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Humanitarian Water: Kenya Project Blog

HTI Water Kenya Project Blog - Day 10January 27, 2011 - MUDIMBIA, KENYA

HTI Water Disaster Relief Research Project - Mudimbia, Kenya

When I stepped out of Liriks Sweatel Café in the center of Mudimbia for the last time today, I found Chief John waiting to say goodbye. It’s a mystery to me how the Chief knows our every move before we do, but to say he has his pulse on the community is an understatement. He thanked me, I thanked him, then I watched him pedal off on his bicycle for some official bit of business he was late for. The Chief doesn’t own a car; nobody in the village does. As he rode down the path, I suddenly realized that he reminds me of Andy Griffith; handsome, affable, stern when he needs to be, with an obvious love for his community. I realize I’m going to miss that man and his whole village as well. Not that Mudimbia would be mistaken for Mayberry. Poverty and unemployment, educated youths returning home for lack of work, high rates of HIV, orphans, and food insecurity all mean that the Chief’s dreams of development are going to be hard to realize.

Fishing remains the primary cash activity in the area, back-breaking work that pays very little. Standing on a sand bar situated a couple hundred yards into Lake Victoria, Thomas Jumba smiles as he remembers his own days hauling in the nets by hand. Life is easier now that he’s a middleman, buying fish on the sandbar and transporting it into Mudimbia where he sells it to the next link in the chain, a chain that might ultimately lead to your dinner plate. A refrigerated truck parks each day in the middle of the village, ready to buy and transport the fish to Kisumu or Nairobi and then export. Thomas has possession of the day’s catch for maybe a half hour’s journey. He buys the fish for 150 Kenyan shillings per kilo and sells for 165, earning about 20 US cents per Kilo for the 500 to 1,000 kilos he buys every month. This works out to about $6 per day tops, substantially higher than the average income in this area. Of course, he has expenses that come out of that. There are only so many fishermen on these sandbars, and he competes for their business with four or five other buyers. Thomas currently works with four of the fisherman, and to keep their business, he plies them with gifts; oil for their engines or perhaps new nets, for example. Six dollars a day might not seem like a lot of money, but standing on that sandbar in a black sports jacket, posing for a photo with a cell phone in his hand, Thomas looks like any other proud businessman around the world who’s aware he’s scratched his way to the top. Well, the flip-flops are a little different.

HTI Water Kenya Project Blog - Day 10After leaving Liriks, I had one more stop to make before leaving the village for good; I wanted to say goodbye to Phelistar Anyango and Raphael Radari, an older couple with whom I had recently shared a cup of tea in their home. The couple married in 1964, after Phelistar’s “behavior” caught Raphael’s eye.

“There were many girls in the village, but I liked her behavior. She was an orphan, and I saw her helping with the younger children, taking care of them. I thought she would make a good wife,” he said. “There were many girls, but I chose her. It started with romance.”

Phelistar didn’t say anything, but smiled.

During the flooding here in 2007, the couple was forced to move out of their house, to a patch of high ground just yards away from their front door. There, they stayed for months with their five children and six grandchildren. The flood waters, which brought mosquitoes, also brought fish to their doorstep, which Raphael was able to catch with nets. Some they ate, the rest they bartered for food in nearby villages. That might have been tolerable if not for the floodwater, which they were forced to drink, and the sickness that soon followed.

“The water did not taste bad, but made us sick. We had rashes, and diarrhea, and fever. It was very bad, just like the 1963 flood. The rains destroyed the crops for one year. We would have to wade through water to get to market, and lots of people suffered. Especially kids.” Phelistar said.

HTI Water Kenya Project Blog - Day 10That story is essentially what we heard from everyone in Mudimbia when they talked about the flooding. A common theme was being forced to drink the raw floodwater during the first days of the flooding, and then being provided chemicals, which for whatever reason did not stop the sickness. Some believed that people improperly used the chemicals, either using too much or too little, and became sick. Others said that because they didn’t like the taste, they (especially their children) would revert to drinking raw water. Whatever the reason, the benefit of the HydroPack’s good taste and ease of proper use was made evident by these stories. Before we said goodbye, I asked them if they had any advice for a long marriage like theirs.

