Ghana has plenty of water. So why do its people buy plastic pouches from street vendors? Shaun Raviv investigates.
When Johnnie Water was a schoolboy in the Volta Region of Ghana, he and his classmates were required to go to the river every morning to grab at least two buckets of water each to help fill the school’s tank. Later in life, when Johnnie was a young man, the water didn’t flow often in the home he shared with his brother. They would leave a bucket under the open tap at night, and if they heard the echoing drips of water, they would get out of bed rather than miss the available running water hours. At the house where Johnnie Water lives now in Accra, Ghana’s capital, the water is plentiful, but every ounce of it is trucked in by a private company at great expense. Like most of his fellow Ghanaians, Johnnie has been chasing after water for his whole life.
Johnnie Water has lived in Tunisia, Belgium and Canada as an international consultant. He returned to Ghana, where he was born and raised, last year. Now he could visit his mother regularly, speak Twi with his compatriots and invest in his home country. “When I go and come back,” Johnnie told me during a bumpy ride to his office, “and see how humble people here are, I think, ‘we haven’t lost everything yet’.”
Rather than investing in unpredictable Ghanaian bank rates or buying a shop or another piece of land, Johnnie Water decided to put his money into a product with limitless demand: water. “There are very few businesses in Ghana where you won’t be swindled,” he said. Water is one of them.
If water is the elixir of human life, the one drink we can’t do without, it is also a carrier of death in many countries. According to the World Health Organization, nearly two billion people still drink water from sources that are tainted with faeces. That water kills at least half a million people each year through diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. While the number of people in the world who have access to an “improved water source” – one not contaminated by faecal matter – has increased by two billion since 1990, Sub-Saharan Africa lags behind the rest of the world. More than 300 million people in the region are still drinking bad water.
In Ghana alone, 3,000 children under five years old die each year from waterborne illnesses transmitted through contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation. One study estimated that for every year lived in one urban Ghanaian neighbourhood, pathogens passed on in drinking water were taking back half a year of healthy life. Despite an abundance of water sources, most people in Ghana can’t simply turn a knob in the wall to get it. The water infrastructure in the country does not even come close to meeting demand; to call it patchwork would be an insult to quilts. Ghanaians have to balance their time, money and safety to determine where they will get a drink. Millions of them choose to get their water in 500-ml plastic sachets. And some of them get their sachets from Johnnie Water.
On my first visit with Johnnie Water, whose real name is John Afele, he picked me up on the outskirts of the city at a gas station and we headed to an area called Adusa, where he keeps the Johnnie Water sachet-packing machine in a spotless room across the street from his sister’s home. On each wall are signs explaining rules on cleanliness and hygiene to the Johnnie Water employees. The packer, made by a company in China called Koyo Beverage Machinery, is about the size of a tall drinks vending machine. If it were a bit brighter instead of metallic, with its springy, repetitive production of a tasty treat, it could be in Willy Wonka’s factory.
It’s run by operator Edward Dankwah, who showed me how he loads a plastic roll in the back and then sets the metallic sealer’s temperature to 285°F. When the machine is on, the plastic sheet is run down the front, sliced, then filled with water from a pipe running into the machine and finally heat-sealed.
The finished product is a rectangular sachet, a little smaller than a plastic sandwich bag, filled with liquid. It says “Johnnie Water” in blue outline below a picture of a dove offering an olive branch. Johnnie chose the brand name as a pun on Johnnie Walker, the whisky. To drink from a sachet, you bite off a corner and then gently squeeze while placing your lips over the opening. As it empties, you can grip it harder until nothing is left but crumpled plastic. When chilled, it’s a satisfying swig, if unusual at first for someone used to drinking only from cups, cans and bottles.
After the machine fills and seals the sachets at a rate of about one every two seconds, they drop into a small bucket. Dankwah then checks the sachets for leaks and puts them into larger Johnnie Water-branded plastic bags that each hold 30 sachets.
