It has been a very busy quarter for Community Water Solutions for one very exciting reason: we have officially launched our new solar program! Around this time last year, CWS announced the kick-off of a Social Enterprise Competition at our annual benefit; an opportunity to bring new and innovative solutions to rural communities in Ghana and to expand the CWS model and brand to more than clean water.
After interactive workshops and valuable mentorship sessions, two of our Fellow Alumni, Ben Powell and Mark Moeremans decided to team up, bringing together a diverse set of skills and knowledge. And while there are a plethora of challenges and opportunities facing the people of Northern Ghana, the duo decided they could make a difference in the region’s lack of electric power, which results in poor health, limited education, decreased productivity, and traps the region’s people in poverty.
The team – also known as InnovaSun, proposed an entrepreneurial solar power business that leverages several of the ideas of CWS’s successful water business model – providing demand to a community in the form of rechargeable lanterns and charging individuals to recharge their appliances. The team went on to win the competition and the $10,000 prize as seed money to turn their idea into reality.
This October, the InnovaSun team travelled back to Ghana to pilot their idea in the village of Wambong. After weeks of building, training, and testing the solar business officially opened on Halloween! Below is the blog post that Ben and Mark wrote for the CWS blog about opening day. So far the solar business has been a huge success and we are excited to pilot the system in more villages this spring!
With the women trained and the solar equipment in place, it was almost time to open our Solar Center. Before the big opening party could take place, we just needed to distribute the rechargeable lanterns to all of the households and add some finishing touches to the façade of our solar center.
When we had first arrived in the community we asked the village elders to provide us with a list of households in the village so we could have an exact count for lantern distribution. Each household is basically a small compound with about 6 or 7 separate huts all in an enclosed wall. Compounds consist of a man, his wives, and their children, and sometimes their elderly parents. We had been planning on approximately 60 households based on Ben’s water implementation in Wambong three year ago, so we decided to be prudent and order 75 lanterns for the village. When we finally received the new household list we realized that Wambong had grown to over 120 households, more than double what we had planned for. Luckily, when we went to pick up our shipment of lanterns the store had more than enough in stock. We were definitely relieved to know that we would have enough lanterns for everyone and excited and humbled by the idea that we would be providing access to electricity for over 1000 people.
Distributing lanterns was exhilarating. The town assemblyman had already gathered a large group in the town center in anticipation of our arrival and when we pulled up in our taxi they started making announcements via the Mosque loud speaker which is usually used to broadcast prayers. Before long we were surrounded by people and we felt confident that we had representatives from all the households present. We took the opportunity to speak to the community at large about the solar center and how it important it was that the community work together to keep it safe. We discussed prices for charging, and taught them how to take care of the lanterns. Once we were confident that the community understood the importance of the center we began listing off household names and handing out lamps. The look of excitement and gratitude on people’s faces when they received their lantern had me grinning from ear to ear and just got me all the more excited for the opening party that night. Once all the lanterns were passed out, we returned our attention to the solar center and gave it a face-lift. Ben and I used what little artistic ability we had between us to give the building a paint job that Picasso would have been proud of.
With everything set and ready to go we headed back to the CWS office to catch a breather before the opening that night. We had decided to break from the CWS tradition of having an Opening “Day” and traded it for the first ever Opening “Night” hoping that the addition of lanterns and electricity to the village would make for a lively and well-lit party. So we set off around 6:30 with no idea what to expect, fingers crossed and holding our breath in anticipation.
We were anxious but quickly put at ease thanks to the support and company of the full CWS team including Brianan, Peter, Amin, Wahab, Eric, and of course Shak as they decided to come out and partake in InnovaSun’s first ever launch party.
As we pulled into the village we were mesmerized, the whole village had a soft glow to it, or as one our translators suggested, “the village is blinking!” From the center of every household a soft light was floating up into the pitch-black sky, we knew something was working. We headed toward the town center and made our way to the Solar Center, connecting several power strips to allow for mass charging, hitting the on switch, and officially declaring the center open for business! Slowly people started making their way toward the center, first in the dark, then with flashlights, and finally carrying the lanterns we had distributed that morning. What was a trickle quickly turned into a flood of people as the center was surrounded by people wanting to get a first hand look and start charging their electronics.
