A team of graduate students from one of America’s top business schools has just returned from Northern Ghana after helping a small company provide safe drinking water to rural and nearby urban communities around the city of Tamale. The students, MBA and engineering candidates at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, the entrepreneurial arm of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology near Boston, conducted marketing surveys and developed sustainability solutions for the Ghanaian company Pure Home Water (PHW), striving to improve the qualities of filtration, taste, cost, and cleanliness. Second-year MBA candidate Matt Thomson explains how the team developed new strategies for marketing and improving the quality of H2O to Ghanaian consumers.
“What we did was really a marketing survey that broke down water filtration and water home treatment into five aspects: water taste and clarity, product type, filtration speed, price, and health, the most important one. What we were doing was taking those five and saying, to the average Ghanaian person, ‘Which is the most important quality in water filtration?’” he noted.
In earlier surveys American consumers had shown partiality to taste and clarity in their preferences. But for both rural and urban respondents of Northern Ghana, who regularly experience water shortages during annual seasonal droughts, health was the prevailing factor. With strong participation and cooperation from the local population, the MIT team, which included four researchers and a water engineer, conducted intensive 45-minute surveys with their subjects. Residents sampled alternative methods of filtration, from traditional Ghanaian-manufactured pipes and filters to conventional, modern steel technology used widely in the west and registered their preferences. Thomson says that cost was of minimal concern to the northern community, which surprisingly indicated it would gladly pay higher prices for guarantees of obtaining better grades of water.
“The most interesting thing we found, by far, was that price wasn’t as important as we thought it was going to be. Any economist will tell you that anybody in the world would go for the lowest priced product, and what we found is that’s really not true. They equated higher price with a better product quality. And that’s based on the fact that the data in our surveys showed consistently that people actually preferred a higher price,” he said.
Thomson called the Ghanaian survey group “the most patient people I’ve ever been privy to, interrupting their subsistence work, inviting us into their homes, and looking at this, honestly, as something that was going to be very good for their community.” However, he points out a major drawback of the community’s water delivery system is its inadequate resources to keep delivery flows on all the time, a weakness that leads to widespread hoarding and contamination of reserves that are stored in home containers for prolonged periods of time.
“When they do deliver water, the water quality is actually quite good. The water, while it is quite good, is only delivered on a sporadic schedule. They can’t save up enough water in these dams to actually treat on a normalized level. So it’s possible that not enough either political capital or monetary capital is actually going into the north to develop these systems,” he said.
The MIT MBA notes that if utility companies and commercial firms can attain the capacity to ensure a steady flow, which he claims they are close to doing, it would make for a more efficient use of the system.
“If the water company could believe that they have more water to actually treat and flow, they would actually solve a lot of those issues because they would then just keep the pipes on most of the time. But I’m reminded of the fact that the rural people don’t get that much water as it is right now in the piped water. So the water company would have issues with that as well because you would actually have increased demands from those communities,” he points out.