A woman fills Midomo with water from a watering hole in Mwingi district

A woman fills Midomo with water from a watering hole in Mwingi district

In June I visited the Mwingi district of Eastern Kenya, piloting the first Midomo water purifiers with Red Button Design.  Mwingi is a few hours drive East of Nairobi on the dusty road to Garissa, it’s a small town of 10,000 people that serves as a service stop for the Somali truckers who race khat harvests from farms in western Kenya over the border to sell fresh in Somalia.

Typical of much of Eastern Kenya, Mwingi district is a semi-arid rural area with a high level of poverty.  Many people rely on agriculture for both sustenance and a daily wage, which often leaves families vulnerable to a climate that grows increasingly unpredictable. A recent study of communities in the district found that 80% of people do not use an improved source of potable water and the same proportion do not have adequate sanitation facilities.

Farmers in Mwingi are used to dry conditions, however in recent years rainfall has become even more scarce.  Looking out over a depleted watering hole made by damming a small stream with earth, a local farmer told me that the April rains – which usually bring a month of daily downpours – this year lasted just two days.  But in Mwingi, despite the ongoing drought crops are still grown with surprising success, farmers have moved from growing the maize (made popular by Western diets) to drought-resistant crops such as green grams, cow peas, sorghum and millet. 6,000 farmers in Mwingi are part of a agricultural resilience programme being run by FARM Africa, which teaches techniques for increasing water efficiency and growing a range of drought-resistant crops along with supporting pastoralists by supplying seeds and equipment.

FARM-Africa is a British NGO founded in 1985 and now working across eastern Africa.  It promises to be an extremely good partner for RDB in terms of their approach to the development of rural independence. They recognize that while 80% of Africans survive on the produce of their own smallholdings, it is here – in small, often isolated rural communities – that agricultural development is best directed.  Working with smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and forest communities, FARM-Africa aims to develop the skills and resources within rural communities that will enable them to grow more food, keep their livestock healthy, and manage their natural resources in a sustainable way. The dryland farming projects that they are facilitating in Mwingi – including the introduction of drip-irrigation systems and water-saving techniques such as the zai pit – are increasingly important as the climate in eastern Africa becomes ever more unreliable.


13th June 2011

A giraffe stands in Nairobi's National Park, against a cityscape skyline

A giraffe stands in Nairobi's National Park, against a cityscape skyline

Nairobi is young by Capital City standards, and it has the feel of a place in its teenage years, big and brash and excited but still not quite sure of itself, and certainly not happy about having to tidy its bedroom.  Founded on a slightly elevated piece of swampy ground that happened to sit conveniently on the Mombassa-Kampala railway it started life as a humble supply depot in 1899. Named after a Maasai watering hole known as Enkare Nairobi (place of cool waters) the fresh water and a climate surprisingly familiar to the new European settlers encouraged rapid growth.  Just six years after it was founded Nairobi became the administrative capital of British East Africa, despite in that time suffering an outbreak of the plague and a fire that completely destroyed the old town.

Giraffe against Nairobi's skyline

That Nairobi has landed abruptly upon the wild Kenyan savanna, rather than evolving slowly there can be felt as you survey the Acacia-punctured grassland of the Nairobi National Park from the raised teak balcony of the Ole-Sereni Hotel’s bar. The Nairobi National Park is the only place in the world where you can find a national park bordering a capital city.  Sitting at the precipice, sipping at an espresso whilst separated from the stomping ground of wild Rhino only by slight elevation and a meticulously placed zen water garden, it is easy to feel like the inhabitant of the zoo rather than the visitor.

Marketing evidently has a huge potential for change in BoP markets, especially with so many companies, both local and international vying for attention in such a crowded arena.

I’ve been working on developing appropriate technology in Sierra Leone, with the goal of starting several Social Enterprises based around sustainable water provision. In my view marketing approaches could dramatically increase the sustainability of the water wells and hand pumps we install. In many cases hand pumps are out of action within 1 year of being installed, and this often seems to be down to a lack of motivation from within the community to maintain the equipment. Wells put in by NGOs and governments are often part of big water access projects motivated by headline ‘development’ statistics and donor marketing. They rarely seem to be requested by the actual communities themselves. In other words the installation of wells is ‘push’ driven by the donor/NGO rather than being demanded by the community.

