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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Nkhata Bay District and the Realities of Living in Africa

Initial observations about Nkhata Bay (positive):

  • The bay and the lake are beautiful, the weather is very moderate and the water looks quite clean
  • They have a dive shop in the main town! PADI certified and everything, I’ll definitely need to make use of their services on one of my days off.
  • Everyone is very friendly and fried chicken is available in the town market areas at least, so no danger of my starving due to lack of animal protein

Initial observations of Nkhata Bay (negative):

  • For the first week there has been a complete shortage of Coca-Cola in the district. Apparently a result of fuel shortages preventing the re-supply trucks from getting to every district and I’m not happy about it. Everyone advertises that they have it but no one actually does.

After staying in the district centre (known as the Boma) for two days I’ve now moved on to village life in a village about 6km south of a regional town called Chintheche. I’m here to live and work with one of the local water pump mechanics for one week in order to accomplish a few tasks:

  • Start to get used to village living and working in a rural Malawian setting
  • Gain a better knowledge of local area mechanics and the details of the work that they do
  • Follow-up up on and finish up two initiatives that my Junior Fellow (aka university summer student) predecessor John was working on in this same district

In terms of the village living part, I think the first day in the village was the hardest, and each day after that has gotten a little easier. I pretty much realized going in that this would be the part I would have the most trouble adapting to since I am not known for enjoying eating a wide range of exotic food products.

In any event the main food product is Nsima, which is basically ground up corn meal that is boiled into a big lump of mush that sort of looks like mashed potatoes. No utensils, so it’s eaten by hand, and it’s pretty tastless so it’s eaten with various side dishes to give it some taste. These can vary from the pretty good (chicken, but it’s expensive and hard to get in the village), to the mediocre (tomato paste), to the pretty bad (some sort of deep green vegetable that looks like spinach). For food at least I’ve so far been doing a sort of ‘village light’ lifestyle in that I’ve been going into Chintheche fairly regularly which has a wider range of available options, so by eating something familiar for lunch I can handle village food a bit better for dinners.

The specific village area I’m living in is about a twenty minute walk from the highway, and it’s basically a series of progressively narrower dirt trails leading off into the hills. The compound where Herbert lives consists of about four buildings. Pretty basic living. No electricity, no internet, no running water, no roads (just dirt trails), and no mattress, just a wooden bedframe. All of the cooking is done by cooking fire using firewood, and everyone pretty much goes to bed at about 8PM, since by then it’s completely dark and there is nothing else to do other than sit around and stare at each other in the darkness.

As far as villages go, I think this one is pretty well off. They have a functional water pump present right on their compound, which I imagine is pretty rare, plus I saw another four water points just during the twenty minute walk from the highway, which strikes me as a pretty high rate of coverage. Generally everyone seems pretty healthy and happy and active, and I haven’t seen much evidence of severe malnutrition, although I have seen a lot of adults who are shorter than I think they should be. Not sure if this is genetics or lack of nutrients in people’s diets, but I think at least partially the latter.

Herbert, who I am working with is semi-retired (he worked at one of the local resort hotels for many years), and for the last four years or so he’s been working as a local water pump mechanic to supplement his income. He’s got two wives, at least five children (not sure if this is total or the number who are still living, at least one of them has passed away), and some large but undetermined number of grandchildren. Specific family dynamics are hard to figure out since there are children who live in the compound permanently, some who are visiting for the summer, and some who are children’s neighbours but seem to be constantly around as well. Very few working age adults though, mostly old people and children. I don’t know if this is this is from disease (HIV/AIDS is at 11% in Malawi), or if they’re just off working in other parts of the country. There didn’t seem to be a good way to bring this subject up, although Herbert mentioned that he has one uncle who’s off trying to find work in South Africa, which is the economic powerhouse of the region.

I’ve included a few photos of the people in the compound that I’ve interacted the most with:

Herbert (Sr.) is the Area Mechanic I’ve been sent to work with. This is him with his bicycle and spare parts/repair kit.

