Karuma is burgeoning town in northern Uganda, situated right on the Nile. It borders a vast game reserve, and it also happens to be the location of an enormous hydroelectric dam that's being constructed. Industry is picking up and people are flooding in for work, but despite its proximity to the Nile, water scarcity remains a tremendous problem.

We plan to base our operations out of Karuma for the foreseeable future as we ramp up a sustainable water service. 

the toll for collecting water

There is virtually no infrastructure in place to provide water to most Ugandans. Water is generally only obtained by walking or bicycling several miles to the nearest source. Most families aren’t lucky enough to have a bicycle like the boy in the picture below.

The average family needs a minimum of five jerry cans of water each day, our Karuma elder Jabasco tells us. Most days his own family needs ten or more. One jerry can holds 20 liters (5 gallons) of water, weighing in at 44 pounds. On average, a water source is one or two miles from home. So for the daily minimum of 5 jerry cans of water, women and children must carry 200 pounds of water weight over a mile every single day. Additionally, Karuma residents tell us they have to be at their local water source as early as four in the morning to cut their queue time. Collecting daily water can take up to six hours, our surveys have found, and most boreholes—the common water source—charge a fee as well, primarily for maintenance and often for profit.

The Backstory

We first visited Uganda in the Spring of 2014. On one of our excursions out from the capital, we visited a remote village called Buwanda, with plans to make cursory medical assessments of about fifty children. Half of the children complained of headaches, and we found that they were dehydrated. They also suffered from a wide variety of skin conditions, mainly arising from how infrequently they bathed. After learning how far they had to travel to fetch water, we shifted our focus from medicine to water. What good is medicine if people's most basic needs aren't met, we thought.

Matt returned for a week in 2015 to drill a well for that same community, and we are glad to say that the entire area has now changed due to having a water source. A school, medical clinic and church have all been built around this new water source.

In 2017, the whole Brown family went for a longer six-week stay in the north, where we built a large, 30,000 liter ferrocement water tank for the village elder we mentioned earlier, Jabasco. We put up gutters on his roof to divert rainwater into the tank, and it was up and running before we left. This served as a proof-of-concept experience for us, and the result was a huge boon for his family, reducing the strain on them to collect water.

If you're wondering what a ferrocement water tank is, here's a diagram.

Ferrocement water tank

Ferrocement water tank

Ferrocement is simply cement packed into chicken wire, which is molded to give the shape of the structure and then reinforced with rebar. When treated appropriately, it sets up and becomes waterproof. This method of construction has been used around the world since the 1800s to make everything from houses to boats. It's the cheapest, sturdiest water tank construction method available. At the end of our construction, the cost to build one of these came out to be one-third the cost of purchasing a prefabricated plastic tank, and our tank is far stronger and much more durable. If we wanted, we could make a big business out of selling these. But that wouldn't fulfill our vision of reaching the majority of people.

The problem is that even with reducing the price of a rainwater collection system by a third, most Ugandan families still can't afford the up front cost to have one at their home. Unemployment is a staggering 85%, and when someone does actually get work, one day's wages is usually less than $3. Even a scaled-down ferrocement tank for a family would cost several hundred dollars, placing it out of reach.

So though our rainwater harvesting system was successful, and relatively much cheaper than the alternatives, we still hadn’t solved this problem: How do you provide for the daily water needs of a family that makes $50 in a good month? And how do you do it sustainably, in a way that empowers people by being locally owned and operated?

Water delivery

We believe that for a single 100 shilling coin, we could deliver two jerry cans of water (forty liters) to a family's doorstep. 100 shillings is worth about 2.5 US pennies. It's the smallest denomination of currency in Uganda.

If the average family purchases five jerry cans of water every day, that would cost them $3.75 a month. $3.75 a month for 3,000 liters of water, delivered to a family's home. Let that sink in.

This sort of service would eliminate hours of time, huge amounts of energy expenditure, and it would even save families money over paying for water at boreholes, where often a single jerry can costs 100 shillings. And that's without delivery.

