Tuesday, April 8, 2014

School-Aged, World-Minded

Before you read any further in this post, I want you to think about something. Think back to when you were 9 years old. What were you doing? What did you care about? What got you excited?

Thought about it? Let me tell you mine: I was playing soccer most of the days, I was interested in the girls across the classroom from me, I wanted nothing more than to be like Ken Griffey Jr. and my favorite part of the day was coming home to go outside and play with my friends. All I knew about the rest of the world was what Steve Irwin showed me on TV.

Friday I got a chance to see some fourth graders who are excited about something much more powerful. St. Columban elementary school in Loveland, Ohio is not that different from any other Catholic grade school, except for one thing: they've heard about our project building a solar-powered well in Ethiopia and wanted to help. So what do you do when you're in elementary school? You start a lemonade stand. When I entered the school I was greeted by the announcements over the PA system, most of which was centered on three students from the class doing their own personal version of a commercial for their lemonade stand. I walked into their classroom and immediately was swamped by questions:

"When is the well going to be built?"

"Can you send us pictures when it's done?"

"How do you get the money there?"

"How much more money do we need to get?"

"Can we help more?"

"Did you HEAR our commercial???"

I'd never heard kids so excited about development projects before. The one day lemonade stand? They had to run it over the next month and a half because so many kids wanted to help that they literally didn't have space or time to fit them all in. As if that wasn't enough, there were two sets of friends who decided that as much as they liked what we were doing, they wanted to help even more. So every day when they get home they stand on their street corner for an hour selling lemonade. And all that money? It all goes to PowerUp. The kids were jumping around they were so excited to help out others. One came up to me after and said that he'd been looking forward to working in the lemonade stand all week; more than the school play, more than going to play soccer, more than the start of the baseball season even. They wanted pictures, they wanted stories, they wanted to know what we were doing. These aren't kids doing this because the teacher said so, there wasn't a parent standing over them saying "You should do this", they came up with the idea themselves, they started the plan themselves, they were the ones who decided to help out the children in Ethiopia.

Sam and Drew set up their own stand at their homes
to help build a well for another school in Ethiopia
As the head of fundraising and development at Concordia Humana, when someone hears what I do it usually elicits the same sort of response: "Oh my God, that's so amazing! You're doing so much to save the world, it's really wonderful!" This sort of praise belongs to everyone who is involved in our mission, in any way. What do I do? I organize events, I help to run things, I volunteer whenever I can and I set things up. But in the end, what I do is nothing without the rest of the people who help out PowerUp. You want to talk about people saving the world? Look at the fourth graders at St. Columban, look at the students of St. Xavier High School who raised over $1000 for us as a mission collection, look at YOU. YOU are saving the world, YOU are helping children in Ethiopia go to school, YOU are giving them a chance in the world. Not me. You.

We believe in people like the children in Loveland, who care so much about other people they've never met that they don't even give a second thought to missing an hour of TV; they forget about extra time playing video games; and they choose instead to help others. You want something to look forward to in the future? Look forward to these kids and the fact that they're only getting started.

How do you get inspired?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

What's the big deal about water?

As fundraising and engineering efforts for PowerUp Ethiopia surge onward, I thought I'd take a moment to share some in-depth answers to the two most common questions we get on the PowerUp project and on our general approach to development.

Water doesn't seem that important in the grand scheme of things.  Aren't there more important issues to target?

The ubiquitous roadside sight of people
carrying water and firewood.
One of the first things that strikes you as you drive in rural Ethiopia is the number of women and children walking along the side of the road, invariably carrying one of two things: a 3-gallon water bottle or a bundle of firewood.  Talking to these people, you come to learn that a tremendous amount of time is spent walking to and from places with wood and water - a typical average might be 5-6 hours in a day!  In those six hours, a child could go to school, a woman could start a business, and a family might begin to lift themselves out of poverty. When we give someone clean water nearby, we have effectively given them a tremendous amount of time with which to learn, farm, start a business, and otherwise combat poverty.  We're pumping water, yes, but we're also giving people the most valuable resource of all - time.

Why use solar power in Ethiopia when it isn't cost-effective in the United States?

The single fact that characterizes the role of energy in development more than any other is that the cost of energy has a strong correlation with the income and development level.  In highly-developed countries such as the United States, energy from the electric grid is always on and extremely cheap - as low as 6 cents per kWh.  In places like Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, the situation is somewhat similar - there's access to grid electricity at somewhat reasonable rates.  The power isn't as reliable or cheap as in the developed world, but it's mostly there.

