We recently had the chance to submit Akvo’s “movie poster” imagery as one of the candidates for an upcoming session on “Striking WASH communication” at September’s Stockholm World Water Week. It’s organised by IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, PR Audit, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and WSSCC. Here’s our entry on Akvo’s use of visual imagery, in case you’re curious…

Summary: “Injecting glamour into water and sanitation”

To support its launch, Akvo.org introduced bold visual imagery, in the form of movie-style “posters”. These challenge assumptions about development merely helping the helpless and establish the concept of the local hero working to deliver water and sanitation solutions. The campaign has helped Akvo long-term to differentiate its product offer, communicate its goals and define its customers to stakeholders, while setting out its stall as a maverick in the sector.


Akvo Background

Akvo exists to challenge convention in water and sanitation, injecting Silicon Valley entrepreneurism and Dutch openness into a sector that often struggles to project its message widely.

The 12-person team develops and operates internet and mobile phone services for NGOs, governments and philanthropic institutions that fund water and sanitation projects.

Launched in 2008, with backing from the Dutch government, Akvo is incorporated as a Foundation in the Netherlands, and is based in The Hague, with staff in London, Stockholm and San Francisco.

Issues faced

“WASH” (Water and sanitation / hygeine) communication is formulaic – blue and white, pictures of people in poverty, alongside pumps and latrines, liberally splashed with organisational logos, also blue. Large quantities of costly print booklets are typically distributed from expensive congress stands, with little evidence that they achieve impact.

Target audiences:

  • rising stars amongst global NGOs
  • progressive funders
  • groups committed to sharing knowledge.
  • ultimately, those working to lift their communities out of poverty


  • challenge assumptions about development being about helping the helpless
  • create a brand framework for Akvo’s product offer
  • define Akvo’s ultimate customer to stakeholders
  • connect appropriate watsan technologies with the application of information technology
  • project low cost appropriate technologies aspirationally, to a wider audience
  • establish the concept of the local hero, working to deliver watsan solutions
  • present effective information technology in a light-hearted, optimistic manner

Communication activities and team

Akvo commissioned Dutch artist Vincent Wijers to create four movie-style posters, each featuring characters and plotlines. Click the links below to see large-size images.

“The Woman Who Built Herself a Toilet”
“Mission Rope Pump”
“Wind and Water”
“Water! The Smash-Hit Musical from Africa”

See the poster images themselves in all their glory, and some pictures of the Akvo brand in situ, in this Flickr photoset.

They are designed to evoke a sense of simplicity, improvisation and optimism. Each features an appropriate water or sanitation technology (rope pump, sodis biosand water filter, wind pump, ecosan toilet), and a light-hearted item of “retro” information technology.

Akvo has used these visuals in a variety of ways to assert its brand and goals, including event posters, postcard flyers, signage and as illustrations for magazine and policy articles.



€20,000 over three years, including design and print.


The campaign has been widely praised by people from both North and South. It resonates especially strongly with partners in Asia and Africa, who have praised their fresh, fun, tongue-in-cheek portrayal – a striking contrast to the norm.


Photo: Akvo captured the imagination of NGO and government backers at the Unicef World Water Day matchmaking event in Rotterdam in March 2008, securing commitments of close to half a million Euro to build its tools. Funders signed our posters, which still hang in our office today. Akvo has gone on to secure more than €2 million in backing to build its open source software platform and network, including around €1.5 million from the Dutch government.

Akvo has since assembled over 200 high quality field and support partners, now using Akvo tools to deploy watsan solutions more visibly in 47 countries, reducing paper trails and sharing experience and progress openly online, via web and mobile phone-feeds. Since the campaign launched, enquiries on Akvopedia have risen to over 1000 per day.

If you think anyone else would be interested in this, please do point them to us. I’m always on the lookout for good places to profile our approach, so if you come across any good competitions focused on design and communications, especially related to international development, I’d love to hear from you via email or my Twitter account.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo.