Making a difference in Malawi by Donal Gorman
Ireland’s Sunday Business Post
Sunday, 18 November 2007
John Coyne and his wife Mary have set up the humanitarian organisation Wells For Zoe, which helps people to obtain clean drinking water, writes Donal Gorman.
‘We‘re going to paint them another colour,” said John Coyne, before turning the key in one of the three Irish Army Nissan jeeps parked in the back garden of his Lucan home.
The engine roared into action, ready for its new duties in an area with a much warmer climate and more testing terrain than the green fields of the Curragh in Kildare. The jeeps were donated by the Irish Army to Wells For Zoe, a humanitarian organisation set up by Coyne, and will end up in southeastern Africa after a sea and land journey from Mayo to Malawi.
‘‘Mayo was the place hit worst by the famine and, in Malawi, they are very close to famine,” said Coyne. ‘‘It’s always on the edge this time of the year, especially with the maize crop being so bad the previous year.
‘‘To get the jeeps out, we would hope to drive across to Rosslare, then get them shipped from Southampton to Durban, then drive up through South Africa, Mozambique, into Malawi. It’s about a 2,000-kilometre run.”
In Malawi, the jeeps will be clocking up miles on the bumpy dirt tracks, linking more than 40 locations where Wells For Zoe operate. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) was originally conceived to provide clean drinking water for villages in and around the Mzuzu area of northern Malawi.
But since its foundation in 2005, the sustainable development group has become involved with other issues, ranging from micro-credit systems to water storage, irrigation and farming. Coyne, a semi-retired Irish businessman, set up Wells For Zoe with his retired teacher wife, Mary, after a visit to Malawi with another Irish aid organisation.
After visiting villages, talking to the inhabitants and seeing the situation for himself, it became clear to Coyne that clean drinking water was the greatest need for villagers. The sources at the time contained water which was often filthy and contaminated.
‘‘When I came back from my first trip to Malawi in 2005, I knew that the water was there,” he said. ‘‘It wasn’t very far down; all that was needed was a pump to get it up.
‘‘I tried every aid agency I could think of and I e-mailed people here and in Malawi. I’d get no replies at all, or I’d get replies which said ‘give us your money and we’ll do it’. I said I didn’t want that.”
Through his research, Coyne came across Richard Cansdale, an inventor based in Northumberland in England, who had developed a hand pump using simple technology to maximum effect. Cansdale was working for SWS Filtration, which has contracts with hotels in the Caribbean and Europe, as well as with a large fish farming processing plant in Ireland.
Cansdale found he was spending an increasing amount of his time on nonprofit projects, such as introducing the hand pump to communities in developing countries.
Wells For Zoe, in fact, takes its name from Cansdale’s daughter who was killed in a motorbike accident when she was 22.
At its most basic, the Canzee pump is a pipe within a pipe which doesn’t require any piston seals, meaning that it can last for years with no possibility of breakage. The pump can bring up water from 25 metres below ground but, with the high water table in Malawi, there is often water as little as four metres under the surface.
Coyne travelled back to Malawi with Cansdale and they began to install the Canzee pump – originally in villages involved with the Saint John Of God outreach programme.
‘‘Because we believe in the dignity of ownership, we operate on the principle of ‘a handup without handouts’,” said Coyne.
‘‘We believe that clean water is the first step on the development ladder. When supported by simple irrigation and organic farming, people can become self-sufficient.
‘‘We get agreement from the chief to donate a portion of land for the village garden. Profits from the garden make a substantial contribution towards the cost of the pumps and dams over time, and help to set up their micro-credit schemes.”
In M’bama village, where there are about 52 inhabitants, they have been using the Canzee pump since September last year.
Instead of a four kilometre walk for water, there is now clean water for consumption and domestic use within 20 metres of the village.
The children of the village take it in turns to pump the water, and it quickly fills a 20 litre bucket. Harrisen Amin, who is from the town of Mzuzu and works full time for Wells For Zoe, said: ‘‘It’s amazing, it’s so crazy that people are in great need of water, and it’s just below their feet. This reserve of water should last for more than ten years.”
Zambia village is located about 36 kilometres northeast of the busy town of Mzuzu. The village is a cluster of mud huts, built on the decline of a hill sloping towards a river valley where great change is happening.
There are 73 villagers, many of whom arrived in the hills from the lakeshore at Nkhata Bay. The endless miles of red scorched earth give way to acres of green growth at the foot of the hills.
It is a valley that is changing an acre at a time – from brown and red to green. As well as having access to clean water, with help from Wells For Zoe, the people of Zambia village are using a dam for water storage and water diversion irrigation techniques, as well as a micro-credit system to grow crops.
A group of 20 men and women form the Kayombo club which works the land.
They have built a dam with cement, blocks and earth. Water is diverted in a manmade channel which runs for about one kilometre alongside land irrigating plots of soya bean, rape seed, sugar cane, maize, yams, cassava, tomatoes and mustard seed. All of the products can be sold at the market in Mzuzu.