Within minutes all 48 sockets were in use and charging a combination of cell phone and lanterns. Salima and Chang Chang were rockstars, quickly connecting all the appliances, adding up the total watts being used to make sure the system wasn’t overloaded, and most importantly keeping their cool among hoards of people – something I was struggling with.
More and more people continued to materialize each face more excited than the last. Some were holding lanterns and some just basking in the glow of their neighbors. I felt elated and totally overwhelmed, trying to make sure the center was working (it was), that people were having fun (they were) and that we were getting awesome pictures (we did). The community was enthralled, asking for photos, passing around lanterns, and pushing to the front of the crowd to see the solar center in action. They even organized most of the community in the center of town for a group photo, an unheard of accomplishment that took 5 different translators to coordinate.
As if lights and cell phones weren’t enough it wasn’t long before a pair of massive speakers appeared and started blasting some serious club music. Don’t ask me how or why this village, which previously had no electricity, has speakers taller than I am (clocking in at 6’3) but Wambong was bumping.
I kept wondering if we were going to get a noise complaint from the neighbors and then quickly laughed at my own stupidity. Ben and I had been wondering this whole week how quickly people would start making the electricity their own and branching out from lanterns and phones, well once the speakers were plugged in, it wasn’t long before someone else was siphoning off electricity and had plugged in a black light above the “DJ” booth. Seriously I felt like I was in a New York nightclub.
After 3 hours of pure euphoria, we decided to start winding things down. We took a ton of photos, made sure the center was in good hands and locked up, and started to head out. The village spokesperson continued to thank us, praising God for our help. It was one of the most unbelievable nights.
Seeing all of our planning, preparation, and hard work pay off, seeing the joy on everyone’s face, feeling accomplished and successful, and realizing what an impact we had had on this community. Indescribable. Ben and I couldn’t sleep last night, because we were too wired (pun intended) and even this morning I’m having trouble comprehending the magnitude of the moment and what it even means to me. All I know is I can’t wait to get back to Wambong and see how it’s going. I feel like a parent after their last child has grown up and gone off to college – empty nest syndrome for sure. I’ll just have to be patient and wait till tomorrow when we begin monitoring. I’m sure there is still lots of work to do, but I’ll be enjoying this day for a long long time.
This Summer, CWS hosted 24 Fellows in Ghana, including 5 Fellows in our new office in Salaga! Both programs were extremely successful. In all, the Summer Fellows launched 7 new water treatment centers which now serve clean drinking water to 3,664 people! We are so lucky to work along side such amazing fellows!
Carole Anne, Lilly & Taylor pose with the proud ladies of Kideng!
Caroline & Brigid pose with the excited kids of Kasawuripe!
Victoria, Eda, Jacob & Hailey peacesigning with their lady entrepeneurs, Mary & Fushiena on their opening day in Vogyili
Katie, Lucas, Stephanie & Sandra with their women entrepenuers and some kiddos in front of Namdu’s up and running water treatment center
TJ, Maxine, Casey, Jhanel & Bryan with their oh-so-grateful Chief of Kpali! Kirsten, Sarah, Ethan, Angie & Nestor with the women as they fill their very first safe storage container of clean water in Gundaa
I’m sure that you all have been on the edge of your seats since our last update about CWS’ expansion! To recap: After a scouting trip to Liberia, Burkina Faso, and Togo last summer, Kathryn and I decided that for CWS’ first satellite office, there was really no place like home and began to focus our search on other Regions in Ghana. Kathryn spent the fall traveling around this beautiful country to learn about the water needs in the Upper East, Upper West, and Volta Regions as well as exploring more remote areas of the Northern Region. After months of moto, tro, and market bus rides to both big cities and rural villages throughout Ghana, we decided that the small city of Salaga, a seemed like the best fit for our next base of operations!
The river in Tunga – the village’s only source of drinking water.
Once we had selected Salaga as our potential new base of operations, the next step was to pilot a CWS water business in a nearby village! While we were fairly confident that both our water treatment technique and our business model would work well in this area, this pilot was essential in figuring out our supply chain and transportation logistics. As many of our past Fellows know, transportation is a huge challenge here in Ghana! With the very poor road conditions around Salaga, we knew that finding a reliable way to reach the rural villages would be difficult. As far as supplies go, Salaga is much, much smaller than Tamale with a very limited market. So, about 90% of our supplies will have to be shipped down from Tamale – a process that we knew little about. A few more trips around Salaga later, we picked the village of Tunga for our pilot.