Johnnie Water’s water comes from a borehole 150 m deep, just around the corner from the machine. Before the water is put in the sachets, Dankwah filters it through sand and carbon and then reverse osmosis, a pressure-based process commonly used to separate salt from seawater. The water is then exposed to UV light, the electromagnetic radiation from which kills microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses. By the time the water is sealed in the sachet, it has been cleaned of salt, bacteria and particulates. It has become what is commonly called ‘pure water’, a substance that has long been difficult to find in this country.
The search for pure water in Ghana precedes its independence from the British by many decades. In 1888, against the wishes of the local population, the colonial government closed two “grossly polluted” ponds and opened two new reservoirs in Accra to ease the city’s already “perennial water supply problem”, wrote historian K David Patterson in an article for Social Science & Medicine. Only three years later, an analyst declared one of the reservoirs unusable for humans. Twenty years after that, the Akimbo Reservoir was a muddy pit less than a foot deep, where pigs and guinea-worm-laden women waded.
An ‘Annual Report for 1898’ on the Gold Coast, prepared by the Acting Colonial Secretary of the region for British Parliament, said: “There are two great difficulties to contend with in carrying out any efficient system of sanitation… (a) the inadequate water supply, (b) the filthy and lazy habits of the very large majority of the native population.” It noted that the locals were “naturally dirty” and that they made “every yard and street in the native quarter of the town into a virtual cesspool”. Rather than take responsibility for its failure to provide clean water or decent sanitation, the colonial government blamed the locals for refusing to use public latrines or see the “necessity of cleanly habits as a safeguard to health”.
In 1942, the Accra town council carried out a campaign “to inform and teach people on how pure drinking water is produced, why the process has a related cost and how to save and use water wisely to prevent waste”, wrote historian Anna Bohman in her doctoral dissertation at Umeå University, ‘Framing the Water and Sanitation Challenge: A history of urban water supply and sanitation in Ghana 1909-2005’. That year, in a broadcast from Accra by the Director of Public Works, citizens were told that water “is as precious as gold” and that “if you waste water you are guilty of a serious crime”.
Freed from their colonisers in 1957, the administration of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, took control and water turned from a problem of quenching the natives to an issue of national pride. “Giving every Ghanaian access to water,” Bohman wrote, “symbolized a step away from colonial rule as it would provide infrastructure for the social development of the country and its people.” A few years after independence, only a sixth of Ghanaians had some sort of access to good drinking water. Today, that number has risen to more than 80 per cent – a great improvement, but one that masks the complex and multi-layered search for pure water that dominates Ghanaians’ lives, particularly in Accra.
The population of Accra, the commercial hub of West Africa, has continued to outpace the city’s water supply ever since the aforementioned muddy reservoirs were its drinking water sources. In 1911, there were fewer than 20,000 residents of Accra; by 1948, there were nearly 136,000, and six years later nearly 200,000. With every new inhabitant came a greater need for water. Now, there are about two million people in the city and more than four million in the metropolitan area, and there is a 60-million-gallon daily water supply deficit generally attributed to amateurish water resource management.
As recently as the late 1990s, drinking water was sold on the streets of Accra in shared cups scooped out of big aluminium vats. Later, this unhygienic process was displaced by water in disposable plastic bags, tied at the top and cooled by ice blocks. Around the time the scooped water was going out of style, the sachet-packing machines became available, and now sachets are the primary unit of water in Ghana and the dominant medium of drinking water in the capital. They are more popular than bottled water and water coolers, which are products for the rich, and more popular than tap water, which people don’t believe to be safe to drink.
The idea of putting water in sachets seems to have come from Nigeria, but it has found a comfortable home in Ghana, where the urban population passed 50 per cent in 2010 – from only 23 per cent in 1960. Although I wasn’t able to find any verified records for sachet water in Ghana, Raymond Mensah Gbetivi, a commercial manager at Voltic (one of the largest sachet producers in Ghana), told me that his very rough estimates put the size of the sachet market at around 4.5 billion sold per year nationwide. Voltic alone sold about 450 million sachets last year, though Gbetivi insisted that the big players are still catching up to the family-owned sachet makers.
