From rowdy cartels to organized ones? The transfer of power in urban water supply in Kenya

“Pro-poor is a bottom up approach which ensures participation by low-income consumers in water provisioning issues……. It promotes a sense of ownership among such consumers leading to the reduction of vandalism of infrastructure and removes cartels who hitherto were exploiting consumers, thereby making water affordable”.

This is a stereotyped version of the answer that officials of water utility companies give to my question “why pro-poor?”, a question that marks the conversations I have with them as part of the field work for my PhD in Kenya. According to most of these respondents, urban low-income areas (LIAs) were not on the radar of utilities prior to the introduction of pro-poor strategies and models. A situation which left room for the “rich among the poor” to use their own resources to connect water to these areas and so sell it at their own prices. These informal providers, often referred to as cartels (due to the illegal nature of their activities), are rowdy in that they resist efforts by water utilities at ‘normalisation’ and formalisation. Members of these cartels not just include the owners of water points, but also the owners of the carts used to transport water to households, as well as the cart pushers.

Next to these cartels, also the residents of low-income areas often act in irregular ways to access water, for instance by vandalising or damaging the pipe networks that pass through their areas to get water to the “rich” areas. The hope and expectation is that pro-poor models will help control these rowdy cartels, as well as put an end to the unruly behavior of residents. The latter is expected to happen by allowing them to develop a sense of ownership, so that they assume responsibilities for protecting the infrastructure. This is at least how the top officials explained it to me. This is also the information with which I went to the communities. I wanted to find out whether the cartels had indeed disappeared or improved their behavior, and how residents of low-income areas were participating in their own water supply. I did this in 13 low income areas in Kisumu (6), Nakuru (3) and Kericho (4).

The Nakuru Case

In Nakuru, water is delivered through two technologies, water kiosks and yard taps with pre-paid or postpaid meters. While the kiosks are put in public places where anyone can access them, the yard taps are located within plots to deliver water to 10 to 30 sometimes up to 50 households. To have a yard tap, a land title is required. This means that the decision always lies with the landlords, who after subscribing to the connection add water charges (between 100 and 500 Kenyan shilling) to the rent residents pay. This means that irrespective of whether water flows (water supply in these areas is characterized by cut off, with water being only supplied twice per week for up to two or three hours), residents have to pay for it, while also finding other means to obtain water – usually from other paid water points. The landlords themselves do usually not reside in the houses.

Due to the irregular supply, the water utility tries ensuring that water kiosks have dedicated lines so that they can provide water at all times. Water kiosks are constructed by the utility (through donor projects) and handed over to community based organizations (CBOs) through a bidding process, with the prices of the water sold at these kiosk points being controlled or sanctioned by the utility. Also individuals or groups who have the means are allowed to source water from these dedicated lines to put up their own water kiosks. Prices of water at these points are also sanctioned by the utility, at 2 Kenyan shillings (Ksh) for every 20 liter jerry can. However, as the supply in the homes of most residents is so irregular, kiosks can afford to sell water at prices as high as 20 Ksh for every 20 litre jerry can. Where water is brought to homes by carts, the price can even go up to 40 Ksh.

A post-paid and pre-paid yard tap in Nakuru. (Pictures: Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah)

The Kisumu Case

The pro-poor models being used in Kisumu are the delegated management model (DMM) and water kiosks. DMM entails contracting out of water supplying LIAs from the utility (Kisumu Water and Sewerage company – KIWASCO) to individuals or CBOs, whom are termed Master Operator (MO). In this arrangement, the utility delivers water in bulk to the MOs who then sell it to households and kiosks within the community. Thirty seven of such models are present in six out of the 22 LIAs. The rest of the areas are provided water through water kiosks and in-house connections for those who can afford. On paper, the MOs consist of a group of individuals who come together to form the CBOs that operate the DMM. However in practice MOs usually consist of one individual who registers a CBO with people who “may not even exist”[1]. In the DMM model in Kisumu it is not required to have a land tile deed in order to get an individual connection. “Once you have the money to pay for the connection you are good to go”[2]. However, many of the landlords who live in these compounds do not allow tenants to have their own connections. They prefer to control the connections and then sell water to the tenants. Their reasoning is that if “water charges are inclusive of rent, tenants will overuse water”, with they (the landlords) having to bear the extra cost. The re-sale of water is also a means for the landlords to make some extra money. Hence, allowing tenants to have their own connections, as one landlord puts it, “will mean losing business……each landlord has to protect his or her territory…..houses here are not self-contained where one can have separate things”[3].

As part of the DMM, water meters are placed in meter chambers away from water point. These chambers are locked and the keys are kept by the MOs. According to the official arrangements, consumers can ask to check their meters whenever as they wish. In practice, access to these meters are limited, because the MOs do not allow their consumers to see them. Residents usually “do not know what the meter reads, but are expected to pay the bills they are presented with or risk disconnection”[4]. When they have genuine concerns about the bills, they have to first pay before they can complain for anomalies to be fixed.

Just as in Nakuru, kiosks in areas without the DMM are constructed by either the utility (through project funds) and handed over to individuals and groups, or by individuals who have the resources. As supply in most of these areas is irregular, individual kiosk providers connect water over long distances from areas where supply is regular. To earn back their investments, they sell water at prices higher than the recommended 2 Ksh by the utility. I for instance observed this in Ogango, one of the LIAs in the city. Here most households have in-house connections, but irregular supply forces them to buy water from a private kiosk. Here there is always water, because the owner made a connection to an area with regular supply. Water here is sold at 5 Ksh or sometimes at 10 Ksh.

Office of a master operator and a water kiosk in Nyamasaria in Kisumu. (Pictures: Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah).