I wonder what would happen if NGOs and Governments, or even local Social Enterprises like ours focussed more intelligent marketing at beneficiaries? Could we create a strong emotional demand for wells, even though they are donated at no cost to the community?

I believe that sometime in our rush to install ‘life-saving’ products and systems, we often forget about the emotional needs that underline all human motivations…

A broken rope-washer pump installed last year in a small community on the road to Pejehun

The rope on the rope-and-washer pump in the compound has broken again today. It happens about once a every 2-3 weeks and it means until it can be repaired there is no way to collect water without making the 15 minute walk to the well down the road.  The interesting thing is though that this event doesn’t seem to worry anyone in the compound enough to motivate them to repair the rope in the same way that, say, running out of fuel for the generator would.

The, perhaps more pertinant thing, is that the same attitudes exist in rural villages where there isn’t another well just down the road.  Villages where the broken well is the only source of safe water for the community, the alternative being a long walk to the nearest stream.

The people I’ve met here in Sierra Leone are generally some of the most resourceful tinkerers I have met anywhere.  Their capacity to repair vehicles, generators, even mobile phones (need a new circuit board or screen soldering in? No problem…) yet when it comes to pumps and water supply, the motivation just doesn’t seem to be there.  And yet these communities fully understand the risks they face drinking unsafe water.

If I can return to the UK with at least a tentative understanding of why this disparity exists I’ll really have achieved something.

Percussion drilling is a method of drilling boreholes that involves repeatedly dropping weighted tools into the ground to remove material from the bottom of the hole. We’re using percussion drilling in Sierra Leone because in many ways it is the simlest of all the motorised drilling techniques, requiring only the drill tools, a tripod and a powered winch.  All of which can be built here with locally available materials.

Percussion Drilling Tools
The percussion drill bits dropped by the drill rig to sink the wells. From L-R Small diameter bailer (for sand and suspensions), A cross cutter (for loose, soft rock), a larger diameter bailer and a clay cutter (for compacted clays).

The most common tool we use is a ‘clay cutter’ which consists of a weighted tube, open at the cutting end that fills with consolidated clay as the tool is dropped. Once full the tool is brought to the surface and emptied. With this tool in good ground conditions we can make progress of about 2m an hour., which means in theory at least we can hit the water table during the first day of drilling.  However there are a number of problems we face which slow things down, or can halt progress altogether:

1) Hole not straight:  The tools we use are weighted and so act as plumb-bobs to a certain extent, keeping the hole straight and vetical. However differences in soil density, small rocks or just the swinging of the dropping tool can mean that the dropping tool move off course. Small deviations are not really an issue as the pumps we install are pretty tolerant, however when the tool his a stone at the base of the hole it can deflect off at a sharp angle.  This can lead to an abandoned hole or, at worst a tool stuck in the ground.

2) Rocky soil: A few different types of rock are common in the areas we drill, ranging from soft sedimentary rocks which can be crubled in the hand to impenetrable igneous (or ‘iron’) rocks.  We can generally tell when we are approaching a rocky layer when the sound of the drill hitting the ground changes to a deep boom, followed by a metallic ‘ping’ in the case of igneous rocks.  Hearing that metallic sound signals the end of drilling at that location, even far more expensive rotary drilling equipment struggles with hard rock.  But getting through the softer rock also poses problems, anytime progress slows down the drill tool begins to cut away at the sides of the hole, slowly making the hole wider and more shallow.  This can lead to the formation of a cavity below ground, which is then at risk of collapsing, possibly trapping the tool.  Repeatedly striking even soft rocks also gradually damages the tips of the drilling tools and so we often have to abandon a hole eventually after hitting rocks anyway.  Moving to a new location and trying again often resolves this problem as in most cases the rocks are not in a contiuous layer, however much time is wasted digging half-completed wells and the drilling team is only paid for successful wells.

