guest article by Heiko Gebauer

Being a service researcher means thinking about your next research question, most appropriate theoretical lenses, and best-suited research methods. In addition, we think that it is important to decide about your research priorities. Service research in low-income countries has become a research priority, which has been phrased a number of ways: transformative services, services for base-of-the-pyramid markets, or servicing the underserved. It is related to broader topics such social innovations, sustainability, social entrepreneurship, and market-based perspectives on poverty alleviation.

We believe that it is a highly relevant and very interesting topic. On one hand, there is a set of successful practices on providing outstanding services in this context:

  • Grameen Bank pioneered micro-credit services, which became an outstanding success for alleviating poverty.
  • Indian Dhabawallas provide highly reliable food delivery services in the densely-populated megacity Mumbai, despite being mostly illiterate.
  • Half a million people make their living as waste pickers in Brazil. They are vital for the mostly informal waste recycling network, which guarantees that most of the waste is actually reused.

On the other hand, there is a lack of services:

  • 4 billion people lack access to sanitation services
  • Hundreds of millions of people lack access to safe and affordable water, health services, and reliable energy

What does it mean to do service research in low-income countries?

First of all, it means that you work in a highly unpredictable, and risky environment. Our research project about safe water provision in Nepal was affected by the earthquake in February 2015 and the political challenges afterwards. Our work in Ethiopia was put on hold for a couple of months due to political riots. Our field visit for collecting data on sanitation services in Burkina Faso was just a few weeks before a terrorist attack in the capital Ouagadougou. Our collaboration partner SOIL, which provides sanitation services in urban slums in Haiti, suffered from hurricane Matthew. Because of climate change, our collaboration partner, Springhealth, which provides water services in India, faced a severe draught drying-out many water sources. Our entire team does research, despite such circumstances.

Second, it means that you, as a service researcher, make a difference, and create an impact. Despite the challenges, it is very encouraging to see that our collaboration partners are successful in various dimensions.

Our partners on container-based sanitation services (e.g., Loowatt, Sanergy, Sanivation, Sanivation, and x-runner) are successfully scaling up the provision of affordable sanitation services.

Many of our partners providing safe drinking water through community-based water systems, water shops, and household filters have successfully moved beyond the pilot phase. They were able to overcome the often-used expression that pilots never fail, but also never scale. Hydrologic demonstrated that it is possible to sell a few hundred thousand aspirational household filters by bundling these filters with microfinance services to the Cambodian low-income segment.

SwissFreshWater successfully deploys a pay-per-use service (selling water as a service), instead of selling the water treatment equipment. Such a pay-per-use service is embedded into a franchise model, which has attracted 120 entrepreneurs who want to operate a franchise water shop. They sell safe drinking water to more than 100’000 people, who previously had to drink brackish water from wells and boreholes containing fluoride, arsenic, heavy metals such as mercury and, of course, salt. Such water causes, in addition, hypertension, fluorosis, cancer, etc.

Third, it means interdisciplinary work. For example, we can only investigate safe water provision, if we involve engineers to verify that the water treatment system is actually functioning and natural scientists to reliably measure water contamination before and after the treatment. Such interdisciplinary research means to reach out to these other disciplines. To do so, we attend conferences outside our service community. We hold presentations at Stockholm World Water Week, the Water and Health Conference at University of North Carolina, the Base of the Pyramid Summit in Singapore and the African Academy of Management Conference. We can also leverage the expertise of academics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and technology, where we are housed. Over the last few years, we published in engineering and natural science journals as well as journals that have a focus on the developing countries. This pushes us out of our comfort zone, because we have to adapt the way we publish so that our research can reach a variety of audiences. In our presentations outside of the service research community, we answer questions from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank about what service research can really contribute to their challenges. Seeing that the WHO states that a better understanding of services to alleviate poverty is needed, we think that we are on the right track.

Fourth, such audiences do not only include various academic disciplines. It also means to write for practitioners and policy makers. For example, together with the German Development Bank, we wrote a policy letter for the Ministry for Development about how to approach sanitation challenges from a service system perspective.

Fifth, it means working with local service researchers. Consider our major service conferences (e.g., SERVSIG, QUIS or Frontiers), there are still not many participants from Asia, Africa, or Latin America. For a long period of time, Javier Reynoso from Monterrey in Mexico was more or less the only representative. Jay Kandapully’s IRSSM conference for developing service researchers in lower income countries by building bridges between developed, newly industrializing, and low-income countries will have its 8th meeting in 2017. This is an interesting starting point to get better connected with local researchers. We have built our network of research partners and we are happy for their support.

Sixth, a lot of our work relies on involving institutions that are beyond the typical scope of service research. We collaborate with the World Bank, German Development Bank, German Developing Collaboration, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Swiss Church Aid. Such collaborations are highly challenging, because we always have to manage the trade-off between practically relevant and academically rigorous research.

To tackle these issues, our entire team does a great job and tried to enhance service research. If you are interested in learning more about our research, do not hesitate to contact us:

I would like to thank my entire team for all their work: Caroline, Mirella, Simon and Gregoire.


Heiko Gebauer
eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Research
CTF – Service Research Center, Karlstad University, Sweden
Linkoping University, Sweden


Gebauer, H., Haldimann, M. & Saul, C.J. (2017). Business model innovations for overcoming barriers in the base-of-the-pyramid market. Industry and Innovation,

Gebauer, H., Saul. C.J., Haldimann, M. & Gustafsson, A. (2017). Organizational capabilities for pay-per-use services in product-oriented companies. International Journal of Production Economics,

Witell, L., Gebauer, H., Jaakkola, E., Hammedi, W., Patricio, L. & Perks, H. (2017). A bricolage perspective on service innovation. Journal of Business Research,

Gebauer, H. & Saul, C. (2014). Business model innovation in the water sector in developing countries, Science of the Total Environment, 488(1), 512-520.

Gebauer, H. & Reynoso, J. (2013). An agenda for service research at the base of the pyramid. Journal of Service Management, 24(1), 482-502.