Above: Adjusting the sails of the Malbec, my first sailing boat. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo.

You can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can always adjust your sails to reach the port you want. And that is exactly what we’ve been doing at Akvo over the last year.

For some time, many of us at Akvo have felt that the way we talk about ourselves wasn’t reflecting the reality, depth or scope of the work we’ve been doing around the world. Since 2015, we’ve been growing at a fast pace in a very challenging sector, and in regions that demand fast and sustainable solutions to some of the world’s most urgent problems.

During this time, Akvo’s marketing has always been profoundly influenced (and constrained) by the fast-moving nature of our work. Our business is at the crossroads of technology and people, our presence is spread across five continents, and our partners address a wide number of issues using 
our approach.

There is a reason why I’ve only worked for non-profits. Nearly half of the world’s population — more than three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. There is a big gap between the poorest and the richest people in the world. According to the World Health Organisation, 2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home, more than twice as many lack safe sanitation. There is literally no time to waste in what we do. That’s why we needed to update our story so that people could understand how it is we can help them.
You can't change the direction of the wind, but you can always adjust your sails to reach the port you want. And that is exactly what we’ve been doing at Akvo over the last year. #Akvo Click To Tweet

In April 2017, we created the new Marketing and Communications department, and together with the team, we’ve been working nonstop to revitalise the core aspects of our story, to bring clarity to our partners on the ways we can help them, and to give focus to our future.

We started by asking ourselves some important questions and reflecting on how to best tell the answers:

  • What change do we want to make?
  • Who are we trying to support, and how?
  • What can we promise our partners?
  • Where do we work and how do we tell those stories?

What change do we want to make?

At Akvo, we believe in equal access to public services, reliable infrastructure and a safer environment for everyone. We are convinced that this will happen faster if governments and non-governmental organisations become more effective, accountable and collaborative. With our combination of tools, services, local expertise and sector knowledge, our partners improve the management of water, sanitation and agriculture, with a strong commitment to accelerating the progress of the sustainable development goals. We’ve put together a new About Us page, a two minute video to help you see the whole picture and we’ve also made the latest version of our Theory of Change open and explicit.

Who are we trying to support, and how?

If you are talking to everyone, then you are not talking to anyone. Akvo has a wide diversity of partners, ranging from small, midsize and big NGOs to private companies and national governments. These partners are involved in multiple sectors, from water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to agriculture, and from disaster relief response to education and health. We’ve reached a stage in which our network expands across many sectors and involves multiple actors. We needed to decide which conversations to have and with whom if we really want to deepen our impact and build on the work done over the last ten years. At Akvo, we’ve always understood marketing in general as my friend Mark Charmer put it. However, understanding the differences between business to business marketing (B2B), business to consumer marketing (B2C) and business to government marketing (B2G) has become crucial for us. I like to believe we’ll always market Akvo human to human (H2H), but for the coming years, we’ll be focusing on understanding how to reach out and relate to the people in governments and organisations that can truly achieve lasting and sustainable impact with our help.

In the context of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law that has been in full force since 25 May 2018, Akvo has focused on ensuring compliance and a lot of work has been done on the high risk areas within products, departments, processes and policies. This means our marketing is also changing, and we’ll only be having conversations with those explicitly wanting to have them with us.

What can we promise our partners?

Akvo started as a tool provider, first with Akvopedia, then with RSR, and then Flow, after it Sites, then Caddisfly, and Lumen. True. Yet, this is only a partial (however crucial) element of the value we add. As my friend Amitangshu Acharya once pointed out, tools don’t produce data, processes do: “We have great tools, but they don’t guarantee use by default. Unless tools are institutionalised, they come with an expiry date. Institutionalising tools goes beyond training sessions.” I would add that the same process, if done correctly, is what leads you to the right information and knowledge for decision making.

Although Akvo has been also been providing services next to our tools for a long time, it was not with the clarity of purpose or the level of detail that is now necessary for us to explain. Akvo’s Theory of Change made these necessities explicit, and inspired us to develop specific services to support our partners in designing their projects so that they can capture and understand reliable data which they can act upon. We are not interested in helping our partners collect the wrong data faster. Making sure our partners succeed at every step of their data journey is something we’ve learnt along the way and are committed to.

Back in 2015, we started to simplify our narrative. As our portfolio grew, it became increasingly difficult to explain our tools and services separately, not to mention the efforts in bringing these to market. Back then, we rolled out the  “Capture, Understand, Share” triad to overarch all of our work. In 2017 and 2018, we revised it once again and tied it together in what we call 
our approach, an updated overview of where we stand now, freshly shared this week.

Above: Our approach to your data journey.
We are not interested in helping our partners collect the wrong data faster. Making sure our partners succeed at every part of their data journey is something we’ve learnt along the way and we are committed to. #Akvo Click To Tweet
We also launched a 
self assessment tool, which you can find on our homepage, that will help potential partners gain clarity on their needs, and quickly walk them through how Akvo can assist with any problems they come across in their data journey. The intention is to focus on understanding their challenges first, rather than presenting our set of tools and services to people that may not have the depth of knowledge to understand what it is they need and why. By doing the self assessment, potential partners will know straight away whether we can be of help, and how.

Above: Our new self assessment tool, on our homepage.

Global presence with regional knowledge, bottom up.

A deep understanding of local context is key in providing partners with the best possible support. That’s why we have regional hubs in five continents. The rest of our team work remotely from places like Sweden, Bangladesh, Colombia, Spain, Australia, the United Kingdom, Nepal and Uganda. Since our beginnings in Europe, Akvo has built regional presence since 2012, when we set up our first regional Hub in East Africa. Later came South Asia, then West Africa, Americas and Southeast Asia and Pacific.



Although it has always been a differentiator, we’ve previously struggled to put our regional hubs in the limelight. As someone coming from Latin America, I understand the importance of dealing with people that know your context, and can relate in your own language. Our hubs are unique, mainly because of the (often interdisciplinary, proactive and polyglot) teams that work in them. Running global Marketing and Communications is always challenging, as finding the resources, time and skills to tell stories in multiple contexts and languages isn’t easy. We’ve recently released regional pages to highlight the different languages that are spoken in each hub, the diversity of professions composing each team, and the local projects and partners each hub works with. Keep an eye on these as they’ll become even more dynamic and active in the coming months. We’ve also come up with a new-cost replicable pattern to tell our partners’ stories and grasp our involvement in them. I invite you to have a look at some of them, like this one, this onethis one, this one or this one, just to name a few. They are truly inspiring. 

At Akvo, we believe in equal access to public services, reliable infrastructure and a safer environment for everyone. We are convinced that this will happen faster if governments and non-governmental organisations become more… Click To Tweet


What’s next?

We’ve trimmed our sails and also got wind on our stern. Our story better reflects where we are now. In the coming months, we are going to expand on the importance of having a methodical approach that proves to be successful in sustainable development work. And we’ll be also sharing more regional stories of positive change that inspire all of us to move faster and forward towards equal access to public services, reliable infrastructure and a safer environment for everyone.

Alvaro de Salvo is Head of Global Marketing and Communications at Akvo, based in Amsterdam. You can follow him on Twitter: @aj_desalvo