Sunday, July 4, 2010

Why spend all this time in Malawi?

Besides the beautiful weather and wonderful people? There is a reason this should be more than a vacation.

Some Background

In some documentation the Malawian government had released in the past, a coverage rate in rural areas for safe water points has been quoted at over 80%. If this were in fact true it would be an astounding feat, and mean a lower fatality rates from water-born pathogens, and dehydration from diarrhoea.

Unfortunately it is far less than 80% of rural Malawians who have access to safe water. This is not so say that documents form government offices are lying but not all factors have been considered when coming up with this figure. Essentially, the issue is a question of statistics, thankfully Owen Scott (find his blog here), one of EWB’s African Programs Staff (APS) in Malawi has produced to great pie charts for the lest statistically inclined of us (as a note, these calculations are only really “back of the envelope” and just like the 80% are also inaccurate, but they are used here to give an idea of the challenges to effective water coverage).

image The figure of 80% water coverage comes from the calculation of summing the number of safe water points in the country, and the number of people in rural areas, and determining how much water is available. As an example, a borehole is said to have the capacity to provide safe drinking water to approximately 150 people, a shallow well to approximately half that. Based on these numbers, Malawi has a certain number of water points which can provide water to a certain number of people, and a certain population. Subtract the two and you arrive with just over 80% coverage in rural areas.

The first factor not considered is that, wells don’t spring eternal (I couldn’t resist a water pun) and eventually the pump falls into disrepair, either allowing contamination of the water source, or preventing users from drawing water altogether. Strategies vary from district to district, but in Nkhata Bay District where I am placed the government supports a network of private individuals who have been trained (either by the government or a number of NGOs with water programs)  to maintain these pumps. However there are obstacles which often stand in these Area Mechanics (AMs) way.  Often communities do not have the funds to pay for the labour or spare parts in the repair either forcing AMs to work on a voluntary basis, bankrupting some of them or leaving the well in disrepair. imageAn increasing obstacle in Nkhata Bay district is that spare parts simply are not available as the supply chain from the manufactures in the south to the grocery and convenient stores around the district who are meant to carry them has broken down. Non-functionality puts our pie chart like this.

The second thing to consider is inequitable distribution of water points. This occurs for various reasons, district water offices don’t know where water points are, some NGOs don’t communicate with government before drilling, and sometimes instead of repairing an existing well, an organization will drill a new well image(for various reasons, sometimes because they don’t have the capacity or scope of program for repairs, sometime to report a higher number of wells installed to their donors).   Factoring in unequal distribution Owen’s pie chart now looks like this.

My Piece of the Pie

Foster showing a "Mark V" pump installed on a shallow well by the Marion Medical Mission, one of the active NGOs in the area Where my work fits in is mostly addressing challenges in the ‘non functionality piece’ of the pie chart. I’m living and working with Foster Longwe an area mechanic who services wells around Mpamba and partnered with the Central Church of African Presbyterianism (CCAP) Synod of Livingstonia Water and Sanitation Coordination Office (CCAP WatSan). CCAP WatSan has a plethora of water and sanitation programs that keep their office in Mzuzu, the largest city in the the Northern Region of Malawi extremely busy.

For various reasons, which could be a blog post unto itself most AMs are not successful at their work. This makes Foster an exception. He has been successful as an area mechanic and sells spare parts from his grocery store to other AMs as well as using them in his own repairs. Foster’s success has drawn the attention of CCAP WatSan. They would like to enable Foster to be able to not only repair wells, but install wells for private individuals around Mpamba. To do this they are helping him secure loans to purchase equipment for Baptist Percussion Drilling, a manual method for digging boreholes and looking for ways to secure loans for his potential customers. Additionally CCAP WatSan is looking to become a supplier of spare well parts for the Northern Region, and use Foster as a distributor to other spare parts shops in Nkhata Bay District. DSC00295 Foster is already a very entrepreneurial person, he runs his grocery and owns a minibus (bus about the size of a van, pictured here)  and I’m working with him on what business considerations he needs to have in mind to make this program a success and hopefully determining how similar approaches to well installation can be applied in other districts.



  1. Hey Dan! Great post, and I apologize for not commenting sooner. It's always amazing to hear about WatSan stuff in Malawi, and you do a great job of covering the program and your work.

    I have a bunch of questions! No need to respond in the comments, but it'd be amazing to talk with you about them at some point.

    -You mention one of the biggest hurdles is communities not having enough money to pay for parts and repairs. In your experience, is this actually the case? Do you think the issue is lack of funds, or a conscious decision based on priorities? So for example, is it that they don't have the $10 to pay an AM, or that they'd rather invest that in education for child?
    -You also said that Foster is an exception, and that most AMs aren't successful. What things have you identified about Foster that put him in a separate category? Is it down to him as a person, or are there external factors that have allowed him to rise to the top of AMs in the area?
    -What are some of the drawbacks to CCAP becoming a spare part supplier? Could this have negative implications on the private sector, especially if CCAP ever shifts focus away from spare parts supply, or if Foster moves on?
    -CCAP is investing a lot in Foster. Is this a test case, or is there a lot riding on his success and his desire to remain in the area operating businesses related to water access?

    Sorry for all the questions!


  2. Hey! It's great to learn more about how your work is fitting into the broader issues that the watsan team is working with. I would also like to hear more about about what makes Foster an exception and if you think there's a way to either find more people like him or support people like he's been supported.

    cheers! liv