“About 70 per cent of the market is controlled by the small-small guys,” he told me (again, his rough estimate). Voltic, which is owned by the multinational company SABMiller, competes with a few other big Ghanaian brands such as Everpure and Special Ice, but also with hundreds – if not thousands – of mom-and-pop brands like Johnnie Water. Starting a sachet business is only a matter of having access to running water and buying a packing machine for a few thousand dollars. Once you have those, you can immediately start producing and selling.
“We’re making the water available to a certain class of people,” Gbetivi told me. Though sachets are Voltic’s biggest business by volume, they make less profit in total than their bottles and dispensers. But the demand for sachets is so high that even producers that usually target the wealthy can’t ignore it: the market is approaching the size of the population of the country, 25 million people.
“People don’t trust municipal supply and availability,” said Gbetivi. “That’s the reason sachets came about.” That lack of trust crosses borders; sachet water use has spread to all the West African countries bordering Ghana and Nigeria, to India, and possibly to Central America.
To get a glimpse of why Ghanaians have little faith in their municipalities, I need look no further than Johnnie Water. On a Saturday in late January, I was supposed to tag along with the delivery crew to see where they sell their pure water. But when I woke up that morning, I received a message that the electricity in the area hadn’t come on the previous day and so Edward the operator was unable to pump water from Johnnie’s borehole. They wouldn’t be selling water that day.
As of February, Accra was on a debilitating power-rationing programme of 24 hours off and 12 hours on. Because the power goes off so frequently (another of Ghana’s major infrastructure crises), Johnnie owns a large plastic polytank to store water for downtimes, but electricity is also needed to pump water through the multiple filtration systems and to run the packing machine.
Months ago Johnnie had bought a backup diesel generator. But every time he uses it his profits sink, if they aren’t eliminated altogether. Johnnie told me he makes about seven US cents profit per bag of 30 sachets, which sell for 2 Ghana cedis – pronounced like ‘CDs’ – apiece at the time of writing (2 cedis is about 60 cents). But the total profit depends on volume, and that week, volume was extremely low. Even when they use the generator, it isn’t quite powerful enough to pump water and run the filtration and power the sachet machine. Still, they run it on occasion to keep their customers happy and quenched.
The biggest issues on Ghana’s plate seriously affect businesses like Johnnie Water. A business that exists because the government can’t get water to its people often can’t get water to its people because the government can’t get power to its people. And the problem comes full circle when you realise that nearly half of Ghana’s power comes from water flowing through a giant hydroelectric dam 100 km north of the city.
The Akosombo dam is another reminder that Ghana has water. It just doesn’t deliver that water to Ghanaians in a safe, drinkable form. The dam was built in the 1960s, creating the world’s largest reservoir by surface area, Lake Volta, which is about the size of Puerto Rico. Ghana has water. It has so much water that – according to a paper by Ralph Mills-Tettey – 80,000 people had to be relocated when Lake Volta was created. Ghana has enough water to sink 700 entire villages.
Even with the country’s wealth of water, less than 10 per cent of people in Accra have reliable in-house taps, and less than half even have a shared tap on their property. So what do people do when they have to shower or wash dishes? Many buy water from their neighbours who are connected to the city network, and they usually buy them in another unit that Ghana has taken as its own: Kufuor gallons, which are actually 20- or 25-litre yellow plastic containers originally used to store cooking oil.
Named after John Agyekum Kufuor, the president of Ghana from 2001 to 2009 (a time when the water shortage was particularly bad), the gallons are another important and Ghana-centric part of the complex water economy. Like sachets, they are impossible to miss when walking around any part of Accra. I spoke to Serge Attukwei Clottey, a young artist who lives in the Labadi Beach area of Accra, who uses the gallons as his artistic material.
“Any time you see yellow, it represents water,” Clottey told me. “And any time you see the gallon, it represents struggle.” Many families keep dozens of the gallons on their property and use them to store water for bathing, cleaning and even drinking. Since people can’t get water piped into their homes, they must carry these heavy vessels back and forth.
