Bringing clean water, jobs to Rwanda

I think they're happy about the clean agua. (Photos/Courtesy Manna Energy, Ltd.)

In Rwanda, getting water is not as easy as simply turning the tap. Villagers must first lug water, sometimes up steep cliff slopes 11 stories tall, then boil it in an attempt to get rid of the nasty stuff. Houston-based for-profit company, Manna Energy, Ltd., is looking to help make life a little easier and healthier for these communities with plans to bring clean water to more than 1 billion people during the next ten years. Their mission pulls triple duty – providing clean water, a reduced carbon footprint and local jobs.

Evan Thomas, executive Vice President of Manna Energy, Ltd., recently presented at the Watershed School’s Boulder Expedition Series in Colorado — a school setting its heart on social responsibility. Thomas also engineers purification systems for NASA and volunteers for Engineers Without Borders. Somewhere in the mix, he managed to find time to share a few thoughts with the Nature Files.

1.  Manna Energy, Ltd. has a pretty unusual goal – to improve the lives of one billion people. How did that mission come about?

There are over 1.2 billion people in the world who currently lack access to clean drinking water. Existing models to address this problem are not yet capable of scaling to address the magnitude of the issue. Dirty drinking water remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide. With Manna, we have worked to create a model that has the potential to associate economic sustainability and business accountability to the deployment and maintenance of water treatment systems. We are demonstrating this in Rwanda, and hope to then help other organizations do the same thing. In this way, we plan to be a part of solving this problem.

2.  While volunteering with Engineers Without Borders you’ve worked with communities in Nepal, Rwanda, Mexico and Afghanistan. What are some of the things you experienced there?

The differences between people everywhere are pretty small. People generally want the same things for themselves and their families, and are as equally capable of addressing the challenges they face as anyone anywhere else. But, unfortunately, many development models aren’t working well to ensure sustainable success with addressing poverty.

One of the biggest issues is that some development models expect local community members to simultaneously be technicians, entrepreneurs and mediators. These are unreasonable expectations of people struggling to grow enough food each day, and are in conflict with the division of labor and skill that is inherent in the cultures that development experts and volunteers come from. Instead, we should work to develop the capacity on national and local levels for long-term sustainability, which needs to include business, jobs, and specialized training.

3. What are some of the biggest hurdles for these communities in terms of gaining access to clean water?

Generally, the issues aren’t technological. They’re about community capacity. With Manna, we operate as a business and are able to employ people to maintain the water treatment systems we deploy. The overriding lesson we’ve learned – let’s not pretend we can just spend a few weeks, months or years in a community and expect things to change if we’re not providing specialized training and employment in the region.

4. How do you go from engineering water and life support systems on NASA spacecraft to developing water filtration in developing countries?

NASA and the developing world may seem very different, but in fact they’re similar. We’re both working in challenging environments, where there are few local resources, limited training available, and you have to implement technologies that provide critical life support needs, like clean water, with little maintenance or resupply. So in fact, astronauts on the future lunar outpost will be living in an environment very similar to rural developing communities.

5.  You’ve developed a pretty cool solar-powered filtration system that’s being implemented now in Rwanda. How does it work? What kind of impact is it having so far?

Our “Bring Your Own Water” treatment system is a gravity fed gravel filter, rapid sand filter, and solar panel powered ultraviolet disinfection system. The system also has the capability to monitor several sensors, and alert our technicians in Kigali via the cellular phone network if the system fails. We are already treating water for several thousand people, and ultimately aim to address water quality concerns for over 230,000 people.

6. A lot of your work on this is unpaid, or funded by grants, and it’s pricey with a single system costing about $50,000. But Manna Energy, Ltd., is poised to implement a carbon credit program to help generate income. Why this approach? What do you hope it will do for the projects?

The grants we’ve received so far were given to us expressly to create and demonstrate this model, wherein we intend to get United Nations carbon credits for the treatment of drinking water. The premise is that each liter of water we treat with our system is a liter of water that no longer needs to be boiled with wood. So the demand for wood as a water treatment method is reduced.

7. What’s planned for this year? Are you headed back to Rwanda, or taking this to any other places?

We have a full-time staff in Rwanda that is deploying our water treatment systems as we speak. We’re focusing on demonstrating our model there for now, but then soon thereafter consulting with other organizations to replicate a similar model. We’ve already been approached as consultants by several large and small companies and non-profits.

8. I’ve got an audience of some pretty talented and respected photojournalists. If someone wanted to help tell the story of your work there, do you have any suggestions on how to get involved?

Pictures are a great way to tell these stories. Here are a few of ours: http://drop.io/manna

We always appreciate raising awareness of this challenge. While it’s gained some more momentum recently, the international water crisis still does not have a cohesive network working together to address it. There are several great organizations, like the Global Water Challenge, who are trying to fix that, but the more people realize how many other people in the world are drinking contaminated water every day, the better we have a chance of fixing that.

9.  Any final thoughts?

Manna is deliberately set up to be a social enterprise. At first we were a little uncomfortable running this as a business, because we had been proud to be volunteers. But then we realized that there shouldn’t have to be a choice between making a positive difference on the world and making money and being successful in our careers. We can do both at the same time.

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