Other Than Affordability

It is 6am and Ghana’s sometimes scorching sun is gentle and refreshing. The communities in Ga West, west of Ghana’s capital Accra, are bustling. Open fires and cook-stoves are set up, children are being bathed. Women wrap their babies in colorful cloths around their waists and stroll towards a WaterHealth International community water system with empty containers to be filled with water.

Containers are placed in clusters against each other as closely as possible in front of the tap. It is an unspoken rule that after each container is filled with water, a bystander in closest proximity will help the owner to place the container on her head. There is no need to ask. Each lady balances the water weighing about 30 kg on top of her head. With a child on her back, she walks with caution and is steady without spilling a drop of water on the red dusty path.

The next moment I realize I am the one standing closest to the lady whose container has just been filled. So we both kneel down and lift the container up simultaneously. It reaches my shoulder height then my arms start to shake. I hold my breath. Our eyes meet across the container. She looks puzzled why I am frozen. Then she realizes my weakness, laughs and signals me to put the container down.

Not far away, a child is defecating outside his family’s abode. When her mother passed by, she scooped up her child’s excrement with a shovel and put it in a plastic bag. Though there are no visible toilets, the community areas are kept spotlessly clean. Later in the afternoon, the heat picks up. Some customers will stop to take a break in the water center before heading out again, sometimes quenching their thirst with a water sachet.

Photo credit: 1person.wordpress.com

A water sachet is water sold in a 500-ml, sealed plastic bag. It is one of the most prevalent consumer products in Ghana. It is sold everywhere, from road-side vendors and snack bars to high-end supermarkets. What is striking from research conducted in 2009-10, is that sachet consumption is predominant amongst the urban poor–half of households in a sample of Accra’s slum reported using sachets as their primary drinking water.

On a per unit basis, a water sachet is 20 times more expensive than WaterHealth’s product. So we asked people why they drink sachet water. A common response is ‘Sachet water is pure water’ – the individual plastic pack being heat-sealed implies it is pure. It is for a one-time use, convenient, easy to handle, which means it is extra palatable.

It is not only affordability. It is convenience and packaging as well.

WaterHealth’s water is tested and qualified every month. Water quality results are posted publicly in the center. It is really pure according to WHO standard. It is cheaper. Yet it is not patronized as prevalently as sachet water.

How do we understand and reconcile theoretical/rational knowledge versus on-the-ground evidence? How do we understand customer behavior so we can increase adoption of more economic and environmentally-friendly alternatives? Probably by asking ‘why’ more than 5 times in different ways and experiencing the world of the customer day-in and day-out.

I started to drink sachet water the way Ghanaians do and plan on asking more why’s differently.

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Christina Tang is a Class of 2013 Global Fellow working for WaterHealth International in Ghana. You can follow her blog here.