At Saha, we are always learning new things about the best way to open and run clean water businesses in small, rural communities. When we decide to make changes to our model, these ideas need to be vetted and understood thoroughly before they are rolled out to all our partner communities. How do we decide when a great idea merits a big change? The secret lies with our Research and Development (R&D) Team – one of our smallest but most important teams.
While we had conducted small, focused research projects over the years, R&D became an official, permanent fixture at Saha in 2018 when Fuseini Abdul-Mutala was hired. Mutala, along with Deputy Director Kathryn Padgett, commanded a 2-member team until this year when Wahab Lawal joined the team after most recently serving as a Customer Care Front-Line Supervisor. As R&D Supervisors, Mutala and Wahab work diligently towards their mission to research new and innovative projects for Saha. Currently, they spend about 70% of their time in the field, running the projects and collecting data and user feedback, and the other 30% in the office analyzing that data and feedback, making recommendations, and communicating results to their colleagues.
The R&D team has conducted many projects over the years from annual entrepreneur perception surveys to drinking habit observation studies. Several projects from recent years have dramatically shifted parts of Saha’s model. One such project is called the Maintenance Service Program.
The Maintenance Service Fee, or MSF, was a solution to solve a problem that had troubled many Saha businesses from the beginning: how to save the right amount of money to pay for spare parts and repairs at the business. Saha businesses use low-cost, locally available materials, but it was an ongoing challenge for our entrepreneurs to plan their savings cycle for broken parts, and to pay for them when the time came. Sometimes they would take new parts with a loan repayment plan, but collecting money regularly was difficult and could lead to stressful conversations for the field team and the entrepreneurs.
We knew we could make this process easier! Our goal is to implement community owned and operated businesses that run well and have technical problems fixed quickly so they can continue deliver clean water. The R&D team started with an idea: could we offer an annual insurance program that the women entrepreneurs paid into that would cover the cost of replacement parts? First came field research: would anyone even be interested in a 1-time lump sum fee for this service? Team R&D started with surveys of the women entrepreneurs. Ghana has national health insurance, so even in the most remote communities, people understood the concept of “insurancy” – paying in to a scheme that you may never use, but is there when you need it. The entrepreneurs both easily understood the concept and saw the value in such a program. The next step involved some creativity: we wanted a unique term, separate from health insurance and unique to the Saha business, and came up with “maintenance service.”
Back in the office, Team R&D studied years of data to understand which parts break, how often, and how much that would cost a business annually. A pricing structure was created based on village size so the fee was correlated with the amount of money it was possible to make from water sales, and the corresponding wear and tear on the business. The team designed certificates of enrollment that included the date enrolled, and the phone number to call when anything broke.
The team first rolled out the program in six pilot communities, and after seven months, fourteen more. To understand the impact of the program fully, they studied the claims cycle for technical part replacements in these pilot communities versus communities not enrolled in the program. It was remarkable – parts were fixed and replaced quickly without hassle or delay, so businesses had less downtime due to broken parts. The final test – would this program have seemed “worth it” to the entrepreneurs? Yes: when the year was up, all the entrepreneurs elected to renew. When surveyed, all entrepreneurs emphasized how much easier this program was than the old way: challenges were resolved promptly, repairs were fixed faster, and it was much easier financially to save money from the business.
Once the pilot concluded, the data was clear – this service could benefit all Saha communities. After some training, the Customer Care field teams in Tamale and Salaga introduced the concept to each community, collecting fees and issuing receipts and enrollment certificates. To date, 231 businesses are covered under the Maintenance Service Program.
Now the program is in the hands of the Customer Care teams, taking phone calls or visiting communities to discover broken parts, and fixing them as soon as possible. Our goal for “urgent” part replacements, that is, those that completely shut down a business, is 4 days. Recent reports have our teams replacing urgent parts within 4.3 days – not bad for a new program! We are working on closing efficiency gaps to make that even better over time.
As for Team R&D, they are on to new projects! While many of their studies don’t end with such a huge, organizational-wide effect, it is very gratifying for the team when they do. According to Wahab, “I thought this program would help improve Saha water treatment businesses to grow faster, and relieve the stress of broken parts for both the entrepreneurs and Saha staff. So I call it ‘Broken Parts Stress Free.’”
Mutala adds: “This idea is so far the best not just reducing the burden both customer care and the entrepreneurs go through but also to ensure that broken parts are repaired or fixed within the shortest possible time to keep the water business running.”