Saturday, June 27, 2009

Great Expectations (Dashed)

Yesterday I visited a Kampala supplier of power and water equipment to purchase items needed for a power backup system at HEAL Africa (I'll detail the system in a future post). Davis & Shirtliff is a Kenyan company with distribution outlets all over east Africa: Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia. Their ads are dotted around Kampala, promising solutions to all your water and power needs. Just the kind of stuff I'm looking for.

I decided to purchase from Davis & Shirtliff because it seemed to have the qualities one needs when making a large purchase - informed salespeople, professional outlets and quality equipment. It certainly appeared that way from looking at their website and their sales catalogue. After looking over the second-hand equipment sold in Mbarara, the prospect of purchasing from a reputable supplier was reassuring.

So I walked into the store on Jinja Road with great expectations. After waiting a while I met a sales representative and explained to him exactly what I wanted to do. He detailed which products I would need and priced them for me. I hesitated when he told me I could use a charge controller designed for a DC solar system, when I explicitely stated I would charge the battery using the AC grid. But he assured me the model (Sundaya Apple 15 amp) could do both, so I agreed to the purchase. I left the store agreeing to buy a charge controller, battery and inverter. I planned to come back the next day to pick them up.

I arrived the next day expecting to just walk in and walk out. But looking over the battery, it turned out that it wasn't exactly what I'd asked for (unsealed, when I needed sealed. The sealed battery is necessary because it's maintenance free, which is very important in Goma). It then turned out there were no sealed batteries in stock at 50 Ah, which is a common size. The rep called a different retailer across town, but they didn't have the exact size. And then it turned out the other retailer was closing because someone hadn't shown for work. So no dice.

However, I still could buy the charge controller and inverter and get the battery from a supplier in Kigali. But now comes the part that really gets me: the charge controller was not the one I needed, after explicitly asking 3 times. I almost walked out of the store with the wrong equipment (a big deal when traveling to Kampala takes so long). When the rep eventually did find a model for my application, they only had one left, which was slightly scuffed and missing a cable. The rep sent someone across town to get a new one, and when he couldn't find it tried to buy a US plug and file down the ends to fit into the charge controller's DC outlet. Umm, not going to work.

And so after leaving the previous day excited with my pending equipment purchase, I walked out of the store empty-handed. I had chosen to go to Davis & Shirtliff explicitly to avoid a series of events like this.

The phrase "TIA" (this is Africa) was rattling in my head. One has to go with the flow or you'll never fit in and never get anything done. Things take time, and mess-ups will happen. True, and when appropriate I hold that expectation. But when doing business, one should expect a certain level of professionalism. Expecting an African business to be less professional than any other would be condescending. Building trust in a brand is a critical part of being successful. When that trust is broken, it's terribly hard to repair.

This small series of events is just one experience. Based on their size, Davis & Shirtliff appears to be a very successful company. But my trust is temporarily on hold, and I will be much more wary the next time I approach a seemingly professional company.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sand Water Filters

Getting clean water at the HEAL Africa hospital is an intermittent affair. When all is operating as it should, city water pumps take water out of neighboring Lake Kivu and deliver it to paying customers by underground pipes, like most cities. The water is purified by chlorination, which is a very effective means of removing contaminants. However when the power goes out, as often happens, the pumps fail and the water stops.

HEAL Africa does have a backup, however. Large rainwater collection tanks dot the hospital campus, harvesting water from the roofs of buildings. This water allows the hospital to keep functioning, but only after the water has been purified. It cannot be used immediately because of the contaminants the water acquires while passing over the roof to the collection tank.

Currently, rainwater is purified by boiling before use. While this solution is very effective at producing safe water, it has several drawbacks. Firstly, it is difficult to scale up; boiling a few liters of water is easy - boiling hundreds (or thousands) of liters for an entire hospital is hard. Secondly, boiling water is energy intensive. It requires a large amount of charcoal, which fuels almost all stoves in Goma. The charcoal is expensive and its production is harmful to the local environment.

Due to these drawbacks, the hospital is seeking an improved solution for providing safe water during outages. There are many potential solutions, depending on the type of contaminants present. In this case, because the contaminants from the roof are all biological (there's no fertilizers or pesticides to worry about), slow sand filters can be utilized. These are extremely simple and effective, and should work well for HEAL.
The filters work by passing water through a bed of sand. As the water flows down, many contaminants are trapped in the sand. These contaminants then begin to form a "scum" layer on top of the sand. This scum layer is actually the most effective part of the filter - it digests other biological material as more water passes through the filter. Once the water emerges from the bottom, it is cleaned of all biological material (except viruses, which can fit through the sand and are not consumed by the scum layer. These will not be present in this case because the water is immidiately removed from the roof when it rains).

The filters have no moving parts, don't need to be refilled, and are low-maintenance. They do need occasional attention however to remove the scum layer when it becomes too thick. Because of this, the filters work best in an institutional setting where maintenance staff can be trained to care for the filters.

In July, we will be building a prototype filter for use in a small residential compound outside of town. Doing so will allow us to learn on a smaller scale before creating the larger filters needed for the main campus. I expect the filter to cost $100-$200 in materials, plus construction. Once complete, I will be performing a water purity test to verify the cleanliness of the water. Staff will continue to observe the filter before the next installation.

I'll be posting more pictures and updates about the actual installation as it proceeds. If you'd like to help support the prototype construction, please click on the link below. Thanks so much!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Support Water, Power and Health Projects at HEAL Africa

In an earlier post I described my trip to the hospital HEAL Africa in May. I came away impressed by the dedication of the staff there; but I was also impressed by the limitations they faced in doing their work. It's the little things that can get irritating - running out of necessary supplies, boiling rainwater when the city water shuts off, losing your internet connection when sending critical emails. These little things add up, and drain away from the time the medical staff could be spending on critical things - like healing victims of one of the most protracted conflicts in Africa.

But speaking to the staff at HEAL Africa, they described ways to alleviate some of these distractions. And so when I return to the hospital in July, I'll be working to implement a few projects that will do just that. In the next few posts I'll describe each project and explain what will be necessary to get them done.

But right now I want to ask a favor - can you partner with me to get these projects done? They're small and quickly achievable - but I need the finances to purchase the equipment. Batteries, sand, concrete, steel and plastic will build the filters, refrigerators, and communication backup that will let the medical staff focus on what they do best: saving lives.

If you'd like to give, please click on the link below. 100% of the proceeds will be going to purchasing equipment. It's not often you get a chance to contribute to a cause at such a low level - I will let you know exactly what you've bought and how it will be helping people in Goma. Thanks!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Silent for a Bit

I'm in India for the next few weeks, with some spotty internet connectivity, so the blog's going to be a little quiet. I'm sure I'll have plenty of thoughts on water and sanitation here, enough for a "Tales of Water in India." My hotel has a squat toilet with little to no flushing capability - so believe me, the reflections regarding water in India are flying!