November 21, 2022

Development aid empowers communities to build resilience through off-grid innovation

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2.2 million people currently lack access to safe drinking water and half of the world’s population lacks access to safely managed sanitation, according to UNICEF. Most of these people live in low- and middle-income countries. Access to water, sanitation and electricity is an income matter. It decreases as income decreases (see Table below).

Source: Data for Low income, Lower middle income, Upper middle income, High income | Data (

Adequate water and sanitation solutions are essential to childhood survival, development and education. Lacking access to adequate water and sanitation solutions in schools can affect attendance as it complicates menstrual hygiene, potentially leading to dropping out of school, and increases absences due to illness. In conflict areas, diarrhoeal diseases are almost 20 times more likely to cause a child’s death than the actual conflicts themselves.

Improving the conditions for circular and sustainable off-grid solutions contributes to achieving the Global Goals and Agenda 2030

As infrastructure, or access to existing infrastructure, is often limited in poorer areas or increasingly fragile even in areas with existing services, the need for innovative solutions to provide access to water and sanitation (SDG 6) and electricity (SDG 7) prevails. Increased access to appropriate, inclusive and circular solutions can also contribute to achieving other Global Goals, including health (SDG 3), education (SDG 4), gender equality (SDG 5) and food security (SDG 2). Despite the apparent need, deploying and scaling solutions for water and sanitation often fails in the long-term and beyond initial pilots. How can this basic need be fulfilled?

The two-year sWASH&grow project, which held its final seminar recently, has developed tools to improve opportunities for innovators and aid organizations to bring more circular, inclusive and sustainable innovations to vulnerable populations in humanitarian crises and areas without access to critical utilities and services.

The sWASH&grow project is showing impressive results solving development challenges. We know that the Official Development Assistance (ODA) won’t be enough to reach the development goals and the private and public actors need to work together. Circular, inclusive and sustainable innovations are more crucial than ever in fighting poverty.

Carolina von Schantz, Senior Advisor, Private Sector Collaboration at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)

Engaging in private-public collaboration is important since the private sector can offer different perspectives in the development and scaling of innovative solutions. To achieve long-term solutions, there is a need for a systems-based approach and collaboration with a broad range of stakeholders. To address the lack of capital and enhance innovation, Sida uses several strategies, including the development of the Public Private Development Partnership method. It also channels funds through challenges and issues guarantees to encourage investments.

Developing appropriate products and services

To provide a more contextual understanding of the product development process, a framework was developed and investigated in sWASH&grow. The framework builds on stakeholder input from workshops and interviews with innovators and:

  • identifies connections between different stages of the product development process, such as the requirement to design products that are easy to operate and maintain
  • maps finance and governance structures supporting or inhibiting different stages in the product development process
  • accounts for socioeconomic differences between humanitarian, poor and emerging markets commonly grouped as the “bottom of the pyramid”.

In humanitarian and development contexts, we find that products and services are often designed without sufficient consideration of the conditions in which they are going to be deployed and the users receiving or purchasing the product or service.

Karina Barquet, Senior Research Fellow at SEI.

Results show how the financial and governance structures matches the valley of death theory, where pilot projects often fail to attain long-term sustainability with local ownership over operation and maintenance and scale up and become widespread solutions.

“We see both lack of finance and lack of regulations when it comes to maintenance,” said Barquet.

 This demonstrates the importance of having a low-cost and localization approach to innovation considering user needs and wants, as well as including post-deployment strategies and financing for maintenance and transfer in the early stages of the product development process.

Project outcomes and future aid

As current practices fail to meet the Global Goals, there is a need for innovative products and services. However, without collaboration, knowledge exchange and funding, the scaling of products and services, as well as their economic viability, is limited.

Lessons from the sWASH&grow project can provide information for stakeholders developing products for humanitarian and development contexts through the challenges and enabling factors for scaling innovations identified from literature and in the project. Tools for matchmaking innovations, collaboration platforms, testbeds and the Malmö University course module “Global product development” developed during the sWASH&grow project, can contribute to the future development and design of appropriate and inclusive innovations, context adapted business models, knowledge development and exchanges that can also contribute to bringing solutions closer to the intended users.

Examples of off-grid innovations established and tested in sWASH&grow

The SaniC – closing the loop of sanitation and agriculture

SaniC is a modular and scalable wastewater treatment system with a water and energy-saving technique that eliminates disease-causing bacteria in wastewater, saving lives and recycling valuable nutrients in arable land. The system is designed for latrines, blackwater or sludge. No chemicals are used. The outcome is a fully sanitized liquid with all valuable nutrients called “BIO fertilizer” that is ready for use on arable land and replaces expensive imported mineral fertilizers. It is scalable and easily adaptable to local conditions. A2T has set up two plants in Sweden and a pilot plant has been in Bolivia since 2019.

