From the field: Getting creative in Malawi

March 2, 2012

The Shire Valley in Malawi during rainy season. Source: charity: water

I can’t get it to print.

It’s Monday morning at charity: water, and Stacie, one of our Development Interns, is standing next to my desk, laptop in hand, looking concerned. As the IT Manager, I run the helpdesk, which means fixing things for the staff when they fail — programs that won’t print, computers that seize up, emails that don’t go through. I’ve been managing our systems for two years now, and I’m proud that things run smoothly… most of the time.

In a few moments, I figure out the problem, and Stacie smiles and goes back to her desk. I’ve learned that you can’t prevent every problem from happening. All disk drives eventually fail, IT managers say. But there are always solutions. One of the tricks is to be creative.

Don’t focus on why something won’t work; focus instead on how to make it work again, even if it’s not the way it worked before.

So far, this has in our office in New York City. Last month, I got to see how it could also apply to the challenges surrounding our work in East Africa. Specifically — how it applies to remote monitoring of our water projects here.

Nat Paynter, charity: water’s Water Programs Director, and I arrive in Malawi during rainy season, and everything is green and lush. I tell Nat it reminds me of my childhood in Florida; he seems disappointed. Nat has spent many years in Africa working on water and sanitation issues. It’s my first time here and I think he wants me to find it more exotic, foreign. But on the second day we get caught in a thunderstorm and again I think of Miami — it comes on quick and fierce, the trees blow sideways and the water washes off the rooftops in sheets, for a brief time it even hails — then suddenly it’s over and the sun is out, steam rising from the wet earth and trees.

Despite this evidence of water abundance, Malawi is caught in the water crisis. The government estimates only 40% of the population has access to clean and safe water, and the actual figure is probably lower.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa. The government, though stable, has continuing problems with corruption and chronic revenue shortages. The local currency is of little value outside the country. As in many developing nations, public services such as water and sanitation are woefully underfunded. While there was a government presence in the districts we visited, they had little staff and few funds to carry out their work.

This is where Water for People-Malawi, one of our partnering organizations here, comes in. They have been working for more than a decade to bring improved water and sanitation to the people of Malawi.

Our first day in the field, we drive out of the city to the rural district of Chikhwawa, where about half a million people live. Heading south, we descend from the hills of Blantyre onto the expanse of the Shire valley, a broad plain bisected by the Shire river. Even though it’s the rainy season, we cross many dry culverts and washes.

Later, I will read that the annual rainfall in Malawi has been gradually decreasing for more than a decade, a consequence of shifting weather patterns due to global warming.

At the first village we visit, we’re greeted by song and dance: women in brightly colored dresses, some with infants wrapped to their backs, clapping and stamping the earth with bare feet.

Women from the Water Committee smile as they answer Nat's questions. Source: charity: water

One of my first impressions is how clean and tidy the village seems. There is no clutter, no stuff lying about. Then it hits me: these people are poor. They don’t have much to leave sitting around.

Nat interviews the water committee:

“How were you selected?”
–The whole village had a meeting. We all decided.

“I see you are all women…”
–Yes, because it is the women who collect water.

Water for People doesn’t just build wells. They educate communities in sanitation and hygiene issues; they help to organize water committees; they develop new strategies for well maintenance and repair at the village level, and they try to keep it all affordable.

Ownership is key in their efforts. Only when a community feels invested in a water point and responsible for it is sustainability possible. Water for People is good at “thinking the entire process through,” Nat tells me.

Water for People trains local Water Committees with a diagram of their well. Source: charity: water

I’m here to see if these efforts can be enhanced through remote monitoring, which means keeping an eye on the water points from afar. Back in Blantyre, I talk with Water for People’s Programs Director, Muthi Nhlema. He is using a technology called FLOW (Field Level Operations Watch) as a reporting and monitoring tool. Here’s how it works: Water For People gives specially-programmed cell phones to staff or volunteers, who collect data — GPS coordinates, populations served, how much water is flowing — at each water point.

Once these phones have internet access, they automatically upload all the data to be posted on Water for People website so anyone — government, partners and the public — can see them.

Water For People monitors, evaluates and makes adjustments to their program with this info. It’s a brilliant idea, but the process is hampered by the need to send people into the field. Some wells are not visited again until a year and a half after they are constructed.

Now imagine if the cell phone could live at the well. Constantly, automatically sending back data: The well is working. The well is working. The well has stopped working. The well needs to be repaired.

This would be an invaluable tool to help all parties make sure the water keeps flowing. Here’s a breakdown of the difference between what Water For People uses now and what they hope to use in the future with charity: water’s support:

Source: charity: water

Water for People’s program and their commitment to sustainability are strong. This is a promising opportunity to support a pilot program on remote monitoring.

Kids greet the charity: water team at a village in Chikhwawa District. Source: charity: water

On my last evening before returning home, I sit on the balcony at the hotel, watching bats flit against the sky as night approaches. Innovating a remote monitoring tool and deploying it will be a huge challenge — I think of a dozen reasons why it won’t work.

But charity: water is committed to keeping the water flowing. We owe it to the communities I saw here, to the local partners like Water for People who work hard to bring water to those communities, and to our donors, who make everything we do possible.

And I remember Stacie at the office, and the laptop that won’t print.

There are always solutions. Be creative.

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  • Khawaja Ikram Ul Haq

    A laptop not printing is not a huge problem….why u want a sophisticated system of reporting on wells working is not understandable…just give one person near the well your phone numbers and tell them either to call or repair the well..a well hand pump basically has one leather repairable which can be replaced by anyone…give the village chief one spare well and tell him to use his manpower to repair it…i have lived in malawi and find that this it quite quizzical why they cannot import and install wells apart from teh cost of materials and drilling required…train a local team or teams…who can mann a telephone and they should visit and check when a problem is reported…