Sustainable water pump helps Kenyan women with HIV, AIDS


Photo courtesy of Brian Lilly

HIV+ women from the Living Positive Kenya organization tend to their farms with water they have gathered by hand from a local well before the Majipump was put into use.

By Kelsie Travers, Staff writer

In 2013, Brian Lilly found himself in Ngong Hills, Kenya, on what he thought would just be a volunteer trip with his son. Instead, he found a community in need and a practical application for the project he was designing.

Lilly is an adjunct associate professor at the Technology Entrepreneur Center on campus, the president SmartSolutions, Inc. and  vice president of Ergo-Tech, Inc. Earlier in 2013, he received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to build a water irrigation pump that could be used by smallholder farmers in Africa.

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Seventy-five percent of the world’s poorest people live off of small farms that grow a variety of crops, but poor soil and irrigation combined with drought often makes it difficult to succeed. The goal of the grant was to create a water pump made of automobile parts that would help these farms and could be fixed using local skills and materials.

When Lilly’s son Dan asked him to travel to Kenya, it was an opportunity to volunteer with Living Positive Kenya, an organization that helps women, children and families who struggle with HIV AIDS by offering counseling, health education, economic empowerment and community support.

Living Positive Kenya was started by Mary Wanderi in 2006, after she saw children being taken from their mothers and placed in orphanages when the mothers could not support them financially because of HIV AIDS. Wanderi wanted to create an organization that could help these mothers support their families financially, as well as offer the emotional support that many of them desperately needed.

Lilly didn’t realize the connection between Living Positive Kenya and the irrigation pump project at first — besides both projects having roots in Africa — but he asked the volunteer coordinator if he knew of some sites in need of these types of pumps anyway.

“I had an idea for a pump with no application in mind – I didn’t know where I was going to put it. I got there, and I found this compelling application of women fetching water that were HIV positive spending 6 hours a day watering these greenhouses and I went, ‘wow, there’s my application. This is the problem I need to solve,’” Lilly said.

Once Lilly started working on the project, he realized that the auto-parts suggested by the Gates Foundation might not be the most appropriate for the situation.

“Turns out, I was able to design pumps like that, but they weren’t great for this application. They didn’t have enough lift,” Lilly said.

He explained that a water pump needs to have both a certain water flow rate and a certain lift. Although the automobile pump could make water flow, it didn’t have enough lift to get into the tank.

He ended up developing his pump, called the Majipump, from scratch, and once the grant from the Gates Foundation ended, he started supporting the project on his own through his businesses.

Lilly focused on creating a non-battery powered pump that was low-powered enough to run on solar energy. Previously, he said, the pumps available required 1,000-2,000 watts of panels. The Majipump runs on only 60 watts. The improper disposal of batteries really bothers Lilly, which made finding a sustainable source of energy enticing to him.

“The way we store energy is by pumping it to a tank. When the sun shines, we pump water into the tank. Now we have it stored above ground and it is gravity fed into the greenhouse. Our battery is a storage tank,” Lilly said.

Besides the sustainability benefits of the Majipump, Lilly was pleased to have the Living Positive Kenya community benefit from the pump.

Before the introduction of the pump, farming was very difficult. It would often take six hours of hard labor each day and take time away from other income-generating activities. Wanderi said that previously, the women used watering cans to pull water out from the well and watered all of the crops by hand.

“The process was time consuming and very tiresome for the women, (especially) considering our group consists of women with illness,” Wanderi said.

She said that the Majipump has already solved many problems, and they are very grateful for Lilly’s work. Although the pumps should not need maintenance anytime soon thanks to their simplicity, the community knows how to use and fix them.

“Brian and the team (have) done a lot of training on the use of the pumps and they are so easy to use and fix. We like using them a lot and it has been a lot of fun to learn and interact with Brian and the team any time they come to teach us,” Wanderi said.

Finding efficient methods of farming is beneficial to Living Positive Kenya because they hope farming can be a main source of income for the women. It can also help them on the path to skill development and gaining the necessary knowledge to start their own business.

“The pump will provide economic empowerment to the needy women and their families through farming skills, employment opportunities and business ventures and entrepreneurship,” Wanderi said.

She is also happy that the women of Living Positive Kenya can assist by making the bags that the solar panels are transported in. Wanderi explained that the women really like doing this and it helps them by providing another source of income.

Lilly’s innovations are expanding further than just the Majipump. “When you get into a space and develop something, it always leads to more and more ideas and more and more innovation,” he said.

He has also designed a biofilter for fish tanks that clears ammonia from the water and reintroduces oxygen to ensure survival of the fish. Wanderi’s greenhouse – where she previously grew onions – is now housing tilapia tanks using the filter.

“We want to explore how we can grow fish faster for the market than we are already doing,” Wanderi said. The introduction of more oxygen from the biofilter and water purification using the Majipump may aid in the endeavor.  

Lilly is hoping to help Wanderi’s farm become more profitable so he is able to see her thrive, along with the other women of Living Positive Kenya.

These innovations – notably the Majipump that is now being distributed – will change small-scale farming in Africa. It will diversify crops, reduce labor intensity and ideally create more product for the communities.

“The families and the children he has supported through this project appreciate him so much and wish him a very long life. Personally, I have witnessed how much hard work he puts into this project and pray that it translates into the desires of his heart, which are very noble,” Wanderi said.

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