cewas Middle East: Supporting Entrepreneurs to Address Water, Sanitation and Resource Management Challenges

Lillian Volat, Sunday 18 Mar 2018

cewas is the world’s first and only dedicated water and sanitation start-up incubator and business innovation training programme

cewas start-up entrepreneurs discussing water and sanitation challenges, Ramallah. November 2016. (P
cewas start-up entrepreneurs discussing water and sanitation challenges, Ramallah. November 2016. (Photo: Lillian Volat)

*As the world celebrates the World Water Day on 22 March the Ahram Online republishes the latest issue of the UNChronicle (Vol. LV No. 1 2018). “The Quest for Water” focuses on ensuring availability and sustainable management of water for all. This issue of the United Nations digital magazine marks the launch of the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018-2028.

A Water and Sanitation Start-up Movement

What can be done to introduce innovation and sustainability in the water and sanitation sectors in the Middle East? How can one give agency to younger, newer voices and visions in these sectors?

In 2013, cewas Middle East was established in an effort to examine and address these questions. cewas Middle East is a branch of cewas, the international center for water management, which has been supporting young innovators in the water and sanitation sectors since 2011. cewas is the world’s first and only dedicated water and sanitation start-up incubator and business innovation training programme. Since its inception, cewas has created more than 40 international water and sanitation start-ups, and executed over 20 water entrepreneurship training programmes on four continents.

The questions of sustainability and innovation in the Middle East are important and relevant for many reasons. The region has one of the most unsustainable water usages in the world and the highest levels of youth unemployment globally. Climate change and water scarcity, which have a direct link to unemployment and migration patterns, are increasing regional tensions. The water and sanitation sectors have not witnessed many widespread innovations in the past century. Flush toilets, an invention of the late 1500s, are still being installed, even in desert areas with limited access to water.

Donor financing dominates the wastewater sector, where multimillion-dollar treatment plants go unused after construction due to lack of sustainable financing. Reuse of treated wastewater is limited, hard to finance and often considered culturally taboo. Industrial and household garbage, a diverse resource with high financial potential, is being burned or dumped into the rivers and oceans. Educational systems do not sufficiently teach about environmental issues in the classroom, and there is a lack of enforcement for environmental standards or laws. This list of challenges represents just some of the water and sanitation issues in the Middle East. From the perspective of an environmental entrepreneur, however, these challenges can turn into business opportunities.

The first cewas flagship start-up training programme in sustainable water, sanitation and resource management was in Palestine in 2015, and expanded to Jordan in 2017 and to Lebanon in 2018. Thus, the opportunity and incentive for individuals and communities to mobilize around these issues was given a small yet important platform. cewas Middle East has now trained over 100 people in the region on sustainability and innovation concepts, introduced over 25 new sustainable start-ups into the regional market, and helped 10 existing businesses to expand their products and services into the “green” sector. cewas Middle East start-ups address a range of issues, such as water integrity challenges, water consumption, agricultural innovations, educational and behavioural tools, water pollution, solid and e-waste reduction, wastewater management and recycling.

Building a Green Market in the Middle East

Water and sanitation start-ups may have great business ideas, a fantastic team and an unbreakable drive, but it is the strength of the existing start-up support ecosystem and the capacity of the market within which the start-ups are operating that prove to be key factors in determining the outcome of their efforts. Since water, sanitation and solid waste issues in the Middle East are intrinsically tied to the political context of each country, the start-ups that have attended the cewas Middle East training programmes have mainly focused on the local or national markets. There are a few that have reached a regional market, mainly those developing technical solutions, however, they also face the constraints of the markets in the region and from the underdeveloped start-up ecosystems.

In Jordan, at least half of those operating in the social entrepreneurship scene have been educated outside the country; they face the challenge of trying to integrate their learning and vision in a Jordanian context. The social entrepreneurship ecosystem is growing organically, yet relatively slowly, as in most neighbouring countries, because of structural problems and conservative mindsets among governments, investors and other potential supporters. A small number of local funds, incubators, universities and banks are developing a nascent interest in the topic, but they have yet to coordinate or align their efforts to jointly build a comprehensive support system and pipeline for social entrepreneurs.