A friend of mine named Fred has a typical water situation. He keeps about 5 or 6 gallons at home for himself and fills them once a week. He lives near Clottey in Labadi, and the water never runs at his house. He told me he’s planning to move, however, because in his area it costs about 20 cents to fill a gallon – nearly twice as much as it costs where he works.
The price of water, whether it comes in sachets or gallons, varies considerably between neighbourhoods, depending on competition and accessibility. Inflation and coin denominations also play a part. An uptick in the price for sachets is always jarring because 1 pesewa coins are rarely used in Ghana – they more commonly come in denominations of five (100 pesewas equals 1 Ghana cedi, which is worth about 30 US cents). In 2007, the price for a sachet was 5 pesewas. It eventually doubled to 10 pesewas, and in most areas of Accra, female and child hawkers sell them for 15 pesewas. These increases – equivalent to around 2 US cents – may not sound like much, but in a country where the typical worker makes less than $2,000 per year, it adds up when you pay it every time you’re thirsty.
Clottey takes old Kufuor gallons and turns them into art, either by cutting them into pieces or by using the tops of them as masks, which he wears in photos or on the street (the circular opening of the gallon looks like a human mouth, while the handle is the nose, and when separated from the basin they resemble traditional Ghanaian masks). But, Clottey asks, “What if, in the future, Ghana has water?” The gallons are only special because of Ghana’s water shortage, so he uses broken gallons – which are essentially waste – to build functional things: a chair, a mask, a rug, a roof. With his creations, Clottey is preparing for a theoretical future in which Ghanaians no longer have to go hunting for water.
Three days after my outing with the Johnnie Water team was postponed, it was put off again. The power was still out in Adusa and they did not have sachets to deliver. Johnnie apologised and said he’d call me when they had enough. I wondered where his customers turned to for pure water when no sachets were trucked in; the perception on the streets is that sachets are the only affordable and pure water available.
But is sachet water actually pure? It’s a very difficult question to answer when the market consists of so many different pure water producers, each cleaning water with their own systems. Still, there have been many tests of sachet water since it was first introduced in Ghana in the 1990s, and in the past the results weren’t encouraging.
“It’s not necessarily better than tap water,” Abena Safoa Osei told me from the other side of her desk in her office in Accra. Osei is a microbiologist with the Ghana Standards Authority and lead author of a study on the microbiological quality of sachet water in Accra published in Food Control. Osei and her coauthors found various protozoa, microsporidia, cyclospora, Cryptosporidium oocysts and even a small roundworm in a sample of 60 sachets taken from producers in Accra. These are all associated with causing diarrhoea in healthy people and can be deadly for individuals with weak immune systems, such as those with HIV. “Sachet water can not be said to be generally safe,” Osei’s study concluded. “Generally, there is inefficient filtration, as well as unhygienic production environment and poor plant sanitation.”
However, Osei wouldn’t advocate making sachets illegal. “The bottom line is, sachet water needs to be monitored,” she said. “If you want to package water, make it safe for everyone to drink. Make it as safe as possible, because you cannot tell me that if I don’t have money to buy bottled water, that I should buy [lower] quality water.”
Osei also told me that she believes tap water in Accra is safe to drink, a perception that’s not shared by many but may be true, with major caveats. Water in Accra is pumped from one of two treatment plants in the areas of Kpong and Weija. When the water leaves these plants, it is okay to drink, Osei told me, but then it flows through Accra’s pipe system, which is old, poorly maintained and actively hacked in many places.
Every public water system in the world has ‘losses’ – water that doesn’t get paid for because people get it for free by mandate, because it leaks or because people cheat the system. In high-income countries, the major losses tend to be from leaks. In Ghana, however, more of the losses come from unauthorised taps and meter inaccuracies. Families and even whole areas tap into the Accra water system and create their own connections, unmetered. And even those who are on meters often pay flat rates because it’s so difficult for the water company to keep track of their customers’ use. It was estimated in 2006 that 60 per cent of the tap water in Accra wasn’t paid for.