Tunga, is a rural village of about 500 people located 40 minutes north of Salaga and right outside the larger town of Banjai. The only source of water in Tunga is a river, that is highly turbid and fecally contaminated. We met with the village chief and elders in early December and, after a great conversation, they agreed to work with us!
Both Kathryn and I had a blast working in Tunga over these past few weeks. I have not implemented a water business since we launched the Fellowship Program in June 2010 and Kathryn’s last implementation was when she was a Fellow almost 2 years ago! After some initial delays due to the election.
The people in Tunga were extremely welcoming and a joy to work with – A group of local guys were very helpful in building the polytank stand and provided endless entertainment as we worked in the hot sun; An enthusiastic team of kids helped carry our safe storage containers all over the village as we distributed them to each family; And the women entrepreneurs, Sana and Aya, are a force to be reckoned with!
We celebrated opening day on Sunday, December 16th and were very impressed with the turnout! Sana and Aya were completely in charge, leaving Kathryn and I with little to do besides take pictures!
So far, the pilot in Tunga has been a success! Stay tuned for more updates on CWS’ expansion plans!
Fall is such a busy time for Community Water Solutions! In the US the new Winter Fellows are up and fundraising. Here in Tamale, Brianan, Peter, Shak, Wahab and Amin are, as usual, hard at work supporting those (now 40!) communities running CWS water businesses – check status updates from each village here! As if this all this hectic energy weren’t enough…
The search continues for a NEW base of operations!
You can read about Kathryn and Kate’s impressions of our trips abroad to Liberia, Burkina and Togo on this blog. But all this travel reminded us that there’s no place like home. Could other regions of Ghana benefit from the CWS social enterprise idea? We intend to find out!
Upper East region was our first destination. This area of Ghana is known for its beautiful straw handicrafts, its crocodile ponds, and its wonderfully-named capital, Bolgatanga. While boreholes are around, some smaller, remote communities still rely on streams or open wells for water. Could Upper East be a new CWS destination?
Upper West was our next stop. We found beautiful mosques, hippos and some village gold mining! Communities lacking boreholes have been more elusive, but our District Assembly contacts are on the hunt for potential partners. Could Wa, the Upper West Capital, be a new base of CWS operations?
Volta Region is Ghana’s eastern portion and takes its name from the giant lake it borders. Roads might have been rough, but the fufu was delicious and the view of the mountains, incredible. Lakeside communities in particular seemed to lack access to potable water. Can CWS adapt what we do in Ghana’s smallest bodies of water to Ghana’s largest?
Then there’s our own backyard. Northern Region is HUGE - one office could never serve all those communities here that could benefit from the CWS idea. After so many years, will our Dagomba pride really let us explore anywhere else while potable water needs exist all around us? Maybe Walewale or Salaga should be our next stop!
Before we make any decisions there is work to be done. Stay tuned for new office updates here!
Last month July, Kathryn and I traveled around West Africa to scout some new regions for potential CWS expansion. We journeyed to Liberia, Burkina Faso and Togo and documented our trip in a series of blog posts called “CWS on the Road.” The funding for CWS’ expansion trips came this spring from an anonymous donor – THANK YOU for supporting CWS and allowing us to explore the possibility of working in new regions!
In early July, Kathryn and I packed our bags and headed to Liberia, W. Africa on a scouting trip for CWS. Armed with a guide book, some great WASH maps, and the phone numbers of recommended drivers, we arrived in Monrovia on the 4th of July, excited to be taking the first step towards expanding CWS’ impact to new areas.
Kathryn on the beach in Monrovia right after we arrived in Liberia!
We wanted to check-out the water situation in Liberia for a few different reasons: First, 14 years of civil war (1989-2003) destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, leaving the majority of Liberians without access to water or electricity. Today,less than 10% of people in Monrovia (the nation’s capital) are on the grid. And that’s the capital of the country! Crazy! Second, Liberia is an english-speaking country. While the CWS team is used to navigating language-barriers, its always easier to get things done when you don’t have to rely on a translator for communicating! Finally, we had access to some awesome information! Last year, a bunch of WASH organizations working in Liberia got together and mapped all of the “water points” around the country.