The school we're installing a well at, on the other hand, would be a challenging place to get power in the United States.  It's half a mile from any road, 10 miles of harsh terrain from any grid power, and once you get to the grid, reliability is spotty at best.  Bringing grid electricity to the school is a six-figure USD investment with significant long-term upkeep costs.

Solar equipment, on the other hand, is ideally suited for this type of project, for a few reasons:

From GeoModel Solar: Compare the sun's
brightness in Africa with Europe or the eastern US.

  1. No batteries. Because water can be stored aboveground in tanks, no battery backup to the solar system is needed - when the sun shines, the tank fills, and when the sun doesn't shine, water can still be drawn from the tank.  
  2. No maintenance.  Even in the developed world, power lines need to be repaired from time to time.  In our solar system, no grid power lines means very little maintenance.
  3. The perfect location. Africa receives a higher level of solar irradiance (sun brightness, for the non-geeks) than any other place on Earth. A given size solar panel will produce more energy in Ethiopia than in many other places.
  4. Most importantly, the lowest total cost of ownership. Though the solar equipment has a high upfront cost, there's no kerosene generator fuel to buy and no grid power bills to pay and lines to maintain.  And combining these advantages with the fact that we don't need to use costly batteries and inverters drives the cost even lower.
Concordia Humana cares deeply about efficient and responsible operations - so much so that we made cost efficiency one of our core values.  We chose to pursue solar technology after studying the alternatives and verifying that it has the lowest cost of ownership in this particular application.

If you have any other questions, post them in the comments!  If you couldn't tell, I love talking about these issues and thinking about them from new perspectives.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Our first fundraiser!

Just in time for the holidays, Danny and I (plus Brian, my fiancé) held the first fundraiser for PowerUp Ethiopia at the Whole Foods Market in Mason, Ohio. Our initial push was to gift-wrap in exchange for donations, but it turned out that people were more willing to just learn about the project and drop a few dollars in the jar than to have us wrap up their presents!
Left to right: Danny Sexton, Brian Beams, Claire Liegel.
Photo credit: Whole Foods Market, Mason, Ohio.

Overall, we raised almost $350 over the six hours we spent talking with Whole Foods' generous customers, and we also had a huge spike in website traffic over the next few days.

Still, we have a long way to go before we meet our $15,000 goal, so stay on the lookout for future announcements of PowerUp Ethiopia fundraisers around the city!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Giving and giving back. (Or, how I escaped from jail on my last day in Ethiopia.)

Yeah, I did feed a hyena.
I'm finally back in the United States after a month of getting to know Ethiopia and the people Concordia Humana will be working with to build the well in Harar. I first met the group of University of Cincinnati students in Addis Ababa about ten days ago, and with them from there I explored Addis Ababa, drove twelve hours to Harar, put a wooden stick wrapped in camel meat in my mouth and fed it to a wild hyena, stood in the back of a Toyota pickup truck on a dirt road in a search for the endangered (and equally elusive, even in a nature preserve) African elephant, got a mild bout of food poisoning, was a passenger in a car accident that left me in jail and then hitchhiked back across Ethiopia to make my flight, whereupon I slept in front of the only warm place in the airport (a Burger King, in fact) during a twelve-hour layover in Saudi Arabia, and finally, after a fourteen-hour flight to New York, encountered snow delays that kept me a little while longer from my home in Cincinnati.

I did not have very much time to write a blog post.

First, I'll talk about the adventure of scoping out the well in the village of Harar, and second, I'll talk about the adventure of getting back to the US.

The road out to Qerensa Dereba.
The drive to Harar laid bare the conditions under which millions of rural Ethiopians live, and in a way, why we're doing what we're doing. For hundreds of kilometers, our white van wandered through the crags of a shattered volcanic boulder field with only the hardiest of cacti eking out of the dry cracks of the earth. As the plants struggled, so did the people; giant yellow water tanks were sometimes the villagers' only source of water, and the tanks had to be shipped in from far away. During our dawn-to-dusk drive, we saw exactly one major source of water: a lake located, frankly, in a low-lying area in the middle of nowhere. Other people relied on modern transportation or their own two feet to get the scarce water.

