January 2023

How do rural Ugandan communities experience a subscription-based handpump maintenance service?

Where did the study take place?

This study took place in 2021 in two adjacent rural districts of northern Uganda in East Africa. Although many communities have had groundwater handpumps installed, they frequently break down, requiring expensive repairs. In past decades, volunteer water user committees in each community have been charged with ongoing pump operation and maintenance, despite having minimal financial resources to support professional repairs.

To address this challenge, we studied twenty communities that signed up for a water handpump repair and maintenance service with a local nongovernmental organization called Everflow. This paid service seeks to prevent frequent breakdowns and maintain a safe, continuous source of drinking water supply. Everflow employs local handpump mechanics who visit each contracted community on a monthly basis to check functionality and perform routine maintenance. If issues are detected, they schedule time for additional repairs, usually within one day. Between visits, the community-level caretakers can call Everflow’s toll-free hotline if any issues arise.

Map of 20 handpump locations in Uganda

What did the handpump study entail?

With support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, The Aquaya Institute evaluated the communities’ experiences with Everflow’s handpump maintenance services. We aimed to better understand what motivates people to pay for professionally supported water point services.

Data collection consisted of gathering input from approximately 250 people, including: water users, water committee members, handpump caretakers, handpump mechanics, political leaders, and health workers. We asked questions once in March/April 2021 and again in October 2021. The data analysis team reviewed the translated records and tabulated information across nine domains (Box 1) collectively capturing respondents’ trust in the service, perception of fairness, and observations of effective problem-solving:

Areas of interest

In addition to this descriptive data, we calculated each community’s percentage of service fees paid to Everflow to support the handpump maintenance service from January to November 2021. This measure helped to gauge acceptance and the feasibility of the program.

What did we learn?

  • Users were generally uncomfortable with recurring expenditures and expected breaks in payment while the handpump was working.

  • Residents of smaller communities felt more pressure to pay than residents of larger communities, in part because Everflow applied a flat monthly fee to all community sizes, increasing the relative importance of each household’s contribution in being able to cover the community’s payments to Everflow.
Quote Community water user
  • Users responded better to flexible payment or installment schedules because their income varies throughout the year.
Quote handpump caretaker
  • Community managers (especially handpump caretakers) have a strong influence on users’ experience and behaviors that can impact the water service provider (e.g., payment collection, resolving conflicts). However, rural water point management still relies too much on inconsistent volunteer labor.
Quote Health Assistant
  • Perceptions of unfairness reduced customers’ trust in the water service. Negative experiences, such as handpump overcrowding (line jumping) or subjective requirements regarding container cleanliness, must be addressed in a socially appropriate manner.
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