Alice is Herbert’s first wife (out of two in total). Basically she’s the matron of the household and does a large chunk of the household work like cooking, cleaning, fetching water and washing.

Herbert (Jr.) is named after his grandfather and is 18. His English is pretty functional and he got assigned by his grandfather to be my primary guide and helper while I’m staying with them.

Arva Shira is 11 and the oldest of the girls that are around the compound. She’s pretty bright and her English is better at age 11 than many of the boys who are quite a bit older than her, so I have high hopes for her.

A sampling of the younger grandchildren. There’s a whole bunch of them between ages four and six and I had trouble telling them apart (I know that sounds bad). It didn’t help that they’re all boys and two of them are identical twins (I’m not really sure which two…)

So that’s village life in a nutshell. More details about the work that I’m doing to come in my next blog. Bye for now!

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Back in Malawi and Gearing Up for my Placement

So the protests didn’t happen. Basically the opposition got cold feet the day before the scheduled day protests and in order to ‘avoid bloodshed’ and ‘foster a dialogue’ they didn’t go through with it. Which solves the immediate problem of country instability, but not the underlying causes of why the dissatisfaction was there to begin with.

In any event, the decision has been made for the team to return to Malawi and for everyone to resume their work in their respective districts. So we’re now  back in the country and diffusing out across the country once again.

The retreat was pretty intense. About five solid days of learning about things such as:

  • Strategies for providing support to local area mechanics
  • Operations and Maintenance financing alternatives for helping local villages pay for water point repairs
  • Discussions on providing support to district level governments on such topics as water point mapping, new borehole siting and effective coordination with NGOs surrounding water infrastructure spending
  • Reviews and debriefs on the high level work that the team is doing at the national level and in co-ordinating with other NGOs
  • All sorts of team building, team culture and team bonding exercises

Not all that exciting to describe, but a really good (and rather unique) way of starting my placement and meeting the entire team right at the beginning.

The Malawi WatSan team doing intense learning while on retreat

The Malawi Water and Sanitation team is at the moment one of the largest and highest profile African sector teams that Engineers Without Borders Canada has, and a significant chunk of EWB’s annual budget gets directed towards them, partly because they’re doing pretty well with advancing their understanding of issues in the sector and making progress on them, and partly because water and sanitation lends itself really well to  fundraising, so there are a lot of donors out there that are prepared to fund WatSan projects, but perhaps not other sectors (somewhat cynical viewpoint, I know).

Team Co-Lead Mike Kang giving us a briefing on the team's work

Duncan McNicholl talking about operations and maintenance financing of local water points

The main reason though for the team’s success is the people on the team, which is kind of a microcosm of Engineers Without Borders in general in that many of these people could very easily be making six figure salaries back home in Canada given their skill sets, and yet instead they’re choosing to work for around $15 a day in some of the poorest countries in the world, which I find very inspiring. As a whole I’ve been very impressed by the people on the team thus far, I’m really looking forward to working with all of them over the next four months.

The long term overseas staff of the EWB WatSan team

Which brings me to my placement. Details are still being worked out, but what I do know so far is that I’ll be working on the water side of things, as opposed to sanitation, and that my focus will be on working with village level water point mechanics and also working with local level governments and committee to find ways to improve their ability to pay for water point repairs. To relate this back to my ‘About Water and Sanitation’ tab, this is part of the work we’re doing at the local & village level, as opposed to the district or national level.

Buying fried chicken and chips in a bag at the local Zambian market

For the first ten days to two weeks, I’ll be heading up to Nkhata Bay to follow-up and close out on some of the local area mechanic capacity building work that one of the university summer students, John, was working on. As far as districts go, Nkhata Bay is pretty nice. It’s right on the lake and supposedly quite nice and is one of the more touristy areas of Malawi (including SCUBA Diving!). So things are moving forward.