The long walk to the well through chat and sorghum fields.
The well as it is today: deep inside a field, and far
from the main road where everyone lives.
So when we arrived last Thursday at the Qerensa Dereba school, I had a few observations. First, and most importantly, the well that already exists there had approximately the same problem that getting water from a river has: it was far away from the people that used it, so that while it provided clean water that a river does not, it took a long time to get it. And additionally, anyone that wanted water from this well would have to hand-pump it him or herself. Second, I noted the tenacity with which human beings seek an education. In an environment where kids fetch water from a pump and stood looking curiously on at some of the first foreigners they'd ever seen, their parents still built a school with the same mud walls and tin roofs from which they built their homes. There were paintings of the inner workings of the human heart and reproductive systems in the Oromo language on the outside walls of the five buildings which surrounded a small empty courtyard, and the desks were wooden benches on a dirt floor in front of a long-since-new chalkboard.

But, by God, they were going to get the best education they could.

Qerensa Dereba, the school where we're building the well.
Which is really what this is all about. These kids crave to satisfy the basic human impulse of curiosity, and spending inordinate amounts of time fetching water to satisfy another basic human impulse of thirst. It isn't right to have to trade off one for the other.
A classroom in Qerensa Dereba.
So I'm now back here in the United States, having met the players in this endeavor, from the engineers to the local university officials, who will work with Concordia Humana to build a solar-powered well that provides clean and time-saving water. Clean for the health of the body, time-saving for the health of the economy. The fundraising challenge for the drilling and construction begins on Monday, December 23 at Whole Foods in Mason, Ohio, where we'll be wrapping presents, distributing flyers, and taking donations. (But most importantly, taking donations!)


And so now we should get to the second half of this post, which is how I got out of jail and back across the country to make my flight home with a mere five hours to spare. The driver from the tour company that the University of Cincinnati had hired agreed to drive only me back to Addis Ababa in the large van that had taken everyone to Harar. So in a van made for 10 people, it was just me and the driver named Aragawi, who was about the sweetest old man you'd ever meet. We left Harar at the crack of dawn, and I fell asleep in the back of the van.

I woke up two hours later to screeching tires and a body in the middle of the street.

Aragawi, who was also a fairly cautious driver, had struck a man of about 25 while driving through a village. (Since I was asleep, I have no idea whose fault it was.) A crowd quickly gathered around the car, yanked open the sliding door, dumped the guy on the seat, and demanded that we go to the nearest medical clinic. The man was spitting out blood, had a gash on his forehead, and was fading in and out of consciousness. I did my best to dress his wounds with my Johnson & Johnson first aid kit, donning blue rubber gloves, putting gauze and Neosporin on his forehead wound, and wiping the blood off his face. We got him to a clinic, a nurse put a shot of what was presumably morphine into his butt, and he passed out. Aragawi, a usually cheery and quiet man, was on the verge of tears, and I did my best to comfort him.

As we were driving out to go fetch the man's father, the police commander, who looked something like an Ethiopian version of one of the cops in The Godfather, stopped our car and hopped in the front seat. A few minutes later, I was sitting with Aragawi under arrest outside of a communal jail cell made of fenceposts and barbed wire in a town called Kobo. Nobody spoke a word of English, not even a little, and I'd given the police commander 25 of my 40 dollars to help cover "medical expenses." I'm not sure that's what it went toward, but I have no proof otherwise.

Shitaye, the woman who owns the guest house I was staying at in Addis Ababa, was my first phone call. I quickly explained the situation to her - that I'd been sort of blanket-arrested with my driver and that I had a plane to catch in 27 hours in an airport that was a day's drive away. When I passed the phone to the guard, she spoke what little Oromo she knew to tell a man with an AK-47 that if I was held in that barbed wire jail cell, that Ethiopia would never, ever see tourists again. "Think of the consequences of what you're doing," she said. That of course probably isn't quite true, but I owe Shitaye one hell of a favor for inflating my personal importance to the point of being released by a guy with the power to kill me if I'd tried to leave on my own.

So a short bajaj (tuk-tuk, rickshaw, three-wheeled go-kart, call it what you want) ride later, and I was at the bus station in Kobo, which was a shack-booth on the street that sold tea, and also apparently bus tickets. A bus pulled up, I paid extra to sit backwards on the gearbox since there were no extra seats. At this point, I'd slowly migrated my passport and other important documents to my winter coat for security's sake, and was wearing said coat in hot desert weather. But, the bus was here and I was free!

