Plugging the revenue leak with IoT

Plugging the revenue leak with IoT

Introduction: Gain insight into how the Internet of Things can provide game-changing opportunities at your utility, invites the Africa Utility Technology Council.

Water utilities rarely trust new technologies or experiment easily. “By the time we get to the party, the party is over,” said Accenture’s Maanda Ramutumbu, to the Africa Utility Technology Council (AUTC) audience at African Utility Week.

Solutions to non-revenue water (NRW) losses characterised by incorporating Internet of Things (IoT) technology are an important focus for AUTC as they provide common lessons across the utility sector.

Good information allows better decisions

“You have to use available technologies. Without innovation you start to fail and, with our aging infrastructure, you can use data to now understand where the leaks are,” said Pascal Motsoasele, Senior Automation Engineer at Rand Water. “Water utilities need to be smarter, and not just with water, in our case electricity is our second biggest cost. The right sensors in the right place mean we can analyse data and make better decisions.”

Water utilities should create frameworks and procedures for gauging digital opportunities. However, in an environment where business as usual often suppresses innovation, the opportunities need to have a solid business case so that they are prioritized, Motsoasele said.

Nairobi City and Sewerage Company is one such utility, successfully using technology to tackle the systemic issues of non-revenue water and to increase the quality of service across the water board.

“Nairobi is like Cape Town, we have no new surface water sources coming on stream – yet five years ago we had 42% of our treated drinking water leaking out of our pipes, not used – and not paid for – by our customers,” said Martin Nang’ole, ICT Director of Nairobi City and Sewerage Company.

“If you were a car sales person, this means for every ten cars you sell – you only get paid for six. You would go out of business, and why should a water utility be any different?” asked Ramutumbu, “In the African context, households’ urgent need to access safe potable water is understood to contribute the most in keeping women and children out of school.”

“In my country we have violent clashes over water access. So what do we need to do to protect the resources that we have? In many African countries NRW can account for 60% of the treated water made available to the public,” notes Nang’ole.

An IoT case study from Nairobi’s water utility

Africa’s water utilities spend much of their foreign aid on increasing the supply of water and operational expenses, and little attention is given to the reliability of the reticulation network.

Nairobi implemented a multi-year plan to reduce their NRW through the adoption of appropriate technology, in particular through the advantages offered by low-cost IoT solutions. The city has seen a seven percent improvement in NRW and data has enabled better decision-making and improved revenue collection.

Nairobi is no different from many African capitals in their reasons for experiencing non-revenue water losses through leaks, storage tank overflows, unbilled consumption, meter inaccuracy and unmetered consumption, to name a few.

“NRW not only impacts your revenue stream, but it can also have a serious impact on your operational expenses. A high percentage of our NRW was the result of theft and leaks in transmission, and put significant strain the company’s resources.

Narrowing in on efficiencies pays broad dividends

“We found that through the adoption of appropriate technology utilities, like the use of IoT with smart metering, cloud solutions for analytics, and communications networks, we were able to prevent the non-revenue water loss caused by meter inaccuracy, and could recover lost revenue and deliver more accurate billing,” said Nang’ole.

Through a partnership with Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile network operator, the company focused on the quick wins in reducing their commercial losses. But there have been many challenges, including the behaviour of meter reading staff which changed to circumvent the various requirements of using modern technology.

To validate the meter reading, mobile field assistants were tasked to a send a photo of the meter, allowing quicker, accurate billing. “When the assistants began to send through old WhatsApp photos to fake reports we placed an RFID tag on the meters, embedded with all the relevant customer information. So now assistants must physically be present to scan the meter tag,” said Nang’ole.

“Through large and inclusive community meetings we started a ‘read your own meter’ system, allowing customers to send through their own meter reports. In these areas, our meter assistants only need to go every three months to validate the reading. And because we have been diligent at ensuring any under-reading is billed for, customers give us accurate readings,” Nang’ole explains. “Using pre-paid meters so that we can charge clients on a daily basis has also been important. It is no use sending a mine-worker, who gets paid at the end of each day, a big bill at the end of the month. Typically he misses the payment, and then falls into a habit of non-payment. He then prevents you from reading the meter in future and, predictably, the situation continues to deteriorate. Now, with pre-paid meters, they can pay for tomorrow’s usage.”

However the pre-paid meter roll-out has not been without its challenges. “Because more than half of our prepaid meters were vandalised, we are currently just installing new ones in government institutions, and from then to formal, organized housing estates.

Due to the successful impact of IoT to improve NRW, the executive team now filters their decision-making through opportunity technology offers across the utility, said Nang’ole.

The improved billing, timeous leak detection with centralised control and enforcement of policies, and enhanced customer service through an exposed customer dashboard for real-time water usage and  integrated convenient payment interfaces using MPESA, prove their benefits to the utility time and again, he said.

Africa Utility Technology Council provides a year-round platform for utility professionals to ask questions and share lessons. More information about the membership-based organization can be found at their website: http://res225.servconfig.com/~africautc/ and from Mlungisi Mkhwanazi, Executive Director AUTC (Mlungisi.Mkhwanazi@utc.org).