I’ll leave it there for now. Next post to focus on Nkhata Bay and the trials and tribulations of dealing with local area water point mechanics.

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Arrival in Lilongwe and Lessons in Communicating

First blog post from Africa! We arrived safely in Lilongwe (capital city of Malawi) as planned and on schedule.  The plan has been for the newly arrived Malawi Professional Fellows (myself plus Imran, who is from Ottawa) to spend the first four days in Lilongwe, partly as orientation, partly due to the fact that after four days the entire team has evacuated to Zambia given that there are anti-government protests planned for Tuesday the 16th. So yeah, not ideal, but we’re adapting.

Loading the bags onto the mini-buses

So, key happenings in Malawi so far:

We arrived in Lilongwe around midday Wednesday this week, got picked up at the airport and then went directly to the Golden Peacock hotel, which is the key meeting place for EWB people. About an hour after that, all of the Junior Fellows (EWB summer interns from the university chapters) boarded two mini-buses to leave for Zambia, and in all the confusion my newly arrived main bag got loaded onto their bus and was transported to Zambia four days ahead of schedule. Not the end of the world since I had all my medications, passport, bank cards, etc. with me in my daypack, so the main impact was that I was not able to change clothing for the first six days after departing Toronto. This situation caused much amusement among the other members of the team and it was judged to be an excellent way to get me outside of my comfort zone and force me to improvise solutions based on the local resources. So we went to the market to buy a few essentials, I bought a second-hand shirt for 700 kwacha (about five dollars, which apparently was still too much).

crossing the bridge over to the main Lilongwe market

Used clothing from western countries at the market

In terms of progress on my placement, not much to report on so far since the team leadership has been understandingly preoccupied with evacuating everyone from the country in a safe manner. One assignment that Imran and I did get sent on however was a water point ‘scavenger hunt’ as a learning assignment for us.

Essentially, Imran and I got given a name of a village on the outskirts of the capital and were told to get ourselves to this village via local minibus, find our way around, locate the main water point (or points) in the village, and then find out as much as we could about it, such as how often it breaks down, who’s in charge of fixing it, who pays for fixing it, when it was installed, and so on.  The goal was to give us some on the ground experience in the practicalities of information gathering in Malawi. Key conclusions are as follows:

  • My language skills in Chichewa are in serious need of improvement
  • Asking non-leading questions in the correct format and understanding the context of the answer is crucial
  • People in Malawi are way more understanding about taking the time to answer questions from fresh-off-the-boat foreigners (meaning me) than I probably would have been in their place.

To expand, we found our way to the mini-bus station and the right minibus easily enough. Upon arriving the level of English proficiency was significantly lower than in Lilongwe, so we had to rely on hand motions and Chichewa words of greeting to get around. We eventually went to the church (Presbyterian) which had both English speaking people and a water point (metered tap water), but no one knew anything about said water point. We did however get one other useful piece of information, which was that there was another water point in the village which was at the primary school. One of the church employees then offered to take us to the school, which was very helpful.

Primary School Water Point

Imran at a metered water tap

At the school, we found not one, but two water points! The first was a metered water tap (not standard for rural areas, but this was a peri-urban village that was close enough to the capital that they could tie-in to their system. They also had an AfriDev pump (functional!) on the school grounds as well. Very exciting. We talked with two of the teachers, however the first one in particular had limited English proficiency, and this is where the casual questioning became a problem. Some examples:

Primary school water pump

Question: Is this pump very reliable:

Answer: Yes

Question: Does this pump break down often?

Answer: Yes

Question: When was this pump built?

Answer: I don’t know

Question: How many times in the last year has this pump broken down?

Answer # 1: three

Answer # 2 (after discussion): I don’t know

So not as easy as it sounds. Luckily just as we were leaving we met another teacher whose English was quite a bit better, and she explained that the water meter is just for the use of the teachers, and that they each had to contribute about five percent of their salary (about six dollars Cdn) each month torwards maintaining the water point. Which was a lot but at least they had reliable, clean running water. The water point was for general use, and as such she had no information on it’s history but it was at least functional when we visited it.