This is where the second bus broke down. The
view in the other direction was approximately
the same.
Except, obviously, the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. Having no idea how to fix a bus with a broken clutch (and also never having even driven a stick-shift anything) I still desperately offered to try to help fix the bus. "No, no," the driver said, "just sit back, relax, and chew chat." Chat, of course, is half-meter sticks covered in leaves that contain a stimulant chemical. Everyone on the bus except the driver, including the guy that spoke good enough English to understand my story and had given me the equivalent of 5 dollars (not at all insignificant) to help get back across the country, was high on chat. They offered me some, but I politely refused, deciding rightfully that this was not the time for a psycho-chemical experiment.

After ninety minutes of waiting around in the waning afternoon sun, my dam of desperation broke and I got out of the clunked bus, stood on the side of the road with my luggage, and waved my arms at passing cars. The first man who stopped was named Mengistu (not to be confused at all with the genocidal dictator of the 1970s and 80s). I explained my situation as quickly and as clearly as I could (I believe I said, "This bus is broken and my first driver is in jail") and without further questions, he told me to get into the car with him and his two friends. I piled my luggage in the back, and we were on our way.

This is the moral of the story. Every morning, I'd wake up and recite an old Jesuit prayer that I'd learned at my Catholic high school. It goes like this:

Lord, teach me to be generous
Teach me to serve you as you deserve
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labor and not to ask for any reward
Save that of knowing that I am doing your will.

It's these values that brought me to Ethiopia in the first place to use my time and talents to effect change in the world that I believe to be good. But Mengistu may literally have saved my life and not only asked for nothing in return, but refused any kind of payment whatsoever when I even tried to buy him the meals that he was buying for me. He owned a construction company and was probably about as rich as a middle class American, but he bent over backwards to turn of the most stressful days of my entire life completely around. That night, we drove 300 kilometers to a city called Adama, and then he picked me up from a hotel early the next morning to drive me the rest of the way to Addis Ababa. I arrived in Addis Ababa in time to have breakfast and a coffee, and then breathed a sigh of relief as I boarded the plane first to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then finally to JFK the next day.

The generosity of Ethiopians, despite how much less they have than Americans on average, is unparalleled, and even on my last day, Mengistu taught me a lesson about the power of giving. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life, and certainly as I work with Claire, Peter, Patrick, and Matt from Concordia Humana as we try to raise the money it takes to complete the well in Harar.

And finally, many thanks to all of you for following me through my journey through Ethiopia - there will be many more updates from our fundraisers here in America, and certainly when I return to Harar to begin the process of building the well we've set out to raise money for. Happy Holidays, and check back here in the coming weeks!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"Never, ever again."

Today, I paid a visit to the Red Terror Martyrs' Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa. It's a small museum of six rooms with a handful of artifacts and blown-up photographs captioned by cut sheets of printer paper, and as such is a humble but powerful homage to those who were illegally executed under the Communist junta (called the Derg) following Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974.

Caption on the statue: "Never, ever again."
The story is this: Haile Selassie faced growing opposition from the Ethiopian people over property rights and other issues. A Communist military junta led by Major Mengistu Haile Mariam rode the wave of dissent and was able to depose the emperor. The Emperor was last publicly seen getting into a car in 1975, and was given a proper funeral after the discovery of his remains in 2000.

In addition to Haile Selassie's death, a printed and stamped document from the Provisional Military Administrative Council of the Derg in a display case at the museum orders the following three things:
1. The detention of 54 of Haile Selassie's advisors.
2. A mass grave to be dug for 54 people.
3. The execution, by firing squad, of the 54 detainees.

In addition to the 54 executed detainees and Haile Selassie, approximately 500,000 political dissidents were murdered in the 13 years following.

Five-hundred thousand.

In Addis Ababa, a city easily walked across in an afternoon, there were no less than 25 secret torture and execution facilities, many of which still stand (unused) today. They look like regular houses and office buildings.

There is a room full of human skulls in the museum.

Mengistu, the man responsible for the room full of human skulls and approximately 500 other mass graves, is still alive today. He resides under the protection of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

To the left is a photograph of some of those killed. Out of respect for their remains, I elected to photograph this, and not the bones themselves.

