Construction Commences!

Wow, so the last few months have been exhilarating!  We’ve gotten a budget from community and local government fundraising to build a water system. We’ve received a ton of press about our work. And we’ve been incredibly fortunate to be a part of the Imagine H2O accelerator. But now the rubber meets the road: we’re starting construction.  We’ve got 700 homes in Wita that we need to pipe water to.  Construction started this week. It’s game-time.

Here are some lessons that we’ve already gained insight into.


In 2016, after chatting with community leaders in earnest about actually piping water to every home in Wita, we went around mapping and surveying the ability of people there to pay to connect to a water system.  Community leaders were super excited and local households, while not sharing the same level of enthusiasm, showed interest.  At the edges of the Wita, though, the responses were near-universal: $50? No, that’s just too much. 

Cut to the last few weeks.  We wanted to get a final set of locations on the number of homes in different portions of the community.  In our initial survey, there were even homes inside the main part of Wita that said they weren’t interested. We figured these folks would latch on since pipes would be coming around their houses anyway. We were right. But what we hadn’t expected was that all those homes on the edge of the village would buy in, too.  I suppose this is just validation of our motto: nobody in the world wants to walk for water. And they’ll pay a month’s worth of income to get it.

Lesson Learned: There are innovators, early-adopters, late-adopters, and laggards when it comes to getting water in the home, too.

We’re burying all of these water pipes.  But how do we actually bury them?  In El Salvador, we got a giant backhoe and dug massive meter-deep trenches. This took a ton of time and, considering the size of the backhoe, wasn’t a terribly efficient use of resources.  For our systems, we’re resorting to smaller trenching devices, essentially a Chinese version of a ditch-witch, that’ll dig half-meter deep trenches. Picture a chainsaw on wheels that goes into the ground.

But this is a Chinese trencher and these sorts of devices aren’t sold in Ethiopia.  Hence, we had to get one imported.  In Ethiopia, if you have a license to import something, you pay a certain tax rate. If you don’t have a license, you pay triple. We knew this. Talking to some local experts, we also expected that the normal tax for agricultural equipment like this would be 15%, thus we’d need to pay 45%.

The trencher arrived on April 4th. After what we assume was some curious head-scratching, the customs office decided (for reasons unbeknownst to us) that the final tax rate would be equal to the cost of the machine. Yes, we paid more than double the tax we expected. We had two options: let it sit in the customs office indefinitely or pay up. We got it out a week later.

Lesson Learned: Never underestimate customs officials.

On Saturday the 15th, we took the trencher down to the community to dig some test ditches and generate extra interest there (rural people are often a tad skeptical that anything ever happens).  Two days before, I had assembled the machine to make sure that I didn’t look like a fool in front of everyone. In order to fit it in the car, I had to take it back apart, but I was confident.

As we pulled it from the back of our car, a crowd began to form.  The trencher went together with ease, chain and all!  We poured in gas and oil. This is totally going to work! Alright, moment of truth: let’s pull the handle and get this beast started. Choke on. Fuel control valve open. Throttle at middle.

Nope. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Check the valves. Repeat. Nope.

Check the rest of the engine. Nothing seems wrong, except for this one little wire that’s not attached to anything. Now I know nothing about electronics so I’m hesitant to do anything that might destroy the engine due to my ignorance. We hadn’t touched any of these wires; this is how it came.

But you know what I can do? Call our supplier. In China. From a little Ethiopian village. I give Maisie a call, our first time speaking in-person. She says to WhatsApp her a picture of the wiring. Five minutes later, I’ve got an answer: disconnect them all.

Boom, first try. Starts right up.  Thanks, Maisie!

Lesson Learned: It’s never as easy as we hope, but damn if technology ain’t cool.

So we start digging our test-trench, crowd and all.  The trencher specs say that we can dig up to 60 meters in an hour, or about a meter a minute.  While this beast is tearing up the ground, it just doesn’t seem like it’s moving, but I suppose it’s coming at a glacial pace.  It’s vibrating every which way and I’m struggling to get it to dig straight.  By the end of it all, my hands and arms are post-workout sore.  I mean, all we’ve got is 15 kilometers of trench to dig with this thing, right?

Lesson Learned: We’ve got a long road ahead of us. And I’m going to have Popeye-like forearms by the end of it all.