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Lynn’s Letters from 2016


December 2016

November 2016

April 2016

February 2016







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4 February 2016

John joins the CDI Board of Trustees

Over the past year SOWTech have been working closely with Cambridge Development Initiative (CDI) (part of Cambridge University) on the SimpliSafi project in Tanzania. Since the students returned to Cambridge in the autumn we have continued to work with them as we are so impressed with what they are achieving in Tanzania. Check out their facebook page for videos of their engineering, education, health and entrepreneurship programmes (https://www.facebook.com/CambridgeDevelopment/videos). The Flexigester appears in the Engineering video.

John was invited to speak to the new CDI Executive team at their “Boot Camp” training in October. He was asked to tell them what he thought about CDI, what it was like to work with them and how they could become more “Professional”. What an opportunity! As you would expect he was honest with them and told them what was good, what could be improved and what made them unique. They obviously valued his opinion and were grateful for the time and advise he gave them.

Since then John has been invited to join the Board of Trustees of CDI. The Board of Trustees oversees the running of CDI with the students giving help, advice and feedback to them whilst providing a platform of continuity in an organisation that is continually undergoing change as students join and leave the university.

John has attended his first board meeting where he met his fellow trustees. The chairmen are Patrick Hoffman and Kelvin Wong who co-founded CDI. Other trustees include Sir Gregory Winter, Master of Trinity College; Jason Thorpe, an IT entrepreneur; Prof. Jaideep Prabhu, a leading expert on entrepreneurship in international development and Dr Pauline Essah, co-ordinator of the Cambridge-Africa programme.

He also attended the CDI annual launch on 25 January. This is the start of the process of recruiting this years new volunteers who will go out the Dar es Salaam in the summer to continue to build on the programme started in 2014. The event included a key note speech by Lydia Zigomo who is head of the East Africa region for WaterAid. She spoke about the future of international development and the difficulty of those already working in development to innovate when their time and energy is spent running their current projects.

We continue to work closely with CDI on a practical level and hope that John will be able to help support and advise the current and future students on a management level too.

9 February 2016

Plant nutrition paper published

As you may have seen on the Flexigester website (www.flexigester.com) we have uploaded a number of Technical Notes that we have written. These cover subjects such as “What is Butyl Rubber?” and the “Durability of Butyl fabrics in the Tropics”. One of them is “Sewage as a source of macro-nutrients for plants”. We wrote this using Sierra Leone as an exemplar country to show the level of plant nutrients that could be recycled to land if human sewage was captured and treated by anaerobic digestion in a Flexigester. We believe that organic waste and especially human sewage is a lost resource in many developing countries. In the UK sewage sludge has been applied to agricultural land for decades to put nutrients back into the soil. As both John and I have botanical and agricultural botany backgrounds, respectively, we know about the loss of nutrients in soils and the widespread desertification that is occurring worldwide due to the decline of organic matter in soils due to farming practices. The Technical Note attempts to quantify the nutrients that could be returned to the soil to give improved fertility not only in terms of the amount of nutrients themselves but also to put a monetary value on them.

When we originally wrote the Technical Note we sent to to a number of people who we though might be interested. One of the people we sent it to was a member of the Tropical Agriculture Association (TAA; http://www.taa.org.uk/). He suggested that we submit it for publication in their journal Agriculture for Development as they were going to be publishing a special edition on Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture. So we sent the article to the editors and they did want it. We had to put it into their house style (a flash back to my days as a Technical Editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry) and we tweaked a couple of things but then it was published in the Winter edition of the journal. So there we are, photos and biographies included, on pages 24 – 27 of the journal. You can read a pdf copy of the paper here but if you are interested in the full journal you can access the contents list for free at the TAA website and then order the journal or individual papers.

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Drought hits Namisu

You may have seen on the news that countries in Southern Africa are experiencing extreme drought conditions which is been made worse by El Nino. It is predicted to be the worst drought in the history of the region. The UN have said that 14 million people face starvation because of reduced food production, blamed on El Nino weather pattern. In a statement issued on 18 January the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said “With little or no rain falling in many areas and the window for the planting of cereals closing fast or already closed in some countries, the outlook is alarming.

The number of people without enough food could rise significantly over coming months as the region moves deeper into the so-called lean season, the period before the April harvest when food and cash stocks become increasingly depleted. Particularly vulnerable are smallholder farmers who account for most agricultural production,”

This situation becomes more real and more focused when you know people in the drought situation We heard from Angus in Namisu, Malaw on 11 January 2016. He said “The rain situation here is becoming a disaster. Only 5 mm since Christmas and 115 mm for the whole season. Last year between Christmas and now [January] we’d already had 260mm!”. He has sent us a photo of his dried up maize fields with the plants struggling to grow. We can just hope and pray that the rains come soon.

On a brighter note Angus has reported his latest successes with the Flexigester. The new composting system is progressing although breakdown of the vegetation is slow due to its fibrous nature but there are no smells form it which is a plus point.