Beyond the crops, more acres are being prepared for planting and irrigation by members of the co-op. Young children muck in with the women of the village, racing wheelbarrows of soil.
‘‘Before they took up the irrigation techniques, the villagers were relying on the rains to come. Now they plant throughout the year,” said Amin.
‘‘Their maize crops can be harvested three times a year, with a four-month cycle.”
While maize is the most common crop grown in Malawi, it is temperamental and the harvest can fail. Wells For Zoe encourages alternative food sources as much as possible.
‘‘We have provided seeds at a very low cost, which can be repaid eventually when the crops start to bring in money for the villagers,’’ Amin said.
‘‘They now grow cabbages, tomatoes and even Irish potatoes. They grow soya, which the government buys. The chief has donated 20 acres of land to the group and now people are helping themselves.”
Sonda village is in a valley about eight kilometres outside Mzuzu. Planting first began here in April and now, acres of green growth replace what was once scrub and wasted land. Coyne said: ‘‘For some reason, time seems to have passed the people by. They have no innate concept of agriculture.
They didn’t know what they could grow or what they could eat, so constantly ate this maize flower.
‘‘We suggested alternative seeds to plant, and last week they were sending egg plants, carrots, onions, beans and cucumbers to the market. We have employed a local woman as a permaculturist, who teaches villagers how to prepare recipes for the alternative crops which have never been grown here before.
‘‘Even the agricultural instructors, people from Bunda (agricultural) college, don’t know how to grow carrots or beet. There’s a whole range of stuff that you’d think people who graduated from agricultural college would know, but they don’t.
‘‘They know about maize – there’s 45,000 ways to grow maize – tobacco and maybe coffee.
‘‘They still haven’t given up on the old colonial system, where they grow the cash crops but forget to feed themselves.”
A co-op of ten women and four men work here daily, growing vegetables and rearing fish and chickens bought using a micro-credit system. The group utilise the irrigation techniques taught by Wells For Zoe, diverting water from a small stream; a man-made pond provides a year-round water supply.
The maize in Sonda has grown eight feet high, using compost instead of government subsidised fertiliser. Fertiliser is expensive, the system which distributes coupons is corrupt and, in the long run, it will damage the soil, so Wells For Zoe insists that the group uses compost.
Under a micro-credit system, significant numbers of chambo fish – which are unique to Malawi – have been introduced to the water storage pool.
‘‘The good thing about the chambo fish is that it multiplies by a lot,” said Amin. ‘‘Fish sell at the market for between 150 and 200 kwacha (roughly between 75 cents and €1).” The group has 50 chickens, which will fetch 600 kwacha at the market. Within six weeks, the group will receive capital from the chickens, and can pay back the no-interest loan. Profit is put back into the co-op.
The coming year looks busy for Wells For Zoe. Planning permission is being sought for a factory in Mzuzu to manufacture the pumps, which Coyne says will cost €30 each. All the elements and machinery for the factory are in a container in Newcastle ready to be shipped out and set up, although issues over taxes have to be resolved first with the Malawian authorities, who have attempted to charge 100 per cent duty on pumps.
Wells For Zoe has recently bought six acres of land in Lusangazi, about seven kilometres from Mzuzu, to produce vegetable seeds to provide to farmers at reasonable prices. And word is spreading – in August next year, 33 students from Blackrock College in Dublin will travel to Malawi with Wells For Zoe for an alternative post-Leaving Cert experience.
Located in south-eastern Africa, Malawi borders Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west and Mozambique to the south. Lake Malawi runs most of the length of the country to the east.
Malawi has a population of 12.6 million people in an area of 118,484 square kilometres. The threat of famine is never far away, due to reliance on the maize crop. A full-scale famine was narrowly averted in 2005. Official figures state that 14 per cent of the population is living with HIV, but the actual number is believed to be much higher.
In 1994, after three decades of one-party rule under President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi became a multi-party democracy. Although removing much of the repression of Banda’s leadership, democratically-elected Bakil Muluzi ran a leadership popularly criticised for corruption.
President Bingu Mutharika was sworn into power on May 24, 2004, after winning presidential elections. His term has been characterised by a high-profile anti-corruption campaign.
Within a year of taking office, Bingu resigned from his party, the United Democratic Front, and established a new grouping called the Democratic Progressive Party, after accusing his previous party of opposing his anticorruption drive.
The first Irish ambassador to Malawi, Liam MacGabhann, presented his letters of credence to the Malawian government on November 6. Based in Lilongwe with a diplomatic staff of three, McGabhann is joined by the head of development, Vinnie O’Neill.
Since 2003, Irish Aid has provided funding of €10.8 million to Malawi, focusing on rehabilitation and disaster-preparedness activities and the strengthening of Malawian civil society organisations. Since the beginning of the year, €2.2 million has been disbursed to a range of organisations.