There is a new focus by international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and donors in Jordan on greater innovation and sustainable development in their initiatives, with the potential to quickly grow the market and expand the social entrepreneurship field, although these efforts are not strategically managed or coordinated. The markets available for green start-ups in Jordan are still largely limited to either supporting the donor communities’ efforts, particularly in the Syrian refugee response, or to the niche, luxury sector, with outreach limited to the environmentally conscious consumer.

In Palestine, the traditional start-up ecosystem is still nascent, and opportunities to specifically support social or green start-ups are quite limited. Outside of the main cities of Jerusalem and Ramallah, the concepts of green or social entrepreneurship have not been well introduced. With regard to environmental sustainability, many Palestinians have a close connection to their traditional and cultural knowledge, which is inherently ecological and sustainable (think seasonal family farms, local economy, baladi, etc.).

This cultural heritage also includes concepts such as al-ouna, a type of community support and philanthropy. In order to revive these concepts, and to support the growth of entrepreneurship in social and environmental sectors, cewas Middle East has launched efforts to support the development of a green market and build a grassroots community focused on promoting innovative sanitation and water start-ups. The goal of these efforts is to ensure that future green-minded start-ups have the opportunities and community support needed to succeed in establishing their businesses. However, even with a strong social and green ecosystem support, the unique situation with the Palestinian market will continue to be the largest constraint to all start-ups trying to achieve some level of success. The right of self-determination for Palestinians and how they build and structure their markets still lies with international governments and external interests.

The questions that arise from these situations are twofold: How can one streamline the efforts of different actors within each country to support water and sanitation entrepreneurs? What would markets that could support green business models addressing environmental challenges look like?

A New Generation of Sustainable Water and Sanitation Humanitarian Responders

Sustainability and modernization in the water and sanitation sectors in the Middle East can often be linked to innovative entrepreneurship, international donors and the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector. Together with local governments, this sector plays the primary role in determining the culture and direction of water and sanitation in the region. More often than not, international donors will fund project-based interventions instead of building up sustainable services for a community. This issue is difficult to address in humanitarian responses, as these interventions are intended to be short-term and needs-based. However, as is the case now, the Syrian refugee response is entering its seventh year.

To support the donor community and its humanitarian partners in increasing the level of environmental and financial sustainability, cewas Middle East has created a bilingual toolbox designed to help Arabic-speaking humanitarian WASH actors create more sustainable water and sanitation interventions. This open source toolbox is available on the largest online sustainable water and sanitation platform,1 where cewas Middle East is offering a series of targeted sustainable sanitation and water management (SSWM) courses across the region. cewas Middle East is also working on integrating these approaches and tools into university curriculums to create a new generation of sustainable water and sanitation humanitarian responders.

Increasing innovation and sustainability of humanitarian WASH response is a complex and ever-growing challenge. The effort to develop more market-based responses is gaining traction, such as sourcing food and supplies from the local economy instead of importing from abroad. However, in the water and sanitation sectors the challenges for this type of approach are even more complex, particularly if the private sector is not already playing a major role. Markets that support sustainable water and sanitation entrepreneurs are needed, so that in the event of an emergency, humanitarian responders can mobilize environmentally safe water and sanitation systems that are adequately adapted to the culture and context of affected communities.

Entrepreneurs of the future

cewas Middle East has explored the aforementioned questions with various approaches over the past years in efforts to introduce innovation and sustainability in the water and sanitation sectors in the Middle East. Providing a growing number of the younger generation in these countries with the ability to operationalize their vision has proved to be effective in building a core group of changemakers that are working towards a greener future. By introducing new methods on sustainable water management and sanitation, educating people on these new tools and technologies, and creating new alliances with regional international sustainable water and sanitation communities, cewas Middle East has added a new drive to a nascent but growing movement in the Middle East.

Questions continue to arise, yet the goal of cewas Middle East remains the same: supporting entrepreneurs in creating a future where all have access to clean water and safe sanitation, where waste is translated into value, where ecosystems regain and retain their integrity, and markets in the Middle East grow towards greener, circular and more sustainable models.   

*Lillian Volat is Project Leader, International Centre for Water Management Services (cewas), Middle East.

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