The country has grown, changed, and healed from the Red Terror since the end of the Ethiopian Civil War that ended Mengistu's leadership in 1991. During the Derg, Revolutionary Square in Addis Ababa was routinely flooded with onlookers of ostentatious military parades.

Today, Revolutionary Square is called Meskal Square, and is flooded not with tanks but with taxis, lined not with military banners but with billboards for soft drinks and airlines, and attended not by fearful government supporters but by runners zigzagging the terraced stands. And at the far end of Meskal Square sits the Red Terror Museum as a reminder of the dark days that cost Ethiopia millions of lives through starvation and execution, as well as seventeen years of stunted economic growth whose effects can still be seen today.

Friday, November 29, 2013

What are we thankful for?

After all the Thanksgiving and Black Friday posts I've been seeing around the internet thrown against a backdrop of the neighborhood I'm staying in in Addis Ababa, I thought it would be interesting to see what a handful of Ethiopians were thankful for.
A woman with two children who participated in the interview.

I selected three individuals from poor and middle class status (homeless and shop owners) while walking through the Piazza district and had a translator ask them what they were thankful for. While some had little to say, others said all they had. Overall, it really left me thinking about all of the things that I have in my life to be thankful for: three meals a day, a roof over my head, family and friends all over the world, the financial ability to return to the United States whenever I want, and a laptop to be able to write this blog post.

The responses are in Amharic first, and the translated (and somewhat difficult to hear, therefore subtitled) responses come next. Watch the facial expressions and body language, then hear their words in English.

Here's what I found.

Each respondent gave explicit permission to be recorded. Though the interview was not predicated on any compensation, each respondent was paid a small amount of money after the interview as a goodwill gesture for their time.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A late post about the future of solar.

On Wednesday, I met with Prof. Shim Admassie from Addis Ababa University, who told me about the different ways his lab was trying to work on the problem of making solar panels easier to produce and cheaper.

But first, I'll tell you why this blog post is getting posted five days after the fact, and how it relates to the project.

On Thursday, I decided to take a bit of a detour from my guest house and its kitchen to try some of the local cuisine. As I was quickly finding out, taxis were costing me USD 5-7 per way, and part of my adventure was to get to where I wanted to go for lunch with a minibus. Minibuses, also called line taxis, also called "blue donkeys," are big, sky blue Toyota vans that are plastered with window decals of Jesus, belch out black smoke, and drive 18-20 people along a set route for between five and twenty-five cents USD per rider. It's the thing to do once you've decided that you've graduated from being totally ferengi (gringo).

So riding the blue donkey down the surprisingly smooth Chinese-subsidized pavement, I came across a restaurant similar in name to the one I wanted, shrugged my shoulders, and decided I'd eat there. Who knows, maybe it'd be a gem, right? I sat down, ordered lamb tibs and a bottle of water, and waited for lunch to come.

When lunch did come, I poured my bottled water into a freshly washed glass that was even still a little wet from the dishwasher. Wet with tap water.

For my carelessness, I spent the next day sleeping off a night of vomiting.

Of course, my family and I had a good laugh about it over Skype the next day, and I decided to just drink from the bottle from here on out. But what about people that drink from a river?

And here we have the problem that Prof. Admassie is trying to solve: develop better solar products to do things like pump clean water out of the ground. At present, the materials to produce a solar panel approximately break even with the money it saves through energy production, and the Ethiopian import tariff for manufactured goods (i.e., a solar panel) of 240% makes solar rather cost-ineffective. (Concordia Humana is working to reduce costs by having our panels manufactured in-country, and we've also learned that outages in the electric grid, to which solar panels are not tied, can damage a water pump. For our purposes, solar is the best option.)

Prof. Admassie at left, two graduate students
in laboratories at Addis Ababa University.
A few of the problems Prof. Admassie's department is trying to tackle include the ability to print solar cells using organic ink from a desktop-sized printing unit as well as reducing the cost of organic-material solar cells so that they can be more widely and cheaply produced than the present-day inorganic cells.

For PowerUp Ethiopia, this all comes back to how we can be even better in the future. We're building inorganic solar panels now because the need is there now and Prof. Admassie's technology is 5-10 years off. But what about the future? How can we use better, cheaper materials to deliver a more cost-effective product? The answer may very well be in his labs.

And for both Concordia Humana's work and Prof. Admassie's work, the best is yet to come.