With the arrival of three new enforcements for the Akvo West Africa hub last month, it was also time to organise our first regional team week since the establishment of the hub in 2013. We had a great time getting to know each other (better), discover and design our future dream, but most of all we had a lot of fun. What I knew already was confirmed again – we have a great complementary team with a lot of experienced and motivated people from very diverse cultural backgrounds. But another thing I discovered during this week is that Akvo West Africa operates quite differently compared to other Akvo hubs around the world. In this blog, I would like to highlight five things that make the landscape in which we operate unique.

Horizon of Bamako
Above: Looking at the horizon after a morning hike during the West Africa team week in Bamako. Photo by Wendemi Pascaline Ilboudo.

1. Francophone in an English-speaking environment
Akvo is an Anglophone organisation. English is mostly spoken around the world and the countries in which Akvo works and that’s why both Akvo’s internal and external communications are in English. Our hub operates mainly in French since 60% of the West African countries are Francophone and most of our partners are French speaking. This language gap creates an additional challenge in the communications to our West African partners. We reproduce a lot of centrally-created materials like our support tool, brochures and soon even a part of the website. To narrow the gap this blog is also available in French, which makes it unique because it is the first blog written in two languages.

2. 100% coverage
Akvo tools are being used in 15 countries on the mainland of West Africa. With a team of 10 people we are supporting hundreds of partner organisations, including NGOs, governments, UN agencies and private firms. We work in Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
West African countries and names v2
Above: Green colours are dominating the flags of West African countries. * = French speaking countries.
3. At the bottom of all lists
Unfortunately the countries mentioned above are amongst the poorest in the world. Except for Ghana, they can all be found in the top 30 of the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index. West Africa has a hard time, but not only in terms of wealth. Looking at the data in the ICT development index most West African countries are also, sadly, struggling at the bottom of the lists. Looking at the internet penetration and education, there are a lot of challenges as well for West Africa. Of course this is a big opportunity for our hub and it indicates that there is a lot of improvement to be made in the ICT field, but we have the additional challenge of explaining how to make optimum use of our tools in an ‘IT illiterate’ environment at work with very low internet connection speeds.

Gapminder data internet penetration vs education
Above: Graph generated by Gapminder.org data showing the different challenges for West African countries concerning education and internet access.
4. National mapping of water points
At the moment of writing this blog, around 800,000 data points have been collected in West Africa with Akvo Flow since 2010. These data points can translate to knowledge to drive better decision making. An explanation for this high number is our work with national governments on the collection of national water point data in six countries in the region. Of the 800,000 total data points collected in West Africa, more than 200,000 are water data points collected through our work with the governments of Mali (45,000 water points), Liberia (60,000 water points), Ghana (scaling project 30,000 water points), Benin (scaling project, 40,000 water points), Sierra Leone (just started) and Nigeria (35,000 water points). Water point mapping with national governments on this scale is quite unique to the West Africa hub. With a lot of interest from other countries in the region, Akvo Flow data collected here is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years. Part of our dream we discussed during the team week is to expand our work in the region. Our ambition is to finally map all the water points in West Africa with Akvo Flow and, maybe more importantly, have their functionality monitored. This would give national governments the insight they need to improve the water infrastructure in their countries.

Water point data West Africa
Above: National water point data of six West African countries. Visualisation by: Josje Spierings.
5. Women in the lead
Over the past one hundred years, there has been a battle in the equal treatment of men and women which has created a more equal society but there is still an area in which equality is not evident: the presence of women at the top. We have two managers leading our work in West Africa, but even more unique is that the West Africa hub management is 100% female. Dagmar (Regional manager) manages the Bamako office and Emeline (Hub manager) runs the West Africa operation from Ouagadougou. Let’s hope these two women inspire others to become Akvo hub managers in other parts of the world.

Writing this blog, I realise that we are just as unique as everyone else, and that each of the Akvo hubs have their own unique selling points. But during our team week I noticed that we are not that good in blowing our own horn and I hope this blog helps our (potential) partners, colleagues and donors to better understand the strengths, challenges and circumstances of the work Akvo does in West Africa.

For more impressions of our team week you can view my Flickr stream, or check #WATW16 on Twitter.

Lars Heemskerk is a communications and project officer at Akvo West Africa. You can follow him on Twitter @larsheemskerk.