The Kericho Case

Unlike in Nakuru and Kisumu, for the utility of Kericho it is quite new to venture into pro-poor activities. With four LIAs that house just about 10% of the population that the utility serves, pro-poor activities so far received limited attention. This changed with the establishment of a pro-poor unit within the company a little over a year ago. The utility provides water to the low income areas mostly through in-house connections and a few water kiosks. Land titles are a requirement for in-house connections. This means that landlords are responsible for applying for water connections. Similar to the Kisumu case, landlords prefer to sell the water to tenants rather than including it in the rent, even when they do not live on the compound. They delegate the activity of selling to someone (an agent), usually another tenant they trust. Water is sold at the 5ksh; the same as the price at the water kiosks. The utility (Kericho Water and Sanitation Company – KEWASCO) through funds from projects and donors also constructed twenty four (24) water kiosks throughout the LIAs. However due to non-payment of bills by operators, twenty (20) of the kiosks have been disconnected. This means that residents in these areas have to search for different water sources.

Operational and disconnected water kiosks in Kericho. (Pictures: Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah)

Pro-poor or pro-profit?

All three cases have something in common: the presence of “middle men” in the form of the CBOs, MOs or landlords who sell water to the residents. Who are these middle men? In many instances the same people who belonged to the informal water providers (the cartels) that ruled water distribution and service delivery before the pro-poor strategies were implemented have now been absorbed into the formalized groups designated to arrange water provision – the CBOs, or the MOs operating the kiosks or DMMs. These were the people that hitherto resisted the presence of or collaboration with water utilities in the LIAs. Pro-poor models provided them with a means to normalize and formalize what they were already doing, while working with them also was a relatively smooth way for the utility to operationalize its pro-poor plans.

In deciding about pro-poor models or strategies, LIA consumers are usually involved at the implementation stage. This is when water utility representatives go to them to promote the benefits of a model that was invented in their “board rooms”[1]. There is little consumers can do to alter the model, also because no other options are presented to them. In actual fact, the decisions about the implementation of the models usually lie with the top hierarchy of the LIAs, as water utilities usually consult with elders, chiefs and landlords. Hence, decisions on the technology or financial arrangement through which LIA residents receive water mostly are made by the landlords. As one resident in Rhonda-Nakuru puts it “everything in this house is decided by the landlord, the only thing you can make decisions about is what happens in your room”[2]. With the exception of those few elites in these LIAs, most residents in the LIAs feel left out of the decision making process. The sense of ownership which these models intend to develop thus remains limited to the members of CBOs, landlords and MOs – all people who have something to lose in the event of damage or vandalism to the infrastructure. In the case of the DMM, for instance, the MOs have to protect the infrastructure because any damage or vandalism which results in loss of water after the master meter means that they have to pay for water they did not sell.

Once the now absorbed cartels pay the required bills to the utilities, their activities become legal. This even further empowers them to control or manipulate the system. That they make use of this opportunity is evident from the three cases.

In all, these first results from my field work make me wonder if the real effect of pro-poor models is not the transfer of power from the “rowdy cartels” to organized ones, the facto resulting in a strengthening of their capacity to make profits on the backs of those people who are not connected to piped water. Instead of allowing ‘common local residents’ to impact decisions, these interventions seem to be making room for the “local elites” to wield more influence and wealth (Rusca et al, 2015), maintaining or even reinforcing the very inequalities the interventions sought to eliminate in the first place (Cleaver, 2002).



  1. Cleaver, F. (2002). Reinventing institutions: Bricolage and the social embeddedness of natural resource management. The European journal of development research, 14(2), 11-30.
  2. Rusca, M., Schwartz, K., Hadzovic, L., & Ahlers, R. (2015). Adapting Generic Models through Bricolage: Elite Capture of Water Users Associations in Peri-urban Lilongwe. European Journal of Development Research, 27(5), 777-792.

[1] Interview, Member Water Action Group (WAG)- Nakuru, 22nd February, 2017

[2] Interview, resident Rhonda – Nakuru, 1st march, 2017

[1] Interview, NGO staff, Kisumu, 7th March, 2017

[2] Interview, staff KIWASCO; 6th March, 2017

[3] Interview, Landlord Nyalenda-Kisumu, 17th March, 2017

[4] Interview, resident Nyalenda-Kisumu, 17th March, 2017


Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah

I am PhD fellow at the Integrated Water Systems and Governance department of IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and the University of Amsterdam. Using an interdisciplinary approach, my research aims at understanding pro-poor water strategies used in urban water provisioning - using selected water utilities in Kenya as case study.

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4 Responses

  1. William Mboya says:

    Dear Akosua, this is a very educative insight about the “pro-poor” water service provisioning in Kenya. Indeed, the poor continue to pay more in the hands of cartels here. However, I request to read more in your findings about the unpublished but known hand of private plumbers and some utility employees in helping kiosk operators to cut out in-house connected consumers from supply to create market for them and reinforce overcharging of the poor in areas like Ogango in Kisumu for a fee; and the possibility that the politics of water reselling by landlords in Kericho Water not only affects the poor consumers but also the utility’s revenue assurance. In a recent customer identification study where I was the lead consultant, we found that water resellers receive monthly bills reflecting minimum usage i.e. between 0 to 6 m3 (You can request the KEWASCO MD to share with you my findings). A deeper inquiry into the Kericho situation revealed that inadequate utility management capacity inadvertently reinforced the poor’s exploitation in water pricing. They are unable to interrogate billing data regularly to inform their decision making.

    • Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah says:

      Hello William, thanks for your your comments and the leads. Your findings in Kericho will be vital in the further analysis of this study. i will be in touch.

  2. Rashad says:

    Beautiful insights. I can imagine how excruciating the demand for water by the poor is trending in those areas.
    I hope to read more of your study.
    Great job!

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