The Sustainability Challenge of Working in Africa

So given that I’ve been in Africa for a month it would seem prudent to talk about what I’ve been doing over here from a work perspective. Not quite as easy as it sounds since the full details of my entire scope of work for my placement are still being worked out, but I can definitely talk about what I’ve been working on so far:

So for the first phase I’ve been working up in Nkhata Bay district, which is in the northern region of Malawi and happens to be a district we’ve been reasonably active in before. There are about 28-ish districts in Malawi, with each district having a government that is in charge of administering the water sector in that district, among many other things. They’re called District Water Offices, and the competency of these DWOs varies dramatically from one district to another across the country, ranging from pretty effective to totally incompetent (we’ve had people embedded in the full range).

The view from my 'office', aka the restaurant at the hostel. Pretty hard to take...

from the opposite angle...

As far as capacity goes, Nkhata Bay is pretty good. They have a very capable District Water Officer with a bunch of Water Monitoring Assistants (WMAs) that seem reasonably with the program. Also in Nkhata Bay they have a system of local area mechanics who are self-employed borehole repairmen who go around fixing the boreholes in the district as required. These mechanics charge a fee for their services which is paid by people in the local village, so this is definitely a private sector model for getting water points repaired. This setup is not universal across all the districts in Malawi, in some places there are mechanics that are trained and employed by NGOs (a de-facto public sector model, but not always sustainable if the NGO pulls out), and in some districts there’s basically no one at all who repairs the pumps on a regular basis.

The Nkhata Bay District Water Office

In Nkhata Bay though, it’s private sector mechanics, and it is the role of the District Water Office to offer provide logistical support to them as required and as much as they can. This being Africa though, the way things are supposed to work and the way that they do work are not always the same. The training and skill sets of the area mechanics themselves are not always up to snuff (particularly as far as business expertise goes), and the district water office is chronically understaffed, underpaid and overworked. As an example, the District Water Officer in Nkhata Bay (his name is Onances Nyirenda) is a very smart and capable guy, but he currently has three jobs (District Water Officer, District Environmental Officer, and District Development Officer). It amazed me that he was able to get any work done at all, since the day we were there meeting with him, as soon as he went into his office there was a non-stop stream of people coming in and wanting to talk to him and to get decisions from him. This is another thing about working in Africa, the authority driven culture, and the idea that The Boss has to make all of the decisions, and nothing gets done until The Boss says it can get done.

Duncan hard at work during our meeting with the District Water Officer in his office

So this is where Engineers Without Borders volunteers come in. The water office doesn’t have the capacity to provide as much direct support to Area Mechanics as they perhaps should, so this is an area where an enthusiastic volunteer from Canada can come in, do an objective assessment of where there are deficiencies, propose an initiative to address it, and then work to implement that initiative. Of course one always has to involve the local stakeholders in all this, but often times by bringing a different perspective and skill set to the table, solutions can be found and implemented faster than they might be otherwise. So in effect we’re trying to act as catalysts to development in this system.

Me and the Water Office

So to that end, over this summer we had an Engineers Without Borders university student (from Winnipeg) working in this district over the summer, with the objective of identifying ways of increasing the marketing visibility and the amount of business that local Area Mechanics are getting. He was living in the district for about three months and working directly with different area mechanics in the area, however due to the political issues that were happening in the country in late July and August, he got pulled out of his placement ahead of schedule and was thus unable to complete his initiatives before leaving. As such, my challenge for the first few weeks of my placement has been to head up to Nkhata Bay and bring some closure to two initiatives specifically that John was working on:

  • Determine the current status of a painted sign advertisement that had been painted on the side of a store wall in Chinteche and implement a monitoring and evaluation strategy for it.
  • Determine the logistics and feasibility of putting into place a system of business cards that local area mechanics could use for providing their contact information to customers

For the sign initiative, this one was already underway by the time I had arrived in Nkhata Bay District. The advertising sign had already been designed, a location for it had been chosen, and the sign had been painted on the wall. Here’s a photo of what it looks like:

Hmm, so what's missing from this sign?

So if you’re thinking the same way I was when I saw this sign, this is probably a WTF moment, since as far as advertising effectiveness goes, it’s pretty hard for someone to call their local Area Mechanic if they don’t know the name and phone number of said Area Mechanic. After talking with all the people involved, it turned out that there had been mis-communications surrounding the cost of the sign, etc. and the painters were not willing to finish the sign unless they were given more money. It was a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.

So this is where I had a decision to make. The easiest and most obvious decision to solving this would have been to take about 500 kwacha out of my wallet (about $3 Cdn), give it to the painters, and that sign would have been finished within a day. I was REALLY tempted to do this, but that solution does nothing to address two fundamental questions:

  • Why wasn’t this problem solved before I arrived? This is after all not my sign, it’s Herbert’s (the Area Mechanic), and he should have been the one dealing with these issues as they occurred.
  • What’s going to happen to this sign after I’m gone? If the expectation is that every time there is a problem, the locals won’t need to solve it because a Mzungu (their word for White Person), will come and solve it for them, then that’s clearly not a sustainable solution.

So in talking this over with Duncan, (he’s one of the long term EWB staff people here who’s been acting as my coach thus far), we decided to go with the short term more risky but long term more rewarding solution of not paying the painters any more money ourselves, but instead have a little chat with Herbert and make it clear to him that this is his sign and that it is his responsibility to get it finished however he feels best. The intention being that Herbert needs to take ownership of this sign for himself, and if he can’t even make the effort to solve this very solvable problem on his own, then it’s probably better to cut our losses right now and try this again at a later date with a more promising area mechanic. So that conversation with Herbert has now been had, and we’re going to be following up with him over the next month to see if there’s any progress on that.

For the business card initiative, this one I think has been starting off more promising. Basically the idea here is to pull together all the pieces required to set up a system where local Area Mechanics can get business cards printed for themselves. They can then provide these cards to potential customers, people in the villages, member of local water point committees, etc. who will then know who to call in the event that they have a broken water point. This was a pretty straightforward intervention, since most of the ingredients for putting this together are easily available locally. The key bottleneck was designing an appropriate template for the business cards since that requires a level of computer savy that most Malawians don’t really have, and for that I had to enlist members of my Calgary chapter back home (thanks Liz!) to get that part sorted out. So the finished product looks like this:

Area Mechanic business card templates

Pretty nice if I do say so myself! So we’ve got these template files distributed across a number of different printing shops across the district at this point. We’ve also selected three successful Area Mechanics in the district and gathered baseline data from them on the amount of business they’re getting (that’s a story in and of itself, but for another time), and in exchange we’ve given each of them a starter set of ten business cards with their name and contact info already on it, along with instructions of how to print more on their own.

As far as sustainability goes, the District Water Office has approved the wording of the business cards and is at the moment enthusiastic about the idea of scaling this up to all of the area mechanics in the district. Onances was also suggesting going around and taping some business cards to the actual water points themselves. All of these are good ideas, but the issue for all of this is will the District Water Office and the Area Mechanics themselves actually have the capacity and self-motivation to move these initiatives forward once I’m gone? Not an easy question to answer thus far, and who knows, this may turn out just like the sign did, but I’m hopeful that when we check back on this in three months we’ll see progress on this one.

So yeah, that’s it for me and Nkhata Bay District. After this I’ll be moving down to Mwanza district which is way down at the opposite end of the country near Blantyre, the commercial capital. My focus area there will be slightly different, but will involve working with the District Water Office in that district and helping them to better coordinate with the local villages in terms of financing for local water point repairs and rehabilitations. I’ll blog more about that once I find out exactly what that means (could be a week or two).

Bye for now!

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