Interview with Aboubacar Camara from Tinkisso-Antenna about experiences in the Safe Water Programme Phase II.
I am Aboubacar Camara, social entrepreneur and CEO of the NGO Tinkisso in Conakry, Guinea. This NGO works on access to safe water and related hygiene products. In 2008, a pilot was started with Antenna Foundation to produce chlorine and distribute it in the northern region of Guinea. The chlorine was sold as “Chlore’C“ and it was very successful in beating diarrhoea and cholera in the area. This led to a multi-level partnership with the name Tinkisso-Antenna.
For eight years, we have been working on social and commercial marketing in order to improve the perception of people on safe water and hygiene practices. The population has certain traditional values and you have to be familiar with them to be able to work here. I am giving advice to entrepreneurs that are interested in investing in the water sector. They know little about the sector, are often ignorant and lack competence in dealing with the issues correctly. You never know what is going to happen in the sector, as there are events that interfere with the programme or strategy that the entrepreneurs set out.
We have worked in five regions in Guinea. In the beginning, you have to do research to see if it is worthwhile to invest in a specific region. As an entrepreneur, you need to check if there is demand for your product. We are targeting businesses that are selling vitamins or painkillers that could also sell our household water treatment products. We particularly approach those who sell painkillers because they are more suited to selling, for instance chlorine, as they have knowledge of handling toxic substances. When we have evaluated the situation in a region that suffers from cholera epidemics, we can say that chlorine can offer a solution to the population.
We have launched our project in a town of 150,000 inhabitants. In the beginning, the sanitation authorities were not really interested. The concept of treating water was innovative for them. So in the beginning we were forced to produce something else and in the meantime, we tried to convince the authorities of the importance of household water treatment. We had to invest a lot in social marketing to change behaviours. To explain to the population the relevance of hygiene and healthy behaviours was difficult. These processes take time and effort because behaviour change does not happen overnight. People do not understand what you are talking about and they do not have the knowledge. The authorities are only working on increasing the quantities of water rather than improving the quality. We were the only ones working on this topic and it was, and still is, a battle.
A social marketing strategy asks for knowledge about the culture and the people you are targeting. You have to build your strategy around a number of people such as opinion leaders, imams, artists and public figures. People that can bring your message across on various occasions, and in various manners such as in songs during concerts, are key. This helps in reaching a largely illiterate population. It takes a lot of time, two years, three years, and a lot of effort. You have to keep people engaged, because they are not really interested in the topic.
When you start with the project, you have your strategy and you want to achieve success. You want them to become ‘clean’ and healthy. However, you realise you have to face reality. This kind of marketing requires a lot of patience. In your network, you come across all these different personalities, values, principles and over the years you can see that the situation changes. In our case, it took about five years of pushing this type of social marketing and over time, the population started to understand the advantages of household water treatment. It is good to evaluate and discuss everything with the entrepreneur and his team.
When you have reached that stage, you can start lobbying with people, institutions, organisations of the government to ask for their assistance in the project. This has a social impact.
Quite often, government is more interested in quantity than quality. So you really have to present yourself as an ally to them, as a partner that helps them with sustainable access to safe water. When you can do that and establish relationships with local and national government entities, they will help you. It is an adaptation of the system, a change of direction, and you can reduce your social marketing efforts and increase commercial marketing activities. You can start selling your products, you can talk to women in their homes about household water treatment. You can do publicity and become a bit more aggressive on the commercial level. Slowly the traders will introduce the population to the products. A good relationship with authorities is vital.
You may not have invested yet in transport, in the distribution of your product. However, your existence depends on it; you need support to distribute your products. It is very important to have a positive image to show that your product is beneficial to consumers. The business is vulnerable, you can lose your customers and your business easily. You need to have good alliances with the authorities, the Ministry of Health, an accountant, because as the business is developing you will have to start paying tax. There are a lot of documents to process when your business starts growing and your business model may change.
There may be many changes to the business model over the years that may deviate from your vision. The agents that are selling your products may get bored and start their own businesses. You may have to change the range of your products to keep your business going. All these issues may crop up if your project has a long time span. Your team needs to stay engaged, perhaps they have ideas, you may be the driver of your business, but you need to involve them in order to survive.
Your business may become bigger, you may get investors, again your business model may change. Your investors want to know what your impact is. You need to be clear in your mind and have a vision in order to be a successful safe water entrepreneur.
This article is based on an interview by Vera van der Grift of IRC with Aboubacar Camara of Tinkisso during a stakeholder workshop in Nepal, September 2017.