There is better news about the biogas. The Flexigester is producing enough biogas to cook all the staff their Nsima for their lunch. Nsima is cooked ground white maize flour ans water and is the staple food in Malawi. The kitchen in Namisu cooks up a 40 litre pot of this every day for the staff lunch which takes about 90 minutes with the biogas. Angus is now wanting more biogas to be able to cook the 200 litres of Nsima for the children along with 15 kg of beans and another pot for vegetables. That's a lot of food!

19 February 2016

Failing maize crop in Malawi due to drought

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New members of SOWTech

We are pleased to announce that we have two new members of SOWTech. Stephanie Willis and Ravi Solanki have just been appointed Directors. Steph and Ravi were both members of the CDI team that installed the SimpliSafi system in Dar es Salaam last summer.

Steph is a mechanical engineering graduate from Cambridge University and now has a full time job working for an engineering design consultancy. She is passionate about the SimpliSafi concept and while she was at Cambridge University was a member of Ecohouse as well as CDI. When with Ecohouse Steph was the Water and Sanitation team leader, running a team of 10 people researching simplified sewerage as a solution to sanitation problems in slums in South America. The knowledge gained by that experience was then brought to CDI and used in the design of the simplified sewerage network in Tanzania. Her 4th year project was working in collaboration with Water for People, Uganda, to characterise the performance of various direct lift pumps designed to empty pit latrines in high-density urban settlements. When not working on sanitation problems Steph likes to play hockey and climb mountains.

Ravi is a medical and PhD student at the University of Cambridge. During his time at Cambridge he has co-founded a semi-professional foreign affairs magazine to provide introspective analysis of a range of topics from politics and governance to technology and culture including securing long-term corporate funding. Ravi started with CDI as a student volunteer in the Health Care project to design a new franchise-based model for delivering primary care. In 2015 he became the President of CDI when he led 41 Cambridge University and 38 Students from Ardhi University, Dar es Salaam in the design and implementation of projects in four broad sectors: education, sanitation, healthcare, and entrepreneurship. This included to SimpliSafi system.

Steph and Ravi bring youth and renewed enthusiasm to the SOWTech team along with their considerable experience of development projects and we hope to have many years of working with them.

13 April 2016

28 April 2016

Flexigester to help rice farmers in Sierra Leone

Over the past few months we have been learning about rice farming in Sierra Leone. As you are aware Sierra Leone has been plagued with troubles over the last few decades with a civil war and more recently the Ebola epidemic. These have had a deleterious effect on agricultural activity in Sierra Leone. The staple food of the country is rice but despite 85% of farmers cultivating rice, the country still has to rely heavily on imported rice which is more expensive and less nutritious than locally grown rice.

Mountain Lion Agriculture (http://mlbr.org/) is a company that is striving to change all that. It is working with small farmers helping them to not only improve yields but to improve the quality of the rice they produce. By helping to provide good quality seed and access to workshops and agricultural machinery they are enabling the farmers to grow and harvest better crops. They then provide the milling facilities and distribution systems needed to be able to sell the rice through local retailers.

As part of the Mountain Lion Agriculture set up, they have an experimental farm where they can try out and prove new rice varieties, growing techniques and equipment so that the farmers know that they are getting something that works. We have just sent a Flexigester V10 to Sierra Leone for them to evaluate at the farm. It will be connected to a latrine block and the output will be used either directly as biofertiliser on the fields or applied to rice plant vegetation in composting bags to produce a solid compost to return nutrients to the soil. We look forward to hear how this exciting new venture is progressing in the coming months.

You can find out more about Mountain Lion Agriculture at mlbr.org or check out their new advert for Sierra Leone Television at http://mlbr.org/go-and-tell-the-people/.

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We all have times when we wonder if something is ever going to happen whether it’s finding that perfect house or waiting for the birth of a child. For us at SOWTech that “something” was the news that a Flexigester had safely arrived at its destination in Ethiopia. Finally on 31 October we had the email with the good news that we had all been waiting, The Flexigester had arrived.

To explain why we were so happy when that e-mail arrived I need to take you back nearly 2 years to January 2015; that was when we first met the ladies of FECIN – Friends of Ethiopian Children in Need (http://fecin.woodsfords.uk/index.html). FECIN raises funds for an orphanage called Elsahdai Wukro Children's Village in Tigrai, Northern Ethiopia, which cares for 160 children and young adults. The orphanage also has a farm which grows cereal crops, vegetables and fruit as well as having a herd of milking cows, sheep, chicken and beehives all of which help to feed the children. The supporters of FECIN had heard about the Flexigester and we met with the Trustees in January 2015 to discuss the possibility of installing one on the farm. The Flexigester would take the manure from the dairy herd and produce biogas for use in the kitchens and a fertiliser for use on the land.

The Farm Manager in Elshadai Wukro, Alem Woldemariam, was very enthusiastic. His response to the suggestion was “We really are excited and grateful that the prospects for the planned digester look optimistic, and that things are going in the right direction.” Things moved relativity quickly after that with emails flying between the UK and Ethiopia sorting out the size of the Flexigester required based on the number of cows they had and how much manure a cow produces a day – yes such information does exist. Then in April 2015 everything was finalised and the order was placed and the Flexigester made.

