Sustainability & partnerships: Billy Bray (WASTE Malawi) interview

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Diving back in history

WASTE and its partners around the world have been changing the development game for nearly 4 decades. We have together developed sustainable and inclusive solutions to many challenges in the waste management and sanitation sectors. Approaching the organisation’s 40th anniversary, we wanted to revisit some key players from our history of collaborations to learn lessons on how we can maintain the spirit of our founders and early work as we move forward.

The following traces WASTE’s history through three continents and many decades, sharing the stories of 7 pivotal individuals who have contributed to this spirit through our work together. These individuals and organisations have continued to share our spirit of inclusivity in everything they do.

A few key takeaways

  1. Through our holistic approaches, WASTE and its partners around the world have been working on the underlying concepts of ‘circularity’ for decades. It is only recently that high level discussions have rebranded and called more attention to the importance of what is called today “circular economy”. Circularity is integrated in our approach.
  2. Working with the informal sector is difficult but a critical component to sustainable waste management systems. All our partners echo that this aspect of the work as pivotal to the inclusion and innovative nature of their work.
  3. Institutionalisation of key concepts and approaches in policy, whether on local or national scales, are crucial for ensuring sustainability of our work.
  4. Buy-in from the communities, especially local leaders, can either catalyse the success of or be the sole reason for failure of interventions. We must ensure our programmes and solutions are co-created with and by the communities we are trying to serve.
  5. Real change and local ownership take time to have sustained impact. Our projects, ambitions, and relationships with key stakeholders, shouldn’t forget this key consideration.

Gamechanger 1: Billy Bray

Managing Director, WASTE Advisers Malawi

Blantyre, Malawi

“The result was that almost 95% of funding came to directly to Malawi, which is revolutionary for the international NGO industry.” What I loved about WASTE and the Diamond, was that development never had the approach of “what do you think” rather than “what you should do”.

WASTE Malawi started as a branch of WASTE Netherlands which was opened in Malawi in 2014. WASTE NL was looking into how to change operations to be more efficient in target areas. Most of the existing international and local NGO structures caused the perception that poor countries are used to raise funds to cover large overhead costs for international NGOs. WASTE wanted to do things differently and the Malawi office was a kind of pilot to see how it could be done. The approach was that WASTE MW are the implementers and WASTE NL can support and empower with technical advice. The result was that almost 95% of funding came directly to Malawi, which is revolutionary for the international NGO industry.

In 2019, we finished with a big EU project and were in the last year of a project with the Gates Foundation. At that point, we felt that WASTE MW could go completely autonomous. So, we opened a local branch and transferred all the assets and liabilities to the local NGO, with its own local identity and supervisory board.

1. What have you worked on with WASTE?

WASTE MW started with a focus on water and sanitation (WASH), engaged with development groups with a classic infrastructure style. However, we used the Diamond model developed by WASTE in implementation. Thereby, engaging with various players and local stakeholders, while trying to take the ownership of our problems there. This made it a model where we recognized the importance of infrastructure, while working towards developing and implementing the necessary framework to properly manage that infrastructure. In 2014, we had our first two major projects, and along with a few other smaller research projects. But it was the first two projects that helped us to position ourselves in Malawi, and now we are expanding into the consultancy role as well.

We started with an EU-funded project focused on three rural towns, with a component of schools, marketplaces and water included in it. After this, we had a project with the Gates Foundation which involved a public-private partnership (PPP) approach. From the beginning, we worked with the city council which was actively involved in the development of that project. The aim was to understand and meet their needs together. We successfully developed the concept with the city council and together applied for funding to jointly develop a value chain within the faecal sludge management system.

In total, we managed to put 44 public market toilets operated by the private sector, along with developing emptying associations and technologies with three decentralized treatment sites where the faecal sludge was collected. What wasn’t conceptualized in the beginning was the extent of demand for emptying services. The containment facilities within Malawi’s urban set-up were not very well developed. We later realized that the containment facilities were quite fragile. Based on this understanding, we diverted funds to improving containment facilities, aiming to generate more demand for the emptying associations. We have since developed around 200 extra pit latrines. Once the project gained some momentum on the ground, we as WASTE Malawi, would exit giving the stakeholders the freedom to continue it on ground. We have been able to develop a model where the cost of constructing the containment facilities is very low

2. Can you describe a little more about those projects and your work process with WASTE on them?

What I loved about WASTE and the Diamond, was that development never had the approach of “What do you think?” rather than “What you should do”. This helped apply their technical experience to come up with the best solutions for the local context, a consistency observable both in the Diamond and the branch approach. Following this helped us independently win contracts from the EU, BMZ, etc. Since I come from a business sector background, I was initially not keen on interacting with the NGO sector. WASTE supported me with understanding the concepts and value chain of the WASH sector to bring it all together

3. What were some of the key take aways and challenges that you encountered during the process?

The Diamond model creates ownership, something that we have witnessed. It is also now followed by the city councils, with more and more people taking to the concept of involving the private sector to help solve the problems in the sanitation sector.

