Demand for Rainwater Harvesting Devices in Uganda

Diarrheal diseases, linked to poor household access to safe drinking water, are the third leading cause of infant mortality worldwide, accounting for about 20% of deaths among children under five years of age. Both the disease burden and socio-economic costs of poor access to water falls disproportionately on women and children, who are typically responsible for collecting water in developing countries.  According to the FAO, women spent up to 8 hours per day collecting water in some parts of Africa.  Access to sufficient quantities of water that is uncontaminated and potable is a significant development challenge. Indeed, the sole quantitative environmental target in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is the call to “reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.”

A newly developed rainwater storage device (RSD) introduced in Uganda by Relief International offers a promising technological solution to the twin problems of lack of access to water in sufficient quantities and of sufficient quality. Water of inadequate quantity and quality hinders human capabilities throughout the developing world, and the success of the rainwater storage device can therefore have welfare consequences of global scale.  However, new technologies are only useful to the extent that they are affordable for and acceptable to the intended beneficiaries. Low demand for many different types of technologies seemingly capable of increasing welfare is a central puzzle in development. Salient examples span sectors, ranging from agricultural inputs (high-yield seed varieties and fertilizer) to household health technologies (insecticide-treated bed-nets and point-of-use drinking water treatments).

With this potential technological solution in place, we conducted a randomized controlled trial to gauge the demand-side responsiveness to that technology in order to: (a) determine what the potential size of the market for the Relief International rainwater storage device might be, (b) identify price points the market can sustain, (c) identify the most effective marketing strategies to promote adoption, and (d) determine whether we can effectively use information dissemination through social networks and other related ‘social marketing’ concepts to create commercial demand for the new product.  Moreover, since demand for rainwater storage devices may be attenuated through some important demand-side externalities (e.g. women and children in charge of water collection and most susceptible to water-borne illnesses may be the primary beneficiaries of the new technology, but unfortunately, they may lack decision-making authority over household expenditures), we also use this RCT to measure any social welfare gains from the new technology.  Quantifying the social benefits in terms of the reduced time allocation requirement to water collection (which frees up women and children’s time for labor force participation and schooling) or a reduced incidence of diseases associated with consuming contaminated water can help us determine whether the social cost-benefit calculation justifies spending resources on any marketing intervention that helps develop sustainable demand for the product.  Before asking the development community to invest resources in this technology, we must develop some comparative sense of costs and returns to rainwater harvesting relative to spring protection, point-of-use drinking water treatments, chlorinated piped water systems and the like.

In the implementation phase, we randomly varied the incentives and marketing conditions associated with the sale of rainwater storage devices to different households and different villages. We experimentally varied the price for the device by offering discount vouchers to random subsets of households.  Variation in prices will allow us to trace out a demand curve for the product, and will also create random variation in adoption decisions that can be used to causally identify the socio-economic consequences of rainwater harvesting in follow up surveys.  We also randomized the marketing schemes across the different villages, to test the effectiveness of (say) offering free installation to the first group of users. Proper installation and use by lead adopters may be independently important for the “right type of information” to permeate through social networks about the value of the device. Our preliminary results suggest that the demand for this product at market prices is extremely low.  One promising result from this research is that consumers in this low-income context seem to highly value free installation, suggesting that bundling free installation with future products may be a good way to increase adoption.  Using the small subset of household who adopted this technology, we find that this device decreases the time spent collection water for adults, but not for children.  We also do not find that this device leads to meaningful reallocations of time use.  We find weak evidence that adults replace the time they save on water collection with other unpaid work.

Research Partners:

Relief International and EnterpriseWorks/VITA (Jon Nagule, Director of Field Operations)

Policy Briefs

General Interest Policy Brief (Coming Soon)


Andrea Bocelli Foundation – Break the Barriers Workshop. December 6, 2013.