Using failure as an education

Nothing ever fails on us!!! Yes? (Oh yes they do).
Six years ago we went to Malawi with a passion and a sensible plan to enable poor villagers to access clean, safe drinking water. We sought and got help from Professor Richard Carter, who was then working in international water in Cranfield University, Bedford, UK, a veteran of many years working on the African water crisis. He has now moved to Water Aid as head of technical services and is Chairman of RWSN. He is a genius, a very practical academic, a very direct man and a stickler on maintenance and community participation. He came to Malawi for a week in June 2006 and later sent a student, Ian Sutton to do his thesis on our methods. Ian’s report showed that we had opted for the ideal system for the area where we work, that of large volume hand dug wells and of course our own canzee pump. On Sunday last Ian, who is now working as one of the dreaded consultants!!, called with an offer to come to Malawi in May, to do a report on how our water project getting on. We are delighted at the prospect.
Of course nothing would have happened without the genius of another Richard (Cansdale). Richard had worked tirelessly, for years on a pump which was originally conceived in New Zealand. The result of his diligence has given us the Canzee Pump, and as the advert says, probably the best direct, hand pump in the world. What puts it miles ahead of the rest is that it has few moving parts and that village women can repair it when it rarely acts up.
This year we have modified the pump where all the materials are produced in Malawi and where there are less machined parts. After six months of field trials, it looks like a complete success, but constant monitoring is in place.
The Canzee pump, we make and use is most sustainable, it has few wearing parts and its easily repaired. Looking back, our biggest failure was to spend time training various people issues of the pump. We found that we are wasting our time, going the advised route of water committees, chairmen, treasurers… . We now deal with the women who use the pump and collect the water, we train them on how to use the pump, the maintenance, and give them our phone number, so that they are on to us immediately, AND they do.
All work in Malawi is difficult, and once I realised that the pace and urgency is different, I am learning to cope. No matter how I rant, everything will got done at their pace and in their time. Most of what we do on the farm was alien to the workers, like growing carrots or turnips, but when they realised that they can eat carrots raw and eat the leaves on turnips, all is well. You can have any plan you like from Dublin, New York or London but if villagers don’t buy in, it won’t happen long term. So the plan is with them and for them, developed while sitting on the ground, listening more than talking, until there’s an agreed way forward. Those who manipulate decisions into place, might appear to have success and of course in the longer term fail miserably too. If a plan works well, with gradual acceptance by the community, a five year term might be a good result. Anything quicker is a real bonus.
The Aid Business talks about sustainability incessantly, but we now look back at our pumps and dams installed for six years, doing their job as planned and we say WOW, what a great group of people, these Malawians, and they agree with us. The Aid Business has spent 50 years and shiploads of money on short term planning, trying to rush Africans with their, one size fits all plans. Failed plans, seem not to be consigned to the bin but regularly reincarnated. That’s the really sad reflection, but an answer too.
I suppose having a research background helps appreciate the value of trying things. On the farm we have maybe 20 plants that work well, but have to admit that that there are maybe 100 more that the Malawians don’t like, won’t eat.
We grew 5 types of spinach, in an effort to help with anaemia in pregnant women, but have now found a Malawian weed, red amaranth, which ticks as many boxes. It grows anywhere and each seed produces 60000 more seeds which are unaffected by genetic modification or the likes. Of course we had to bring a number of Amaranth varieties from the US to discover that Malawi already had a good variety already. Sounds stupid on our part, but there was no one to ask, who knew its value, but word is spreading fast.
Recently we began working with a Self Help Group, women’s cluster, who made proposals to us on Pumps, Preschools and Adult Education. The cluster has 20 women who represent over 10000 villagers. Their survey indicated that their area had 34 wells/pumps with only one working. This is a sad reflection on the pump and water business and the head in the sand policies of numerous NGO’s, taking place all over sub-saharan Africa. Many of these seem to have little knowledge about pumps and their maintenance. The pumps are contracted out, the boxes are ticked, the water flows (for a while at least), the intern is gone home with the plan B for maintenance (if there ever was one), the NGO is happy, the donors are beside themselves with joy, but few realise that it’s a business of smoke and mirrors and the villagers are soon back getting their water from the swamp again. We see broken pumps every day, and fix as many as we can, having firstly negotiated with the original installers . Of course the donors are blissfully unaware of these failures, that little thought goes into maintenance, that soon one failed pump is replaced by another donor and another, and the donors just pay, read the case studies, and pay again.
Even though I keep away from figures, we probably have given water to 125,000 villagers by now and a plan for 1000 pumps in Zambia will add over 200,000 more in the next three years. Recent advertising suggests that a pump may can be bought for 50 Euros and that a solar pump may cost even less. I would love to hear of such pumps and where we can buy them.
Well anyway, our pump costs us about 30 Euro to make. (Yes we design, make and modify our own pumps in our factory in Mzuzu), the pipes and cement, fuel and our labour costs about 150 Euro, where the communities supply bricks, sand and all labour. If we repair or replace someone else’s pump the cost is less, especially, if the existing well has been properly constructed.
Naturally, a 19 metre deep well costs more than a 5 metre one, but on average, 150 Euro can give clean, safe drinking water to up to 500 people. We deliberately err on the low side and say it’s 1Euro per person. A maintenance programme is more important than the installation.
Our pump works brilliantly in small communities, where no one travels more than 500 metres for water. Sometimes there may be as many as 500 users, but our preference is for less than 200. We listened to the experts talking about water point committees. When we realised that neither chiefs or men ever visit a pump, to collect water (where we work) we admitted failure and now we teach amazing women on pump installation, repair and maintenance which generally requires only one simple tool we manufacture, or three six inch nails or maybe something as sophisticated as an old bicycle tube and a sissors. Poor as Malawi is, some woman will always have a mobile phone! and any time we get a call, we hope to respond to a call within 24 hours. We can do this because our pumps rarely break down. We also give them annual health check whether they need it or not. Admitting failure, not repeating errors and moving on better equipped is a great way to go.

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