It was then that the wheels of international exporting and importing almost ground to a halt. One of the biggest barriers to importing into African countries is the customs duty that needs to be paid. This is an unknown quantity and can be a high percentage of the value of the goods. However, Ethiopia has a Letter of Donation scheme which means that if an overseas charity is donating something to an Ethiopian charity it is exempt of customs duty. Ideal we thought, and FECIN and Elshadai Wukro started going through the process. This is what has taken most of the time. The Letter had to be authenticated in the UK and in Ethiopia by government departments and we weren’t at the top of the priority list! It took 12 months until May 2016 until everything was signed and sealed and we could begin the shipping process. In the time since the Flexigester had been originally built, we had made some improvements to the design. So Butyl Products made the modifications and in July 2016 the Flexigester left the factory for Djibouti by sea which is a long slow journey. From there it had to be transported over land to Elshadai Wukro in Northern Ethiopia.

So you can appreciate why we were so pleased to hear that the Flexigester had finally arrived at Elshadai Wukro. Even when we had tried to smooth the path of delivery to African countries it can still take many months from order to arrival at the final destination. We are therefore looking at different ways that we can do business in Africa.

The next step in Ethiopia will be the installation of the Flexigester at the farm and we hope to bring you news of that soon.

16 November 2016

Ethiopian Saga

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19 November 2016

World Toilet Day 2016

Happy World Toilet Day

Not something that you get wished every day but in 2013 the United Nations General Assembly designated 19 November as World Toilet Day.  

So are you happy with your toilet? May be you would like it to have a different seat or would like to have another one en suite or downstairs to be more convenient for you but at least you have a toilet in your home. That’s not the case for 2.4 billion people worldwide. Just think how you would cope if your only toilet building was down the road in a dark, smelly communal shack and the toilet itself was just a hole in the ground. Not only is that all some people have got, its more than one in 10 people have. In many areas of the world the only place to go to the toilet is the nearest field or open ground.

But there are things being done. The theme of this years World Toilet Day campaign is “Toilets and jobs”. Lack of sanitation is estimated to cost many countries up to 5% of GDP due to loss of productivity due to sanitary related illnesses. The resources on the World Toilet Day website give much more information about this topic. Alternatively have a look at some of the toilets supported by the Gates Foundation “Reinvent the Toilet” Challenge. Butyl Products Ltd have also designed a toilet for emergency aid that can be connected directly to a Flexigester or be raised with a Flexigester Sewage Isolation Bag (SIB) to collect the sewage.

Toilets and jobs is one of the areas that we at SOWTech are involved with, although we take it one step further. We are looking to create jobs with our sanitation systems but our main priority is dealing with the waste that goes into the toilet. There are a lot of initiatives and competitions to design the “ideal” toilet but very few of them address the issue of what to do with the waste once it has been collected. That is where we come in with the Flexigester. This gives the ability to collect and treat the waste within the community that it was produced, with a business set up employing people to look after the Flexigester, to collect and sell the biogas produced to the local community and to distribute and sell the biofertiliser produced. Surely a win-win situation.

22 December 2016

2016 has been a mixture of excitement and frustration for us at SOWTech.

We have met lots of new people who have both inspired and challenged us; from the i-teams students at Cambridge University looking at new ways to store biogas and growing algae as a nutrient supplement to the trustees of small charities making a positive difference to the communities they support.

We now have closer collaboration with some of the students who have now graduated from Cambridge University especially Steph Willis, Ravi Solanki and Archy de Berker. Their drive and enthusiasm has had such a positive influence during the year.

We have also had the privilege of working with and getting to know better some of the Tanzanian supporters of the Dar es Salaam project. Hearing their stories and the hardships that they face makes us realise how privileged we are in the west and how much difference we could make to peoples lives in Africa.

John was able to travel to Dar es Salaam thanks to Cambridge Development Initiative. He was able to meet to people on the ground and to give them practical help and advice to help solve some of the problems that had been encountered with the SimplSafi-Flexigester system.

We have been able to send out more Flexigesters this year but the length of time it takes to for them to be shipped and to clear customs continues to frustrate us. However, as usual, we have ideas about this and hopefully we will have more news about this next year.

As well as practical work we have also had excitements in a more academic world. At the beginning of the year we had one of our technical papers published in the Tropical Agriculture Association journal. More recently John represented Butyl Products Ltd when he spoke at the International Society of Neglected Tropical Diseases annual Water Conference on community based sanitation.

2016 has been a year when we have started to look at new ways of doing things, new products and new ways to raise money to be able to help more people. At the moment we have done the preparatory ground work and we are hoping that some of these ideas will take off in 2017.

Reflections on 2016

John Mullett outside BRAC offices in TanzaniaTanzanian students working on the Simpli Safi Flexigester project

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