The TreeWell – nature-based wastewater system

A thermal way of treating and reusing wastewater, the Treewell solution leverages natural aquatic ecosystem processes for on-site treatment of sewage and heavily contaminated waters. This small and scalable solution purifies water safely and effectively for a variety of uses. Purified water can enrich local freshwater resources and improve local water security or be reused for household needs, irrigation, small retention and green infrastructure development. It is a circular system that can be decentralized to small villages. It currently has testbeds in South Africa and Lebanon.

TreeWell testbed

The Biomweb IoT – monitoring system for on-site wastewater treatment plants

A platform for remotely monitoring and operating wastewater treatment systems, The Biomweb IoT uses multiple Internet of Things-enabled sensors, sending all the data through a web portal to a cloud-based data collecting system. Its main function is to control wastewater entering the system. It registers the outflow of the system to know exactly how much overflow can be reused for irrigation. The IoT system helps to lower the energy-usage system by controlling the air pump. It improves efficiency and operations as less manpower is needed on-site. The collected data can be used to design more effective systems. The testbed is currently set up by Mruna in Lebanon.

The (H)unit – disinfection and water purification

Using only air as a “raw material” and locally produced electricity, the (H)unit can clean and disinfect water, air and materials for over 10 years. It is a robust high-quality ozone generator adapted for humid and harsh environments. The (H)unit kit developed by PBS generation, is compact and can operate anywhere with two mobile containers: one with purification and one with a power supply. One (H)unit can clean and disinfect drinking water for 1000 people in 24 hours.

The (H)unit. Image: PBS generation

The MDD Titan – desalination and water purification

The “water-in-a-box” can both desalinate and purify water from bacteria in the same machine. It uses renewable energy and is sustainable, using titanium to guarantee a long-life span in harsh climatic conditions. It is environmentally friendly as there is no water loss in the process of producing clean drinking water. It is suitable for developing markets and disaster-stricken areas as it is easy to service since many of the machine parts are easy to replace. The “water-in-a-box” developed by IngesonWater is compact, mobile and scalable. The off-grid container solution can provide disaster areas around the world with desalinated and bacteria-free water. Depending on the need, it can be scalable to produce a greater output of clean water. It can be installed and ready to use within eight hours after delivery. The testbed is in Ekeby, Sweden.


ECOBARGE is a private company that provides mobile sustainable infrastructure solutions integrated on a vessel or barge. Ecobarges are scalable and suitable for any area with inadequate solutions, with or without existing energy infrastructure.

The company works together with locals to gain expert knowledge on what is needed in their communities. Through the ECOBARGE concept, local communities can present their needs as visualized valid business cases to investors. Any function meeting end user requirements as defined through mutual feasibilities can be incorporated into an Ecobarge.

Ecorbarge concept in Zanzibar. Image: Ecobarge.

ECOBARGE currently has pilot projects in Zanzibar, Tanzania and Baraka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In Zanzibar, ECOBARGE provides drinking water for communities and fish cooling for use by local fishermen. In the DRC, the pilot aims to provide water and electricity supply, as well as drying and fish cooling at a later stage. The concept is a win-win for both the companies and communities and has several mutual benefits such as job creation, off-grid production, scalability and sustainability, and no environmental impact as it is a plug and play solution. It also provides rapid organic growth, positive cash flow and access to testbeds and operational pilots globally.

ParlaLink – The Parlametric tool for online matchmaking

This intuitive and scalable tool developed in the sWASH&grow project is used for matchmaking and simplified search engine optimization for product specifications. The tool focuses on matching keywords to procurement and ongoing projects within the humanitarian and development space. It provides relevant results based on a database of 250 000 procurements and projects where a similar search on Google would result in 1000s of mostly non-relevant results. It seeks to analyze and optimize time-consuming and resource-demanding processes for projects and products and has the potential to improve and simplify business development.

The tool can be used to:

  • match products or projects with local suppliers
  • match startups or innovations with partners
  • match job applications with job descriptions
  • match sustainability requirements with suppliers
  • test procurement in a live setting
  • analyze input descriptions of relevant company or product information
  • match search words with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • generate suggestions on themes and product development that could be added to reach more available procurements
  • search for relevant ongoing humanitarian and development projects worldwide
  • search for relevant procurements within the EU and UN worldwide and calculate the likelihood of winning.

The sWASH&grow project symbolizes Challenge-driven Innovation (UDI) values well, as has been demonstrated through several interesting off-grid innovations, business model learnings, infrastructure and production systems, policy and regulations, culture and values. I am very pleased about the clear focus on matching and scaling. Phase 3 in UDI is about implementation and creating conditions for the innovations to deliver on their potential and create benefits of different kinds and this is completely dependent on matching and scaling up support. In this project, that has been integrated in a way that we would love to see in many others.

Nina Widmark, Programme Manager, Innovation Management, Vinnova.

Experiences from the sWASH&grow project suggest that future aid programs should increasingly support private-public-research collaboration, find local partners and collaborations with local actors such as suppliers, politicians and decision-makers, develop post-deployment strategies for maintenance and transfer of innovations, learn from previous experiences, perform project evaluations and increasingly finance the development and scaling of new innovative products and services needed to achieve the Global Goals.

The TreeWell testbed
The TreeWell testbed