So much GIS Data! Kathryn’s idea of heaven…
Most of these water points are boreholes with a handpump. The map noted if the pump was working or not and listed the implementing NGO. They combined this data with information on village populations and mapped out what they called the “corridor of need” based on water access (#of working water points/community populations). It is extremely rare to find such great information about water access in a country so we were thrilled!
Although the WASH-Liberia Maps gave us a good idea about where working/broken handpumps where located, we were interested in learning what people were doing for their water once their handpump was broken. Did they drink from a surface water source? Rainwater? Something else? How easy it to fix a handpump? Are people fixing them? We also wanted to learn about community structure. How big are the villages? What is the village-leadership hierarchy like? What are the village markets like? Would people pay for drinking water if it was sold in their community? From our experience working in Ghana, we knew that the best way to learn the answers to all of these questions would be to get out in the field and talk to people.
After spending a day in Monrovia, meeting with the Director of Liberia’s Peace Corp office (such an awesome guy who was extremely helpful!) and finding an great driver, we headed out to the rural counties to check out the water situation first-hand. First we traveled to Tubmanburg and spent two days driving around to villages in Bomi, Gbarpolu, and Grand Cape Mount Counties. We stopped-in as many communities as we could and talked to whoever was around and willing to chat!
Our view for about 80% of the day: dirt roads and beautiful jungle!
Kathryn checking out a handpump is Gbarpolu County
Typical village in Gbarpulo County, Liberia
One thing that we were not prepared for was all.of.the.rain. After over 4 years of working in Ghana, we knew that July = rainy season in West Africa. What we did not realize was just how different the weather and terrain would be in Liberia. In Ghana, the rainy season is similar to summertime in a state like Florida. Storms roll in quickly, it pours for a couple hours (most of time its less than an hour) and then the sun comes out again. Not in Liberia. It rained on and off all day, every day that we were there. To put it in perspective, the average yearly rainfall in Seattle is just over 36 inches. In Monrovia, its over 200 inches! The good news is, unlike Ghana where everyone takes a nap when it rains, Liberians are used to the constant rainfall and life goes on!
The plus side of all of the rain…absolutely BEAUTIFUL jungle landscape. It was breathtaking
From Grand Cape Mount we headed back to Monrovia for a night and the journeyed up Gbanga. For the next couple of days we drove around Bong and Nimba County on the hunt for more handpumps, surface water sources and friendly Liberians to chat with.
Another day on the road…
Checking out some handpumps…
…and surface water sources
Overall it was a pretty awesome week in Liberia. Kathryn and I learned so much! Ultimately, we do not think that Liberia would be a good fit for CWS’ expansion. Mainly because there are just so many boreholes! Right after the war ended, there was a huge push for borehole drilling in rural Liberia. Tons and tons of different NGOs came to build wells and handpumps. Coming from Northern Region Ghana, where you can’t drill boreholes, Kathryn and I were floored by how many boreholes there were. Drilling is also very expensive ($5,000-$10,000/borehole) so we could not believe how much money was invested in setting up these pumps. Almost every single village we visited had aleast 1 pump and many had 3-4. While we knew there were a lot of pumps from the WASH-Liberia map, the map only showed villages where NGOs had drilled broeholes. It did not tell us if there were more villages out there that hadn’t been reached.What we learned: there aren’t many, almost every community has atleast 1 borehole with a handpump!
The problem? Pumps break. And they have broken…all over Liberia. If an average village had 3 handpumps that were set up by an NGO in 2005, that same village has only 1 functioning pump now (on average, based on what we saw in our 1 week). And often times that pump will run dry in the dry season. As a result, many people are still forced to drink water from surface water sources like creeks and streams. Although a lot of people were getting water from surface water sources in many communities, the presence of so many boreholes, working or not, would make it difficult for CWS to work in these villages. Even if a community only has 1 working pump, people would be much less likely to pay for water from a CWS business if there is a chance that they can get water for free from a borehole, even if they have to wait in a long line for it or even if there is a chance the borehole is dry that day.