“Stay in love, stay together, and avoid domestic violence,” said Raphael. Phelistar smiles again.

Pretty good advice anywhere.

This will be the final blog post, so a few words about our work here are in order. HTI has long had a vision for the HydroPack concept; an ultra-simple osmotic pouch that anyone could use properly in any sort of contaminated water to provide emergency hydration. Our idea (actually, I want to give Jack Herron specific credit for this) was that creating a product that generated something people wanted to drink would be key to its success as a disaster relief product. Jack’s mantra was ‘the children need to like it’.

So we came to Mudimbia to find out if the kids, and their parents and grandparents, would like the HydroPack drink enough to use it for 10 days. Maybe, we thought, they would use it for a few days but then tire of it. Additionally, we wanted to see what would happen to their hydration levels, find out if they would use the pouch properly and to learn something about how to optimize the design, and to verify purity levels by testing random pouch samples.

I’m happy to report that in each of these areas, the pilot succeeded far beyond our hopes. Was the HydroPack accepted? The most frequent phrase out of the mouths of our field workers was “they’re crazy about the HydroPack.” Participants had to be told to ration their HydroPacks during the last half of the pilot because they were consuming them too quickly. Hydration states improved during the pilot, as documented by our three community health workers performing the health survey looking at urine output, urine specific gravity, urine pH, weight, and stool consistency and frequency. Proper use and compliance was at least 99%. And as a bonus, after Austen and Joel did extensive household interviews, we came away with many ideas on improvements to packaging design. Who knew that a water drop icon reads “gourd” in Kenya? Or, if you try to say ‘No’ with a red ‘X”, they’ll wonder what a crucifix is doing in that spot.

Combine these key characteristics in one solution – 100% acceptance, pure, easy to use, reliable in any water – with a transport burden and associated expense that is 1/15th of water, and you have the perfect hydration solution for the early phase of disaster relief. The fact that the solution simultaneously delivers energy and nutrients is a huge bonus. Did I mention that in airlift scenarios the transport savings will pay for the product? The HydroPack does all this, and to those of us who were lucky enough to personally be involved in the pilot, its potential seems obvious.

And speaking of those involved in the pilot, a few words of thanks are required here:

Gaylon White, Tim Dell, Jos De Wit, Anne Kilgore, and Brad Lich, all of Eastman Chemical, were instrumental to the pilot. HTI is proud of our partnership with Eastman and grateful for their shared vision for the HydroPack. It is no exaggeration to say that this project would not have happened without their support. Thank you Eastman!

The film crew from Uber London: Alan Lee, David Meadows, James Ruffels and Eliza Yacob were a pleasure to have as part of the team. Not only is their work incredibly beautiful and first-rate, their chemistry and investment in this project made them truly part of our team and incredibly easy to work with. If you are looking for a film team, you won’t be disappointed. Alan’s pictures are easy to spot on this blog, by the way. They’re the good ones.

Austen Angell and Joel Newman from Modern Edge Design were tireless in their research and might have worked harder than anyone, including a side-trip to Turkana to gain insights from a more traditional, pastoral tribe. Their work will pay dividends in our goal of requiring as little training as possible for HydroPack use. Austen, by the way, is the only member of the team to have a baby in Mudimbia named after him.

Dr. PK Carlton, retired USAF Surgeon General and currently of Texas A&M, provided invaluable insights and counsel during the pilot. We’re proud to have someone with his depth of experience associated with this project.

Maj. Chris Bishop, of the USAF, came along as an observer to learn more about the technology. Thank you, Chris, for your work and interest.

Our partner KWAHO, and our entire field staff, a professional and hard-working group. Clifford Wahanya for Emergency Relief Supplies provided all of the extensive logistical support prior to and during the pilot. Thank you Clifford.

And finally, let me put a plug in for all of my colleagues at HTI, especially the engineering team, all of whom have worked on this project with an awareness of its life-saving potential.

Stay tuned to this site for KWAHO’s final report on the Mudimbia Pilot.

Thanks for reading.

Nathan Jones
HTI Disaster Relief Specialist