Growing pains build sanitation markets

Posted in — Ghana Sanitation > Overview
March 18, 2021
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Photo by Alice Lee/iDE/2019
iDE Global WASH

Flexibility. Innovation. Transparency. Lessons learned in building a viable social enterprise for WASH in rural Ghana.


Our WASH work began in northern Ghana in 2015 with an initial human-centered design deep dive aimed at understanding rural Ghanaians' hygiene and sanitation behaviors, needs, barriers, and aspirations across the three northern regions. Our research uncovered significant inequities, including that only 15% of rural households had access to improved sanitation. This was having alarming consequences for health - some of the highest incidences of childhood diarrhea were occurring in northern Ghana as well as high rates of moderately or severely stunted children. There was a clear need for WASH solutions, and lots of possibility.

Through this deep dive, we learned there was no affordable and aspirational toilet nor handwashing product or service available for the middle of the sanitation market in northern Ghana. If a Ghanaian was triggered by a Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) intervention, there was no available next step for the person or family to take other than constructing a toilet on their own, which often led to frustration. iDE also learned Ghanaians in the north expected NGOs to provide products and services for free; as a result, iDE felt that we needed a separate entity to distinguish our market-based work from other NGOs. This insight led to a clear value proposition for the creation of a social enterprise called Sama Sama. The vision for Sama Sama was to create an aspirational commercial brand to deliver WASH solutions and provide households with a simple one-stop-shop solution for buying a toilet.

Stage 1: Research and Design

Before the creation of a new business, we needed to ensure we had a toilet that Ghanians felt was desirable and affordable. We used insights from the deep dive as a basis for design principles that guided iDE's prototyping of sanitation and hand hygiene products that were desirable, technologically feasible, and financially viable for households and local businesses alike. This included the ideation, design and user testing of improved toilet and handwashing prototypes. We also carried out detailed research into financing options and potential finance partners, supply chain actors, and market size across the three northern regions.

Stage 2: Pilot Testing

After creating and iterating several improved toilet prototypes from April to August 2016, iDE began working with private sector concrete block manufacturers to train them on how to build the product to specification. In addition to designing a private sector production and supply channel, iDE used its research to design a door-to-door sales and marketing strategy. After training an initial handful of sales agents in September and October 2016, iDE piloted Sama Sama's business model from October 2016 to the end of January 2017. During the pilot phase, and since, Sama Sama continued to explore new products and options that could provide new income streams for the business.

This pilot included the design and testing of a dynamic cloud-based information management system that connects every segment of operations through Salesforce, from the mobile phone of a Sama Sama Sales Agent in the field, to the laptop of a sales manager in the Tamale office and the support team in iDE’s Winnipeg and Denver offices. This integration enabled iDE to set up a platform for real-time data analysis—data that support internal management decisions and provide evidence to validate project assumptions and operations.

Stage 3: Building the Business

Creating a culture that reflects our goals and aspirations is crucial to the success of the business. The employees of Sama Sama are the front line of our marketing and outreach efforts. Their passion for both the product and the organization must be visible to the communities in which they work. A large part of the evolution in establishing Sama Sama was finding the right people—both management and sales staff—who embodied these values and could share them with others as the business grew. It was also important to identify ways that Sama Sama could maintain employees' passion and motivation in the face of a very challenging job.

Stage 4: Pivoting for Sustainability

iDE began scaling up Sama Sama in February 2017, initially by entering one new district approximately every 1.5 months. In order to gain efficiencies in the scale-up process, Sama Sama pivoted to entering districts in waves of approximately 10 at a time, leveraging a dedicated expansion team. Each wave required the recruitment, engagement, and training of private sector sales and production teams to deliver quality products and services to northern Ghanaians wanting an improved sanitation and hygiene product.

The global pandemic that began in 2020 provided new challenges for Sama Sama. Our team met these obstacles head-on by innovating new marketing and delivery strategies that involved installing community handwashing stations and shifting installment payment collections to mobile money alternatives.

Through Sama Sama, we are establishing a resilient and sustainable market-based solution to WASH challenges in Ghana, offering options from containment to reuse along the value chain. In doing so, we are also demonstrating a working model for financial inclusion of poor customers in sanitation markets, and establishing a viable market-based solution for fecal sludge management.

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Program undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.