Community Operated Social Enterprise enables public service delivery in rural areas

How to make the most of it when government is absent, resources are limited and business opportunities scarce

Community Operated Social Enterprise (C.O.S.E.) deals with limitations and challenges regarding public service delivery in rural communities. We developed C.O.S.E. to enable rural communities to access, finance and manage their clean water provision not only for this generation but also for many generations to come. C.O.S.E. means that while the water system is the property of the communities, the management of the water system relies on a locally operated water delivery service provider. In short: water provision to communities under a business model but not for profit.

Apply C.O.S.E. where there are limitations

Ideally public services, like water, are managed by government bodies or not-for-profit companies. Because in many rural areas in Cameroon, and throughout Africa, these organizations are absent, with LiveBuild   we started to develop an alternative. We named it C.O.S.E. This model can be applied in cases where resources and possibilities are scarce. C.O.S.E. deals with these limitations, while enabling good governance in public service delivery.

In the course of our field work in the past decades we analyzed many failing water systems. We also talked with communities in depth and gain insights from many perspectives to find out what could work. Moreover, we assessed business opportunities, as drinking water is scarce and demand is high. All ingredients combined resulted into our C.O.S.E. model.

An institutional base to enable proper management

Neither the government nor companies are interested in service delivery in rural Cameroon. This makes sense: To deliver water as a service to rural communities in Cameroon is neither politically rewarding nor profitable. Communities have to rely on themselves. In other words: community ownership is imposed you could say. However, community ownership might be the only way. If the government doesn’t do it, and there are no large companies involved, who else?

Without a government or large company that invests in water infrastructure, and maintains this infrastructure, it is extremely hard to manage a water system. Obviously, many community projects ended up in misery. In our view, the reasons for this are twofold:

  1. Community ownership is not a solution in itself to the challenges of managing a public service. It would deny the complexity of public service delivery.
  2. There is a mismatch between a project management approach and a service delivery approach.

Most projects are limited in time, money, and focused on unique activities with tangible results. While on the other hand service delivery is based on operational and repetitive activities with a long term scope in view. For proper governance of service delivery you will need an institutional base (bureaucracy) that is embedded within the communities. In our experience it takes many years to build up such a base.

Payment to service delivery

If the institutional base is the car, payment to service delivery is the fuel. Though service delivery in rural communities is not very profitable, proper maintenance and long term investments require some kind of budget, thus regular income. This is where the entrepreneurial aspect of the model comes in. Within C.O.S.E. we relentlessly point out to the communities that paying for water – which Is gift of nature – might be something unthinkable for them, but that paying for the service of receiving clean water near or on your compound might be something very natural. Step by step we make clear that paying for water makes sense.  It helps when members experience a quick repair of a pipe broken. The enterprise needs to earn trust in order to receive payment of fees.

We are pursuing an enterprise where social good provision is central. Where every community member has equal access to the product; where income is primarily for the sustainability of supplying that product adequately over an extended period of time; where community satisfaction is expected to remain constantly high.

How C.O.S.E. works in the field

From C.O.S.E. we have derived a practical approach to manage drinking water provision in rural areas. In these projects, we support communities to install an association. These associations are run by a Board of chosen community members. The election is held in an annual general meeting. The Board defines policies and regulations, for example the fee community members need to pay for water.

However, the Board does not manage the water system. The management is professionalized and in the hands of a local water office with (semi-)professional staff. Its office operates independently as a little business, but reports to and is held accountable by the Board. As said, the water company generates an income by collecting small user fees. It is responsible for maintenance and repair work of the water system, surveillance of its protected areas and as an information center for all kinds of questions related to water management.

Please share your local experiences with us, as we are aware there are many initiatives dealing with the challenges of public service delivery in rural areas.