In these old hacked pipe systems, once-clean water can come into contact with foul water through leaks and vacuum effects caused by empty pipes, and be contaminated with disease-causing pathogens by the time it reaches the lucky customers who have taps. Also, because there is so much rationing of city water, people buy polytanks and the water sits, often high above homes, in plastic containers that get a lot of Ghana’s equatorial sun. That makes the water even less potable. And for many people whose neighbourhoods don’t have water piped in, legally or illegally, the water is trucked in by private companies or individuals – lessening the quality in transit yet raising the price. A 2013 study in Science of the Total Environment found that “the degree of contamination is approximately increasing 60 times from the distribution network to the household storage” and that household storage was the largest single cause of waterborne disease, mostly through E. coli.
Sachets have stormed in to fill these gaps in the clean water economy. For a country plagued by bad governance and weakening infrastructure, the plastic packets are considered by some to be a necessary life preserver, efficiently delivering life’s essential merchandise to people who need it.
Justin Stoler, a researcher at the University of Miami who has authored several studies on sachet water in Ghana, is pretty excited about its possibilities. In a city where access to piped water has massively decreased over the past decade, and where those who do have in-house taps are overwhelmingly well-connected public- and private-sector individuals, Stoler sees sachets as an important and unignorable fact of life in Ghana.
“The booming sachet water industry,” Stoler wrote in the Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development, “effectively extends improved water coverage deeper into informal settlements and slums, and alleviates the need in those places for a method of safely storing drinking water.”
Although several past studies have found major contamination in sachets, Stoler wrote that very few of them – not excluding Osei’s – “have incorporated a study design with a sufficient sample size, geographic coverage, or general scientific rigor needed for broad conclusions about quality, even at a local scale.” Perhaps more importantly, he told me, is that the sachet business in Ghana is moving way too fast to use results from even five years ago.
“I think we’ve seen almost an entire product life cycle in just a decade,” Stoler said. “Initially it was more of the autocrats drinking sachets. Very quickly, within a few years, it seems to have shifted to lower income and the poorest of the poor… You don’t go to a conference or symposium and get served sachet water.”
Stoler believes the “warp-speed evolution” of the industry has quickly made the product better and cleaner. Due to the enormous demand, bigger producers like Voltic have stepped in and are using the same water they put in bottles, sold to the rich, in the sachets sold to the lower and middle classes. And with lots of competition in most areas, and billions of bags being consumed each year, the customer base is quickly becoming more discerning about what they buy.
“This is one of those weirder examples of almost pure capitalism,” Stoler said. “You have this gap in supply, so the private sector steps in and fills the demand. Customers start to understand that there’s differentiation in product quality. Better quality producers rise to the top, the market incentives produce better quality products, and without tons of over-regulation, the market has ended up with a pretty good product.”
His work shows that the intelligent Ghanaian customer base has helped evolve the experimental, and perhaps unhealthy, product that Osei sampled into a cleaner one. In a recent study focusing on two poorer neighbourhoods of Accra, Old Fadama and Old Tulaku, Stoler found no faecal contamination in any sachet sample. More than 80 per cent of the samples had heterotrophic bacteria counts – which can indicate the level of cleanliness in a distribution system – below recommended international limits, in a good way. And sachet brands with a positive reputation for quality “were 90 per cent less likely to present any level of total heterotrophic bacteria”.
Like Osei, Stoler has some reservations about the safety of sachet water. Some people are so hard up for money that they will take their chances with a cheaper brand if it saves them a penny each time they’re thirsty. It’s also still unclear how sunlight affects the quality of the water when it burns down on the plastic sachets that hawkers carry on their heads in plastic buckets. The UV light may make the water cleaner by killing residual microorganisms, or it may melt unwanted elements of the plastic into the product. Stoler has also found Pseudomonas bacteria, which can be harmful to some consumers, in almost all the sachet water he’s tested in Ghana.
