering frugal dimensions, on one hand, and leveraging digital technology for water security, on the other.
“FIUWA” is funded by the BMBF within the project “Water Security in Africa-WASA”. Project partners are and the United Nations University (UNU), Bonn and Fraunhofer Institute for International Knowledge Management and Knowledge Economy and, German Water Partnership e.V. (GWP), AfriLabs, the African Water Association (AfWA) and Stellenbosch University South Africa, Southern African Network of Water Centres of Excellence (AUDA-NEPAD SANWATCE). Associated partners include the West African Science Service Center on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use, Ghana (WASCAL), the Pan African University Institute for Water and Energy Sciences (PAUWES), the National Institute of Water Resources of the Angolan Ministry of Energy and Water (NIWR-AMEW), and the Pan African Virtual and E-University (PAVEU).
Find more information on the project page: www.imw.fraunhofer.de/en/research/technology-transfer/innovation-acceptance/projects/fiuwa
Find out more about World Water Day at United Nations Water: www.worldwaterday.org
 Special Adviser on Africa to United Nations Secretary‑General António Guterres
 Muller, M. (2018). Water Security in a Southern African Context. In: Global Water Security. Water Resources Development and Management. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-7913-9_7.