We also made an attempt at asking about sanitation facilities in the village, but for this we didn’t get anywhere, since as soon as we said the word Chimbuzi (Chichewa for toilet), all the children in the school started giggling, the teacher got embarrassed and didn’t want to answer, so we got nowhere on that one.

And thus concludes my adventures so far in Malawi. Our evacuation (exile?) in Zambia will be at least one week long, and possibly longer based on what happens in the country. Stay tuned for all sorts of exciting happenings with our week long team meeting and operational planning session!

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Pre-departure adventures in Toronto

So, pre-departure training is now finished. One week of intensive training in Toronto, mainly at the EWB National Office, the training house and the UofT campus. An exhausting and eclectic mix of sessions consisting of things reasonably inside one’s comfort zone (sector team case studies, history of EWB), and fully outside it (coaching, learning to eat food with my right hand). All useful exercises though.

This is the National Office of EWB Canada

Pretty impressive library for international development literature

Learning session at the training house

Casual question and answer session with EWB CEO George Roter

There are six of us in this particular sending session, five working professionals (called Professional Fellows) ranging in age from mid 20s to early 4os, plus one university student (a Junior Fellow) who is also going over in the fall. Nice, small sending group consisting of people of diverse talents that leads to good discussion. In terms of countries, there are two going to Malawi (including me), two to Zambia, and two to Ghana. We are all flying out tomorrow, so very exciting!

The Fall 2011 sending group

The newest addtion to EWB`s Failure report

As a quick note about Malawi, there have been some issues in the country over the last two weeks or so that people may or may not have heard about. Basically some protests and such due to fuel and food shortages that turned somewhat violent, but nothing widespread and it was pretty short-lived. Nevertheless, there are a new round of protests planned for mid-August, so as a precautionary measure our national leadership has decided to evacuate the entire Malawi Water and Sanitation team to nearby Zambia for the duration of these protests. Obviously not a great way to start my placement and I’m not happy that this has happened since it plays into people’s stereotype of the African continent in a pretty negative way, but these things do happen on occasion. It’s important to note that none of the volunteers currently over there were at any point in any danger, so this shouldn’t have any impact on the work I will be doing over there other than to delay my ability to start it for a few weeks.

As for my headspace, I`m still not sure if the idea that I`ll be living in Africa for the next four months has fully sunk in, and probably won`t until I actually arrive there. I am still very much looking forward to this opportunity however, and am determined to do the best job I can in the time I have available to me. At the same time I have to remember that my ability to make significant progress in a four month time frame is going to be pretty limited given the cultural differences, etc. Luckily I have a lot of confidence in the team I will be joining and the organization I`m going overseas with, so I have faith that the work I will be doing will be continued and built upon after I`m gone.

So that`s it for this post. The next one will be from Africa, so stay tuned!

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Blog Post #1 — Theme: getting myself sorted out

OK, here we are at the first blog posting for my Professional Fellowship trip to Malawi. I probably could have gotten this up and running sooner, but I wanted to take the time to do a fully assembled set of blog pages so that people could get some more information about what I’m doing, where I’ll be going, etc.

As such, I’ve got a number of other pages set up with other info, along with links to a whole bunch of other people’s blog sites as well. Definitely I would encourage reading some of these also, since I get inspired by reading some of them, so you might too!

At present I am in full checklist mode and entirely focused on the goal of getting everything sorted out in time for me to fly to Toronto on August 1st (blog up and running — check!). Once in Toronto though, we have a week allocated for pre-departure training, followed by many hours of flight time, so I’m really looking forward to using that period to switch gears and get myself into an Africa mindset, so stay tuned for more introspective and ‘asking tough questions’ types of blog postings!

Hopefully everyone enjoys the blog, and definitely once I get to Malawi I welcome any and all feedback, comments from home and any other Canadian updates as I go along.

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