Stoler’s work has found correlations between good health outcomes and people who drink sachet water (versus those who drink from other sources), including self-reported overall health in women and a lower likelihood of diarrhoea in children. But the quality of the sachet water on the market is still a bit of an unknown. Osei believes it might be time for Ghanaian authorities to step in and regulate the industry. As Osei wrote in a letter to the editor in the journal Food Control: “When the taps run dry, we want measures put in place to ensure that the sachet water that our compatriots are relying on is actually as safe as we imagine it to be.”
Another worry for everyone involved is the monumental amount of trash that sachets bring to the streets, sidewalks and everywhere else in Accra. Yet another infrastructural fail in Ghana is waste, and sachets are a large part of it. At some beaches, the water is filled with sachets like blooms of jellyfish. They are everywhere you walk in the city, and recycling campaigns have not been enough to stem the flow. Hundreds of tons of plastic waste are generated every day in Ghana, and most of it consists of non-biodegradable plastic bags.
Ghana is awash in plastic, and ironically, the millions of sachets being sold each month to provide unpolluted water have exacerbated Ghana’s sewage problem by clogging gutters, which in turn leads to flooding during the rainy season and the spread of waterborne illnesses. Sachets may have solved an efficiency problem of getting water to people, but getting the plastic waste out of the city has been remarkably inefficient.
At 6am on a Thursday morning, the Johnnie Water delivery team finally headed to Ablekuma, a poor and heavily Muslim area at the edge of ever-sprawling Accra. I sat up front of their small truck with Joe, the driver, and Abraham, the 20-year-old salesman. “It’s like a family,” Joe said about working for Johnnie Water.
The family still hadn’t got power back. It had been more than five days without electricity in Adusa, and rumour was that it might be another month until it would come back on. But Johnnie Water has sachet competitors in the area – like Clean Hand, Pacific, Silk Ice and Pure Life – so mid-week they turned on the generator, and by Thursday morning they had enough water for a delivery.
Hassan, a budding midfielder waiting on his call to go to Qatar and play football professionally, sat in the back of the truck with the sachets. The roads we travelled to deliver the water had potholes, two-foot dips, sludge and open gutters, and Joe dodged chickens, dogs, turkeys, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, cars and pedestrians. We passed dozens of shops named after Bible verses: Psalm 22 (“Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen”) and Revelations 12 (“They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb”). You can probably read the entire New Testament driving past the shops between Adusa and Ablekuma, finding Jesus one marketing sign at a time.
On a normal day, the truck will go out twice and sell 200 bags of 30 Johnnie Water sachets each trip. But because the power had been out for so long, that day they only had 170 bags and would only make one round. As we drove from customer to customer, random people would stop the truck to buy a bag here and another there. At one shop, two women argued back and forth. One wanted to buy 30 bags, but Abraham would only sell her 15 because he was afraid of running out before meeting some of his more regular customers. “They are fighting for the water,” he said.
Showers of Blessing Shop bought one bag of Johnnie Water sachets, Ask Me Spot bought two, and the home next door bought one. An older lady holding an infant bought a bag, and a woman just out of the shower took four. A Muslim man that Joe called a “very good customer” bought 15 bags for his closet-sized shop. Customers that day wondered why they had a foreigner in the truck, so Joe and the guys decided to use me to their advantage. “Because we come with the white man,” Joe said, “they know our product is quality.”
After an hour and a half, they headed to their last customer of the day, a shop that sold bread and candy and a few other small knick-knacks. They wanted to buy 25 bags, but there were only 11 left. With an empty truck, we headed back to Adusa, going through an adjacent area called Agape, which they normally target on the afternoon shift. A man came out of his home and hissed at the truck to flag it down, but Joe kept driving, shaking his finger out the window. “The water is finished,” said Abraham.
Agape wouldn’t be getting any Johnnie Water that morning. But when the power did come back on, Edward would begin filling sachets again, and Johnnie Water would go back to its twice-daily deliveries. Their little plastic pouches would resurface to see Ghana through the next hot day.
This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under Creative Commons license. Image by Lee Morley, Keoni Cabral, Alexandre Jaeger Vendruscolo and Lora Rajah under Creative Commons license.