Path leading to a community creek in Grand Cape Mount county
The thing that frustrated Kathryn and I the most was that out of ALL of the NGOs and aid organizations that came to drill these boreholes from 2003-2005, not one of them set up a system for dealing with pump maintenance. Almost everyone we talked to told us that when their pump broke they had no idea who to call to help them fix it, even if they were willing to pay for parts. We searched high and low for spare pump parts in both local markets and big cities, and they were no where to be found. There is virtually no supply-chain in the country for pump parts. In a handful of communities, we learned that there had been some follow-up, or that there was a person in town that they can call when they need help fixing their pump, but in the vast majority this was not the case.
As an organization that spends a big portion of our budget on long-term monitoring and follow-up, we were upset and annoyed at this situation. We even hunted down welt hunger hilife‘s office in Monrovia to tell them what see saw in the field. Our conversation went something like this:
Your pumps are broken!
People are willing to pay to have them fixed!
Is there someway you can get them parts?
Maybe train local people how to fix pumps?
“oh sorry, we don’t work in those counties anymore.”
So you aren’t going to do anything? People will pay you to come fix their pumps
“No, we don’t work there anymore”
So, incredibly frustrating.
Not all of the water NGOs in the area share welt hunger hilife‘s “drop off and go” attitude. Population Services International is doing incredible work with household chlorination (also in HIV/AIDS, hygiene, sanitation and so much more!). They have launched an awesome social-marketing campaign to teach people how to chlorinate their drinking water and have helped to establish a sales-network for a locally manufactured WaterGuard (PSI-branded liquid chlorine). We met with their WASH program manager on or last day in Monrovia and she was awesome! There is so much that we can learn from PSI’s work, both in Liberia and globally!
One of PSI’s educational signboards in Nimba County
Pumps aside, the community structure in most of these villages is very different from the set-up in Ghana, and would also make it difficult for the CWS system to work well. The communities that we visited were much smaller – like 10-20 one-family households vs. 30-100 multifamily (polygamous) households. If we were to train 2 women to work at a CWS water business, there wouldn’t be very many families left in the town to buy water from them! There were also a lot of other small factors (market-structures, supply chains, availability of equipment, etc) that would make it hard for CWS to work in rural Liberia. Not impossible, just too difficult right now.
We think that there are many big opportunities in the water sector in Liberia, just not good opportunities for CWS at this time. Household water treatment and rainwater collection would be great options for this area – if you’re reading this and your organization implements HWTS or RW catchment systems and want more info on opportunities in Liberia, let us know!
More importantly, if you worked in Liberia in 2003-2005 and set up hand pumps in rural villages and then left, Come Back! Train people how to fix your pumps, help set up a supply chain of pump-parts. Your job is NOT finished yet! People are willing to pay to have their pumps fixed, but you left them with no one to call and no materials to work with. Its embarrassing.
Overall, our trip to Liberia was incredible. We learned a lot about emergency aid – the positives (SO MUCH support, financially and logistically, that results in big projects. Projects like drilling wells EVERYWHERE!); the negatives (the drop and go mentality of so many NGOs). We learned a lot about life in a post-conflict zone. We learned a lot about what kinds of communities would not be a good fit for the CWS system, which in turn, helps us better define what we are looking for. Finally, we met so many amazing people who are doing really great work: some friendly, smart and super-motivated peace corp volunteers; the dedicated and knowledgeable staff at PSI-Liberia; our awesome hosts in Tubmanburg, Mary’s Meals; and last but not least, our AWESOME driver Jallah, who not only traversed some pretty rough terrain, but also had the best road-trip playlist we’ve ever heard, shared our weird sense of humor and fielded endless questions from Kathryn and I (do Liberians eat monkeys? How long does it take pineapples to grow? Would people pay for water? What did that lady say? Who do you think lived in that house we passed on the left about 1 mile back? How do you tap rubber? What the red stuff in jars on the street?)
Me with our awesome driver/roadtrip DJ Jallah!
We’re back in Tamale for the day and leaving for Burkina Faso and and Togo tomorrow! Stay tuned for more updates from “CWS on the Road!”
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