Staff News

Water for Ethiopia – A Working Holiday

December 24, 2013 in Staff News, Structural Engineering

Blog-Turnbull-GrimesChris Turnbull-Grimes,
Structural Engineer –

Blog-EthiopiaA week and a half ago, I set off to Ethiopia for a five week trip to research and start a business.  Well, mostly business.  A chance to see the castles of Gondar, the monasteries of Lake Tana, and the Nile River Gorge (similar to the Grand Canyon except that the main road to the north of the country requires you drive down one side and back up the other) should not be missed.

Let’s step back a bit, though.  From 2009 to 2011, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya where I taught math and physics at a high school and worked on rainwater catchment and simple sanitation projects with a few schools in the area.  During my time traveling throughout the country, I saw a multitude of failed water and sanitation systems.  In my studies and through my experiences, I slowly learned that the problem was that too often systems were not constructed with the economic requirements taken into account.  Perhaps the most representative effect of this would be the thousands upon thousands of boreholes that have been drilled across the world that have fallen into disrepair.  Rather than wax on about all of the pitfalls of the traditional approach to international development, I strongly suggest a reading of The Business Solution to Poverty by Paul Polak, who founded International Development Enterprises (iDE), which is based out of Denver.  Above all, what I have learned is that the first thing you must do is listen.  Listen to locals about their biggest needs.  Listen to their solutions.  Listen to their concerns.  Your role is to simply fill in the gaps.

As a result, I founded Triple Bottom Line (3BL) Enterprises with my close friends Kris Bruun and Dominik Mucklow where we will focus our  work in El Salvador and Ethiopia.  In El Salvador, we will be working with a community to improve their household water storage.  This work is still a bit far off because right now we are focusing on our work in Ethiopia.

For the last year, Dominik has been working in the coffee industry here in Ethiopia where he has taken the time to learn about the coffee production process.  After talking with coffee farmers, many of whom bring in a meager living growing the beans, he learned that the main problem for the farmers is that their crop yields often suffer due to inconsistent rains, along with a host of other issues.  Listen to their needs.  Talking with them, we learned that a simple bit of irrigation twice a year would increase their yield significantly (we’re still researching exactly how much). Listen to their solutions.  One of the big problems, though, is that irrigation systems cost more than they can afford in capital costs and they don’t want to go into a large amount of debt to finance the systems.  Listen to their concerns.

We are still developing the business plan to clarify the details, but it boils down to this:

  1. Rehabilitate the boreholes and other broken pieces of infrastructure.  For example, the cost to rehabilitate a borehole is less than 10% of the cost to drill a new one.  Thus, we are taking the failures of the past for success in the future.
  2. Purchase a few small irrigation systems for farmers to use during the short periods that they are needed.  The water for these irrigation systems would be supplied by existing sources or the infrastructure that we rehabilitated.
  3. After farmers have sold their crops, they pay a certain amount (based on lot size) for the irrigation that they received, thus keeping them from going into debt.  The goal is that the income from increased yield will be significantly larger than what they pay for the irrigation.
  4. Construct composting latrines.  The compost from these latrines, assuming it is culturally acceptable, can be used to also increase the yield of the coffee trees.  The cost of the latrines would be paid out over a number of years as a portion of income from the increased yield.
  5. Should the local people desire better access to water, invest in and design a cost-effective system that will meet their desires.  Now that they have increased their income, they will now be able to pay for such a system.  Since they will be paying for the system, it requires us to listen to their concerns and it empowers them to speak up about what they wish to purchase.

Fill in the gaps. We are still working on our website, but you can visit us at