We did some investigation while we were there and found that there is some water delivery going on at a micro scale, it's just too expensive for most families. We spoke with one man who goes to a borehole on his bicycle, pays 100 shillings to the borehole owner to fill up, then delivers that jerry can to a business or family on his bicycle, charging them 500 shillings for a net profit of 400.

(This was in the capital city, Kampala.)

(This was in the capital city, Kampala.)

The delivery man makes a profit, cramming as many jerry cans as possible onto his bike, but most people can't afford to pay that much for water. Besides, it takes him so long to move his bicycle, loaded down with hundreds of pounds of water, that he himself couldn't afford to lower his prices even if he wanted to. 

You see, with this type of service, the key to success is high volume and low cost. If the delivery man could deliver his water ten times faster, then it follows that he could lower his prices to 1/10th their current rate, and still maintain the same profits.

But there's another hidden bonus to faster deliver besides just allowing us to reduce our prices: Our client population also explodes. Because not only is delivered water now affordable at 50 shillings instead of 500 shillings, it's actually the cheapest way to get water out there, cheaper than going to fetch water yourself, where you wait in line for hours and pay 100 shillings per jerry can. Oh, and let's not forget, this is water, not take-out. Every human being needs water, every single day. It's a no-brainer. Suddenly your client base becomes virtually everyone

"Every human being needs water, every single day."

Just to make sure that this idea sounded good to Ugandans, we conducted surveys of over one hundred families in the community, essentially putting the question to them:

"Would you sign up to pay 100 shillings to have 2 jerry cans of water delivered to your house?"

We got laughter and disbelief, but when they realized we were serious, the answer from every single respondent was, "Yes. Please start this service soon.”

The nuts and bolts

With a fleet of 2- and 3-wheeled Indian motorcycles, we know drivers will be able to quickly navigate potholed roads to deliver water speedily to homes and businesses. Trucks are too expensive, slow, gas-guzzling, and prone to getting stuck on the unpaved roads that cover most of the country.

We plan to create route maps for efficient deliveries.

We will use our own jerry cans, colored blue to distinguish them from the ubiquitous yellow jerries that are everywhere. Clients will pay a small deposit on each jerry can, in case they lose or damage them. Swapping out our own jerry cans allows for faster drop-off, and it's built-in advertisement—no one else in Uganda has blue jerry cans. Seriously, every single one is yellow.

Our clients will be able to order water, and pay for it, through their cell phones, without even having to leave their homes. Virtually every Ugandan has a cheap cell phone with money loaded onto it, through a nationwide service called Mobile Money. They can pay for services through your phone is well established in much of Africa as a common practice. If they prefer, they can come to a small storefront we will have set up at our site, and they can deposit cash into their account to pay in advance for their delivered water.

Without having to handle money transactions, drivers wouldn't be interrupted on their routes and would only have to drop-and-go at each address, much like mail delivery in the US.

We've factored the gas mileage of the motorcycles we’ll use, their carrying capacity, the cost of gas, salaries, motorcycle purchasing, routine maintenance costs, borehole drilling, water tank construction, water pump costs, land acquisition, jerry can purchasing, and much, much more, and the price tag for setting up one water delivery service is $50,000.

The anticipated payback time is just one year.

letting it sink in

It's difficult to comprehend, to express, to truly empathize with the enormous struggles that so many people endure in Uganda and much of Africa, especially if you've never been there or seen it. Even if you've seen it, actually. Because I (Matt) guarantee you've never experienced it like they have. I know I haven't. While my family and I lived there, I moved one full jerry can about ten feet and that put a great strain on me. One or two miles every day? I can't relate with that. And that's sad. Sad that something unfathomably difficult to me is an unavoidable reality for millions of people who are no different than me.

I recommend you read this short article at NPR detailing one environmental health specialist's study and findings. It well illuminates the struggle that millions in Africa undergo daily.

We are laying the foundation for our first water delivery service in Karuma now. Stay updated through our blog, or, for more in-depth updates, sign-up to receive our newsletter.