The biggest challenge is time. This is especially because of the bureaucratic nature of government bodies which delays the process of getting an approval on contracts and documents. Thus, the Diamond is very good for ownership—but it can take a long time for true understanding and sustainability. Its follow ups and monitoring can be time consuming. Often, donors do not understand this. But when we look at the Diamond, a lot of the effort requires people with skills and capacity who can facilitate to be hired. This takes time and resources to facilitate the process, making it a major challenge, but one whose value is worth it.

4. Was the model adopted scalable later through the years?

I definitely think it is scalable, the process is scalable in the sense that other cities have just taken on from what happened in region that we were working in. However, another challenge that remains is that the lack of proper leadership opens avenues for corruption, since there the process involves delegated decision-making power. The local body should have strong leadership and integrity—attributes that are important for every business but specifically for the kind of development process that we are looking at.

5. Can you share aspects that didn’t work out? What alternatives did you adopt instead?

With one of our biggest projects, there was an issue with trust in the beginning. Although we develop the projects together, there often comes a time when you need to finetune and change some things. This can involve some leadership changes at the high level, thereby generating some suspicion on the ground. Thus, our first year of that project involved efforts to restore trust rather than making significant progress on its bigger aims. Importantly, because these facilitation processes require trust, we must trust that local councils want to do engage with a bona-fide attitude, while they must trust that the NGOs are not here to just push our own ideas to merely get business from them. It takes years to develop trust and only a moment to destroy it. It is one of our organisation’s core values to operate with trust

6. What do you think about the Diamond model from a business perspective?

We have a situation now for example, where one of our partners is very strong on the social and inclusion aspect, but if we talk about sustainability, we can’t have a hundred percent approach form day one as the money has to come from somewhere. So for this specific project we tried to balance it, by starting to serve the city, but we couldn’t be totally inclusive from day one. We would have to start skimming a few of the middle-income markets and then move downwards and find additional revenue streams to try and cover the bottom spectrum. Highlighting the issue to the governments at those of levels, because some aspects of sanitation cannot not have a completely linked business model. We cannot have a completely independent business model to reach everybody. Subsidies are required for some and someone else must pay for some parts.

In some areas, we cannot expect someone to make the containment facility and to pay that loan back with interest, because they didn’t have money in the first place to do it, otherwise they would have emptied it. Their disposable income is too low to start thinking of that kind of long term process of loan repayment, and thus would not work. What is required is to increase the general disposable income, and raise the poverty level a bit. If we increase the disposable income and there is no business model at that bottom end of the range, then we would require cross subsidies to make the model work at that level

7. How does WASTE Malawi work with the government?

It is probably more invisible, where we have started to look at high level government engagement. Where we first took the lead on this was in regard to compost subsidies. We realized that to create value and to complete the value chain of faecal sludge management (FSM), we had to bring organic waste from the markets, thus making solid waste management (SWM) an important part of value creation at the end. We also noted that in the process of emptying our pit latrines, there was a lot of solid waste there, so it was almost impossible to separate the two. We were able to start creating compost at the end.

Compost was a real game changer for us at the industry. Since 2006, Malawi has been running very heavy fertilizer subsidy programmes started by the government to stimulate economic growth. The fertilizer subsides helped initially, because it boosted crop yields from 1 to 2.5 tonnes. There was no stewardship of that fertilizer and no model of how we could improve our soils. Thus, following the last twenty+ years of this heavy fertilizer programme, and then the FAO raised the issue that our soils were below critical levels on carbon and that yields had dropped to pre-subsidy levels. It was all going down, and the government could not pull out of the subsidy program as then nothing would be left. Our approach was to ask the government to start subsidizing compost rather, that way they would be subsiding the cleaning up of the city and the end product to go back into the soil. Compost helps the farmers restore soil quality, rather than just farming on sand with fertilizer. We knew getting the government to subsidize compost would increase the momentum for our whole value chain. We are the biggest compost producers in Malawi, we have standards, and have been discussing with governments at all levels. We also engaged with a research institution to get an economic impact paper together, with which we can use to show the government the impact of shifting some of our subsidies.

8. In your opinion, what is the future of the Diamond?

The Diamond is a philosophy that is bigger than the Diamond. The philosophy treats people as equals with an opinion and then gets them involved in the process of development. The philosophy is really bringing people together and giving that kind of importance, recognizing that all their opinions matter, and understanding how they want products to be developed and services to look like. In that sense it is a philosophy of development, rather than just a project implementation tool. So, 10 years from now, the philosophy of treating people as equals will always be around. In the development world if you just look at the psychology of it, the mentality– called transactional communication theory—where you speak to someone as equals, works best. As NGOs, we have to talk about equal terms and come as equals when we are working.

What I find valuable of our Netherlands office is that we are very functional in our day to day working. We try not to ‘reinvent the wheel’ each time. When we come up with something, we share it with the Netherlands, and having an international body that can move around and see the various kind of activities that are happening, connecting as a learning center that can share information of drivers on the ground, see how this work will be in different contexts, is a very important function.

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