“Technology can overcome any obstacle when it is used to serve people and not profits.” -Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
The term ‘technological innovation’ probably makes you think about exciting emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence or Augmented Reality, but new technologies aren’t the only route to innovation. In fact, existing technologies, when applied in new ways, have the potential to solve some of our most pressing global challenges.
One such challenge is ensuring universal access to safe and clean water. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 people globally don’t have access to safe drinking water. Organizations like Siemens Stiftung are working to change that by asking: how can we apply the technologies we already have to close this gap and make the world a more equitable place?
Through its international empowering people. Network (epN), Siemens Stiftung brings innovators and social entrepreneurs together to encourage technical and entrepreneurial approaches to be combined for social impact. Many grassroots technological solutions don’t reach their full potential due to knowledge and workforce gaps, which is where technical experts like Stephen come in.
A Civil Engineer based in London, Stephen made the decision to step away from his full-time role to contribute to finding a solution for Philippine’s water crisis as an epExpert. Continue reading to hear directly from Stephen about his experience leveraging technology for social good!
A Water Problem
About midway through writing this article in my flat in London, I get thirsty. So, I get up, head to the kitchen, turn the tap and have access to instant, fresh water on demand. It is extremely easy to take this for granted, particularly when you’ve never known anything different in your entire life.
Life isn’t like this in many places in the Philippines. In fact, it’s a stark contrast to life in a London flat. If you live in the Philippine capital, Manila, you will have access to water that is clean enough for activities like bathing, but it isn’t safe to drink. If you live in one of the thousands of communities far from any roads, let alone from any town or city, you won’t even have that.
Many people living in the most rural parts of the Philippines struggle to have enough water to bathe, and often have to trek for miles through dense jungle just for fresh water. In fact, Water.org estimates that nearly 7 million Filipinos rely on unimproved, unsafe and unsustainable water sources and more than 24 million lack access to improved sanitation. Those ‘lucky’ enough to be able to buy water by the bottle often have to do so at hiked up rates due to how scarce the resource is.
A Social Enterprise called AIDFI
There are social enterprises that operate in the Philippines which seek to address the lack of water in remote communities. In collaboration with Siemens Stiftung empowering people.Network, I was able to become involved with one such social enterprise, the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation Incorporated (AIDFI).
Based out of Bacolod City and in operation since 1992, AIDFI is a social enterprise that tackles the problem of rural poverty by designing, fabricating, and promoting environment-friendly technology which is accessible and affordable for those experiencing poverty. So far, AIDFI has helped over 265,000 beneficiaries in around 530 villages around the Philippines access clean water using hydraulic pumps. AIDFI handles every step of the project, from conducting an in-depth Technical Study to Community Development, Manufacture, Installation and eventual Handover.
Its flagship product, called the AIDFI Ram Pump, continuously pumps water into a reservoir located in the heart of the community and requires no electricity whatsoever. While testing the design, the pumps were being built in workshops based on learned experience. Over the years the team has proven their efficacy in rural communities, which has attracted an increasing amount of interest from potential corporate partners who want to help the solution scale. To make that possible, the team needed support developing the professional technical drawings necessary to make the manufacturing process consistent and repeatable on a larger scale.
The Experteering Mission
Having moved to England from the Philippines when I was just ten years old, it has always been a dream of mine to eventually return and help my fellow countrymen in any way I could. In late 2018, that opportunity materialized: a friend shared that AIDFI were looking for an AutoCAD expert through MovingWorlds to work on solutions to the Philippines water crisis, with Siemens Stiftung as a sponsor.
I was immediately interested, but there was a caveat. The project duration was six months, which meant I would have to resign from my role as a Civil Engineer in London. After some deliberation and an interview with AIDFI, I decided to take the leap of faith and accept the offer.
I had multiple objectives that I was expected to complete during my time there. The first and most important was to teach 2D and 3D drafting techniques to AIDFI’s local team, most of whom were grassroots staff with little to no prior experience with computer use. The second objective was the development of a Ram Pump manufacturing manual, which would be used to teach new staff joining the AIDFI as it grew. The final objective was utilising my drone expertise to carry out aerial surveys of many of the sites. With such difficult and varied objectives, to say I was feeling a little apprehensive would be an understatement.
