Experteering Highlight: A Day in the Life of an EpExpert Member Volunteering in the Philippines

Mark Horoszowski

Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of

This month, we had the opportunity to hear from Brian Finnerty, a participant in our empowering people. Network epExpert program — an exciting initiative in partnership with Siemens Stiftung that covers the cost of our Experteering professionals with very specific skill sets supporting EPN’s grantees around the world. Brian is currently in the field supporting  AIDFI, a social enterprise developing solutions for indigenous communities in the Philippines. Brian is a web developer from Ireland, currently in the middle of his 6-month project to AIDFI implement a web-based system to collect data from the field from a variety of field workers and sources, and make that data available to the central team, partners, and funders. This data can also be used to help build local support.

To give you a taste of what it’s like to go Experteering, Brian sent us a summary of some of this work. You can see the original post on the empowering people. Network blog.

(And if you want to see open projects with the EpExpert program, learn more and apply here)

We were coming across the mountains that divide Negros Island when Buddha, our driver, decided to pull in. There wasn’t any problem that was apparent to me, but when everyone else started layering up with jumpers and scarves, I copped it. After three weeks of being covered in a clammy, perma-sweat and mosquito bites, I allowed myself a little smug smile. Finally, I was the comfortable one. In fairness it was still 20 degrees out, which for an Irishman in January, is positively balmy. My weather app said four degrees in Dublin.

Anyway, my comfort was short-lived as, about a mile later, the road disappeared from under us. And just us – the other side was the same concrete slab that we’d been on, our side was puddles, mud and rocks. Now I’ve every confidence in Buddha’s driving, but it’s the rest of the road users I’m not too hot on. Sometimes a full sized road doesn’t leave enough room for a motorbike to overtake a truck overtaking a bus.

I think that’s what struck me first about coming to the Philippines, is the extreme levels of poverty that exist, and are everywhere. In Ireland, if there is a hole in a road, there is uproar – people ringing in to the radio to complain, calling in to their local elected official’s office, using disgruntled emojis on twitter. Over here it’s just another standard half road.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they are outraged. But all along the roadside there are one room houses with grass roofs, rotten plywood walls and bare earth for the floor. Barefoot children and chickens run in and the dogs stretch out and scratch themselves on the good side of the road which the sun has warmed up. So as I look down from the cab and my narrow, middle class perspective, I assume they have other things to worry about before the state of the road.

We arrived in Manquiling at around 9am and are called in to the Barangay Hall. A barangay is an area, usually representing a village or a district in a bigger town with elected officials who are responsible for the administration of the amenities in the area. The team from AIDFI, including Lydia, the project manager, Leah, the community development facilitator, Rameses, a trainer, and an installation team led by Roy, are here to repair a pump that was damaged during a recent typhoon. As a web developer, I can’t really contribute to the bricks and mortar operations going on, but I’m greeted like a dignitary regardless. I’m introduced around to all the top brass and ushered in to a table of food and seated beside the highest-ranking official present. Which also seems to be a standard thing around here. Being a guest seems to be a great privilege at social gatherings both official and private family gatherings. Which also doesn’t really sit comfortably with me. Irish people tend not to want to make a fuss and I’m a little socially awkward even in the most normal of situations. I’d much rather be in a dark corner with a quiet beer than seated at the head of the table next to the Barangay chairman.

But I’ve found the best way to fit in is to lash into the food and compliment everything. Most people speak some English here so you can attempt some conversation. And if that doesn’t work just blabber away in English while your poor counterpart just smiles and nods. There is a great chance they won’t understand a word of it but at least they come away thinking you’re friendly, and they’ve a funny story to tell at a party.

If this gathering seems a bit like an official gathering, it’s because it is. Getting an AIDFI ram-pump for your community isn’t like ordering flat-pack furniture for your house. In order to qualify for one, the community has to buy into the AIDFI system, which basically turns ownership and control of the pump over to them. Firstly, they have to raise one-third of the not-insignificant cost of the project, the other two-thirds being covered by AIDFI and their funders. This means the community are immediately invested in the success of the project.

After that they must set up an official association to take care of the running and maintenance of the pump. Anyone that uses the water from the AIDFI tap stands as normal must become a member and pay a monthly fee for the privilege. This fee goes into a fund that pays for the administration of the association, any maintenance costs of the system and the pump technician. The technician is a member of the community who is trained by the technical team in how the system works, and takes responsibility for monitoring and maintaining it.

The training extends to the association as well. Setting up an official body to collect funds, budget those funds and maintain a utility is not just something you can do and drop either. They receive training in bookkeeping, leadership and management skills. So all in all, in addition to clean drinking water, AIDFI bring enterprise level training, local jobs and empowerment. The idea being that beyond the initial installation, they act solely in an advisory role.

The reason for the big team involvement on this occasion is that the pump has been destroyed beyond repair. It needs to be replaced, which involves new parts and additional labour, which of course incurs a cost that must be approved by an official meeting of the association.

While waiting for this meeting we went to go have a look at the pump. We travel in convoy, led by the vice-chairman of the barangay and three women from the association in their flips-flops, including the guys from the technical team in their bare feet, and one web developer in his hiking boots, sweating buckets and taking pictures of the trees. We walked down the main street of the Barangay, and then turned left, into what looked like someone’s garden. Then down a steep path, across a bridge, up a hill, left through a field of crops, down another path… Well, you get the picture. The pumps themselves are installed at a location convenient to the source. Not necessarily right at it but close, and at a lower altitude, so that gravity can provide the pump with a steady flow. The pumps then use that gravity and science to deliver the water to communal faucets and a reservoir at a location that is actually convenient to the broader community, in this case, about two kilometres away and 80 metres higher.

Almost everyone I’d talked to in the previous days about this trip mentioned the “hanging bridge” to me. Said in sort of a mischievous way with a smile. Almost like a threat. Which I’d laughed off; I’ve been across numerous rope bridges before, this couldn’t be much different. But it was. It was lengthwise strips of bamboo on supports that were broken off tree branches, of variable strengths, tied with bits of rope. Half way across, when it started to sway a little bit more than gently and the hand ropes were at about knee-height, I started to think about the roads again. Who was in charge of them and was that person also in charge of bridges? But half way is not the place to be doubting oneself. Calm breaths, one foot in front of the other and the good will of the river spirits got me across in one piece. The Filipinos didn’t show any outward signs of being impressed, but I could tell they were.

A little further on, we came to a small community of maybe half a dozen of the same style of houses we saw along the roads. While the vice-chairman talked to the technician about the pumps, the rest of the generations popped their heads out for a look. A daughter with a new-born in the upstairs window, a grandparent with a walking stick in the front door.

Another thing that has struck me about the people here is their ingenuity. Only about 30% of the water that gets delivered to the pump gets pumped on into the system. The rest runs off somewhere – in this case, into a purpose built pond where the locals were farming their own fish. They also ran water from the pond down through the land to irrigate rice terraces, before flowing back into the river further downstream. What was only designed to bring drinking water also indirectly brought fishing and rice as additional food sources.

After a short while we had seen enough and we started back. The real work would begin the following day, beginning with somehow getting the heavy metal pumps across the hanging bridge, and continue for maybe a couple of weeks. For me it would be back to the office – to strong phone signal, concrete floors and ample, if sometime precarious public transport. But it was nice to get out in the field and see the real work being done.

We’ll share more updates from Brian and the EpExprt program in the months ahead. And if you want to see if your skills qualify you for the program, look at our latest projects and apply!