3) Digging through a saturated zone: Hitting water when digging a well should generally be a time for celebration, although even this can pose problems.  When we hit the primary aquifer (the ‘water table’) we continue to dig into the saturated material because the depth of the well in a saturated zone affects the maximum yield of the well, as well as ensuring that water is available year-round.  At the end of the dry season, at the beginning of my trip, we only hit water at the primary aquifer, and we only had to dig a couple of metres into the aquifer to ensure a sustainable well with a yield good enough for a typical handpump.  However now the rains are drenching the gound almost every night it is common to find saturated zones above the main aquifer, as the recharge water accumulates above zones of consolidated clay.  The problem with drilling through saturated clay or sand is that this material is less structurally stable than dry material, and so the risk of a cave-in is  far higher.  Once the borehole has started to cave drilling has to be stopped, if we’re in the primary aquifer when this happens we may be deep enough to complete the well, otherwise the hole must be abandoned.  We can typically only reach about 2m into saturated material before it starts to cave, which is adequate at the end of the dry season, when the water table is at its lowest.  At other times, or if an electric pump is required however we need to be able to drill at least 5m into an aqifer to guarentee yield and sustainability.

I hope that a casing I am currently designing will be able to aleviate all these problems.  Drilling through a series of joined pipes should keep the tool from cutting away at the walls of the hole and ensure that the tool cuts a straight and vertical hole, even when the ground conditions are rocky.  The casing will also sure up the sides of the hole when drilling through instable material, preventing a collapse.

Typical casing used in commercial drilling operations is custom-built from 6″ steel pipe, threaded at each end to join many pipes together.  The problem with using this however come down to cost and availability: it costs about £200 per 1.5m length and it would need to be imported from the UK, at further expense.  So  my challenge has been to design a solution, find suitable materials locally, build and test it.  Now that the design is complete and the materials found we’re ready to begin building and testing.  With a big drilling contract for a new landmark eco-project in the rainforest close to the Liberian border relying on our ability to dig wells in difficult conditions the pressure is on to make this work…

One of the things I love about Sierra Leone is the rich mixture of language.  Although the official language, taught in schools and used in Government is English, the country has many different tribes, each with their own language.  The south of the country, where I am based is dominated by the Mende tribe, speaking a language of the same name. But people rarely stick to one language for more than a few words.  Listening to the chatter in the compound, Mende is mixed with both Krio and English to add subtle emphasis, or to make use of a favorite expression.  English words stick out of conversations I overhear, almost giving the impression that the rest of the meaning is just beyond comprehension (and making it tough to ignore what might be being said).

I am learning a little Mende here and there, greetings and niceities mainly to placate excited strangers, or to get a better price at the market.  But I can’t learn enough about Krio, the English-based Creole language used as a universal lingua franca.  It is often used to me by strangers and, given the right mindset, can often be just about understandable in real time.

So here’s a little taster of some of the Krio I’ve managed to pick up (imagine tonality and hand gestures used to add emphasis!):

Dis work ya, a noh go ebul am – I am not going to be able to to that

A noh lehk dat wan de – I don’t like it

OO wi go si bak – OK, I’ll see you later

Aw di bodi? – How are you?

A wehl, aw yu sehf? – I’m good, and you?

Dis motoka done broke – The car is broken

Us wan yu want? – Which one do you want?

Ohmos a geth for pe?  – How much do I have to pay?

Tumara – Tomorrow

Tide – Today

Nehxt tumara – The day after tomorrow

A de go – I’m going

A de lan lili bit – I have learnt a little bit

tehl gohd tehnki – Thanks to god (“tell god thankyou”)

smohl smohl – slowly, carefully, small

Usai yu de wok? – Where do you work?

Foh kohf – Please leave(!)

Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it has been almost a month since my last blogpost…

But I can explain, a few things have happened since the last post which I hope will go some way to explaining the silence:

1) The charger for my mac blew up  in an internet cafe I was using in Bo, and despite attacking it with a knife I have failed to get it running.  So I’ve been borrowing computers and using the other internet cafe in town to get online.

2) Work has really been hotting up, with the biodiesel reactor now half completed, and some very exciting opportunities for drilling wells that are, technically, at the edge of our current capabilities theres much to do and little time.

3) I’ve somehow managed to get myself settled here, and so I’m having trouble distinguishing which particular experiences here are notable…

But, now that I’ve been ‘reminded’ 😉 by a couple of people that this thing still exists, blogging will resume…