Teaching in the Philippines
I arrived in Bacolod City in March 2019, and was greeted with a warm welcome from all the staff I would be working with for the next six months. My home would be a modest room within the workshop compound, which allowed me to spend time with the 15 or so staff who would be involved in learning AutoCAD (the drafting software). “We’re all really excited to learn how to draw on the computer. But we’re worried because most of us haven’t even turned on a computer before,” explained Tonton, one of the manufacturers in the workshop. This was indeed a worry, but I explained that I would be patient and methodical in my teaching. Fortunately, I could communicate in Tagalog, the mother tongue of the Philippines.
I taught two two-hour lessons per week, and juggled site visits in between, which kept me extremely busy. However, my absolute priority was ensuring a lesson was always ready on time for my students. The first few lessons were challenging, but I made sure no student was left behind. AutoCAD is very technical, so I was determined to make sure everyone could prove they understood the previous topics with practical exercises before we moved to the next topic.
Starting off with simple lines, then moving on to drawing shapes, I was taken aback as to how quickly the staff were grasping AutoCAD. There was an evident hunger for learning more, with some of the students even staying behind after work hours just to practice. As a teacher, this was extremely gratifying to see.
My experience in the classroom proved to be very different from experiencing what life was truly like in the remote communities around the Philippines. After identifying the value added by using my drone for aerial surveys, I was lucky enough to be able to visit numerous other villages where AIDFI was working to provide access to clean water.
I will always remember the village of Upper Atok, located far within the mountains in the northern part of the Philippines. We drove for 3 hours, and when we got as near as we could by car, we trekked for 2 hours through dense jungle, through rivers, and navigated thick swampland before finally reaching the village. I realised just how isolated these communities are, and how difficult it is for water to reach them. AIDFI had already installed the new pump, and the purpose of our visit was to turnover the controls to the pumps that would bring fresh water directly to their village.
We were welcomed warmly by everyone in the village and the surrounding area. They had put on a massive celebration involving traditional dance, food, music, and talks from AIDFI, the project sponsors, and the community leaders. One such leader explained that he had lived in the village all his life, as had his parents and their parents before them. They used to have to trek for an hour just to reach water, and then trek for another hour back with huge plastic jugs of water on their backs. During the dry season, he said he would have to choose between bathing and drinking, and often had to sacrifice his own water for those who needed it more. This was just how life was. And then, tearfully, he explained how with water now pumped into their village, they would never have to struggle like that ever again.
The Impact of Experteering
It was experiences like these throughout my experteering project that made me realise just how important the work of NGOs such as AIDFI is. Without them, communities like Upper Atok would continue to struggle with a basic necessity that we so easily take for granted. It made every AutoCAD lesson that I taught that much more meaningful, as I knew that the staff could now use that knowledge to create professional drawings and designs even faster. Ultimately, this would improve the speed and efficiency with which AIDFI could help communities like Upper Atok, and knowing that I had a direct impact on that was tremendously fulfilling.
The students were very fast in absorbing the AutoCAD knowledge I shared with them, and towards the end of our lessons were able to draw various ram pump components completely independently. Seeing them use AutoCAD in their day-to-day work filled me with immense pride for my students. Having come from barely even turning on a computer to now being able to create professional-looking drawings is an incredible achievement for which they should all be proud.
Many people ask whether resigning from my job for six months was worth the sacrifice and my answer is a resounding yes. I saw first-hand how truly integral the help provided by NGO’s like AIDFI is to remote communities with little or no access to fresh water. I got to experience the independence it gives them, and truly understand just how life-changing access to clean running water can be.
Above all, I learned how far technical expertise can go in helping an NGO in a developing country. This has knock-on effects that improve the organizations internal capacity, which in turn expands their reach to include even more beneficiaries. I’m sure there are many talented individuals reading this blog, whose skill sets would make a tremendous difference for NGOs and other impact organisations around the world. I therefore urge anyone even remotely interested in helping to look into it. There are many platforms such as MovingWorlds, Engineers Without Borders, Doctors Without Borders and hundreds more that can help with this sort of opportunity. And it doesn’t have to be a six-month stint, it could be for a few weeks or months, but should be enough to make a lasting difference. You never know how many lives you might impact for generations to come, and I promise you will return with more than you have given in terms of purpose and perspective.
We’re grateful to Stephen for sharing his story with us, and to our partners at Siemens Stiftung whose sponsorship made this match with AIDFI possible. If you’re a technology professional inspired by Stephen’s story and ready to leverage your skills to improve access to basic needs, you can learn more about experteering with the empowering.people Network here. And if you’re an epN award winning organization interested in receiving similar support, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.