By Thomas Muia

With a population of 987,653 people, water coverage in Makueni County remains very low at only 35.6%. Of this, only three out of 10 households are connected to piped water, while the remaining rely on unimproved water sources, according to a World Bank Makueni Countywide Inclusive Sanitation situation analysis report.

Eunice Nduku, a resident of Muani village, Makueni County, says that her village has very few water sources including a borehole and a dam, which literally dries up during the dry spell, leaving the residents in a serious water access challenge. Also, the water from the dam is muddy and unsafe for drinking.

“The nearby borehole serves the entire village making water to be competitive in this area. The people responsible for serving the residents open it at around 9.00 a.m. and thereby occasioning a very long queue of villagers lining up to draw water. To avoid time wastage, many opt to use the water from the nearby dam,” says Kitonyi Malika, a resident of Muani village.

Residents in the area, he adds, incur an expense of Kshs.5 (less than a dollar) for every 20 liters of water they draw from the borehole. In a day, a normal household, comprising of about five family members, requires at least five 20-litre jerrycans for home consumption and an extra five for their livestock which amounts to Kshs.50 (about half a dollar). This is relatively expensive to the residents because one spends at least Kshs. 1500 (about USD 15) on water every month.

Kitonyi Malika fetching water

In 2010, the Safaricom Foundation in coordination with the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) set up Mukanda Water Project in Muani village with the hope of mitigating water shortage in the area. They piped water from a borehole in a nearby village which is approximately 50 kms away. However, the project did not last long because members of the community from which the water was being tapped raised an objection claiming that their borehole could dry-up because too much water was being abstracted to supply Muani village.

“Few years ago, the AMREF and the Safaricom Foundation launched this water project to help residents get clean water for their domestic use and for their livestock. But after few years, the villagers started conflicting, leading to the closure of the water point. People now rely on only one borehole, the nearby dam which can dry up any time and the county government dam which is far from here,” Malika said.

Mukanda water project funded by Safaricom Foundation

To help alleviate the water shortage in the region,  Kenya Rural Enterprise Programme (K-Rep) Fedha Services, initiated a micro-finance credit scheme to enable the affected households to acquire water tanks for rainwater harvesting.

Even though most residents initially thought of the initiative as a business, its benefits and impacts to the people have been unquestionable. The company has empowered community members in Makueni County with water tanks thus significantly helping to curb water shortage in the area.

For a person to qualify for a water tank loan, he or she must be registered as a member of any group affiliated to the K-Rep Financial Services Association (FSA). FSAs are branches of the K-Rep Fedha Services. Each group under the FSA has a certificate which facilitates their legal transactions with K-Rep.

Patrick Kiamba Yongoso, the chairperson of the Mbite Ngwitike FSA group in Makueni County, has exercised leadership over 20 individuals since 2017. As the chairperson of the group, he has assisted many members of his group to benefit from the water tank initiative.

Yongoso, the chairman of the Mbite Ngwitike group

According to Yongoso, any person willing to benefit from the water tank initiative must first join a group that is registered as a member of an FSA. The chairperson explained that with a minimum of 30shares, a member is qualified  for any water tank loan amount offered that could afford him or her a 10,000 liter tank.

However, group members with less than 30 shares, their total shares are multiplied by four to determine the loan limits which they could access. Each share is worth Kshs.300 (about three dollars)

Even though the K-Rep water tank cost relatively more than the normal prices at retail shops, Yongoso explains that the payment schedule is flexible compared to the retail shops, where the full amount is expected to be paid first before being given the tank.

For instance, a 6,000 litre tank costs around Kshs. 21,000 (about USD 210) at a regular retail shop but at K-Rep, a member will pay Kshs. 1840 (about USD 18.4) monthly for a period of one year. This adds up to Kshs. 22,080 (about USD 220.8) which is more than the normal retail price by Kshs 1 080 (about USD 10.8) only.

Another advantage is that no down payment is required as each member is guaranteed by their shares and by the group. Thus, the beneficiaries only pay a monthly installment which may run up to two years according to one’s preferences.

“At least five hundred members of the Mbite Ngwitike FSA group have benefitted from the initiative since 2017. Most of them have obtained water tanks which have been helping them to store water for use during the dry season. The water tanks are affordable, thanks to the low interest rate offered by K-Rep,” said Yongoso.

Helen Titus, a resident in Masumba village, is a beneficiary of the project. Last year (2021), she managed to obtain a 6000 liter water tank from K-Rep that she has been using to tap rain water. She intimates that she could not afford to pay the full amount at once but the K-Rep installments proved to be easy and affordable.

According to Titus, access to cheap credit for purchase of a water tank has been a game changer as people used to depended on donkeys to transport water over long distances which was a great challenge.

Water tank in Titus’ compound

“I took a loan of Kshs. 30,000 (about USD 300) to buy a water tank, which the bank delivered directly to my home. After I was told that no deposit was needed, I found out that I could easily raise Ksh 1840 (about USD 18.4) to pay the installments monthly for a period of one year. By so doing, I fully paid the loan and gained full ownership of the water tank,” she said.

Penninah Mutua, a beneficiary from Muani village, describes K-Rep’s entrance into the area as a perfect solution to their water harvesting challenges. She narrates how they used to queue at the local borehole and would spend at least three hours before getting served. However, now that she has a 10,000 litre water tank, she only needs to use water sparingly and the water tank would sustain her during the dry season. Her Kshs. 50,000 (about USD 500) -water tank loan was something that seemed impossible but worked out perfectly for her.

“I was afraid of obtaining the loan because I didn’t think I would be able to repay the loan on time. However, through the group, I was informed about the opportunity to get the loan and repay it in monthly installments that seemed manageable. I took the loan and after a year, I had fully paid the loan and a proud owner of a 10,000-liter water tank,” she said.

However, untimely payment of the loans attracts a penalty, which increases the amount to be paid on the water tank loans. If you fail to pay the monthly instalment, the group gives you a penalty of about up to Kshs 200  (about USD 2) each month, the chairman explains.

He adds that  if any member fails to repay the loan, the group members would auction the member’s water tank and use the proceeds to settle the loan. This is detrimental to the victim but it is the only way we can ensure that the loan is paid back in full, he says.

This has made some residents to shy off from joining the groups or applying for the loan.

Still, some  beneficiaries complain of high interest rates which makes them to pay more than they would while buying the water tank at the retail shop.

Yongoso was clear that the water tank initiative is not a silver bullet or panacea to the water problem in the area given the erratic and intermittent rainfall partners in the region. This means beneficiaries are only guaranteed of harvesting water during the rainy season. The rest of the period when there is no rain, especially long spells of drought, the water tank stays dry, and the owner has to look for other sources of water.