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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Road to Kijito

It is a rough road that leads
to the heights of greatness.

                              Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Five hours of sleep seemed, when I awoke, to be enough. That observation would prove to be a little less than accurate later, but it was a beautiful morning and, there was coffee available in the breakfast room! I was up and ready to go.

Going to breakfast at the peaceful guesthouse in Nairobi

Dining room at the guesthouse

There would be three other team members arriving tonight: Heather, Chris and Tony. Tomorrow, we would collect Jennifer and Kieran from a hotel in downtown Nairobi and head north to Isiolo. But today, it was just me, Jeff and Wubshet. A visit to Kijito was the primary item on the agenda and after breakfast, we headed north towards the town of Thika.

At the end of today's road trip, I would find familiar ground, a unique and impressive individual and the foundations of possible future involvement in the work around Isiolo.

A major Chinese road building project has resulted in much improved conditions for driving north out of Nairobi. There is an exit ramp into geopolitics here, but I won't take it. Instead, let's travel on to the area of Thika where we get off of the paved, multi-lane highway and quickly onto a rough, dirt road in the direction of Kijito.

The road has some very picturesque stretches lined with trees blooming with brilliant red and pink flowers. We go over an earthen dam, then, as we get closer, through a security gate. Before we get to our destination, we navigate two ROUNDABOUTS! On this dirt road in an area in which if there were more than two cars moving at any one time would surprise me. The colonial effect in effect, I think.

The drive in to Kijito ... Flowering trees on the side of the road

... Crossing the dam

Kijito is not a village. Rather, it is a business run by Mike Harries. What do they do here in rural Kenya? They make windmills or, more to the point, windpumps. We are here to talk about a few issues that need cleaning up at the site in Gambella, the most recent graduate of GHNI's TCD program. A borehole drilled some time ago was topped more recently with one of Kijito's larger windmills which drives a down-hole pump. We would meet with Art, the well driller, for discussions which led to a plan to get a larger pump into the well and therefore set us up for the next stage in the project.

There were some sticky issues and I was quite impressed with way in which the discussions were handled. All parties stood on principles of their faith and a common desire to help people with great needs in the most appropriate ways. It was refreshing.

Wubshet, Jeff, Mike and Art discussing the well and pump at Gambella

While we were waiting for Art to arrive, Mike told us his story. Disclaimer: I listened attentively, but recall the state of "sleep deprivation induced stupor" mentioned in the Road to Kenya post. It wasn't quite that dramatic this morning, but, you get the picture. So, a few of the facts may be not quite right. However, we can't let that get in the way of a really amazing story...

Mike's grandfather went to South Africa in the late 1800's and moved to Kenya in 1904, setting foot there first at the port city of Mombasa. He was looking for a place to settle and LITERALLY walked around the country before finally settling on 5,000 acres in this area near Thika. No big deal, right? After all it is only 315 miles from Mombasa to Nairobi. Did you pick up on that comment that he WALKED!?

Bobs (that is spelled correctly), Mike's father, was born in Kenya as was Mike. Now I think Mike is a citizen of the UK, but has spent virtually his entire life in Africa. He earned a Master of Arts degree from Cambridge but came back to the farm after completing his studies. You can read more about the history and background of the operations at the Kijito / Bobs Harries Engineering, Ltd website.

Mike talked about a few of his experiences, which include him being an advisor to the president of Kenya. He also spent some time in the U.S., consulting with police departments in three states about their chaplaincy programs. But perhaps the most interesting story, considering our purpose in Kenya, was one worthy of the old BBC television program, Connections.

In addition to the above mentioned activities, Mike, a pilot, spent some time flying eye doctors around the country in order to provide much needed care for people otherwise disconnected from any source of medical aid. During his trips, he saw many cases of trachoma. This is a bacterial infection of the eyes and is often transmitted by flies in areas without good hygienic practices. Children with this problem have runny eyes which, if not kept clean, attract swarms of the disease carrying flies. Lack of clean water was one factor in the chain and Mike decided he needed to get involved.

There was a windmill design project that (I assume) about this time was looking for investment partners to finish work on a low cost, effect device and Mike was one of five businesses that joined. In the end, his was the only one that stayed on; he eventually made a large investment in development to bring a useful design into production, the business of Kijito.

Another branch of the story involves the family farming business. The family actually introduced pineapples to Kenya at the farm; coffee is also grown here. Mike told us that after he returned from Cambridge, he was engaged in the farming. However, while the coffee business was good, he found it unsatisfying in that it was the same process, repeated over and over every season. Plant – tend – harvest – etc. Whatever you do to grow coffee. I don't know. Mike wanted something where he could be more creative and certainly something that could be used to serve the people in the area. Hence, his interest in the windmill opportunity.

Kijito now has over 500 windmills in East Africa, most in Kenya. Mike gave us a tour of the factory and this officially became an engineer's trip! Following are some highlights of the tour in photos...

In the Kijito Factory... Left: Facing a flange; Top right: A Kijito technician machining a brass part for a water pump; Bottom right: A machine designed and built at Kijito for rolling a stiffening groove in windmill blades

Left: A brass down-hole pump; Top right: Wubshet examines the flame cutting station; Bottom right: The five sizes of windmill blades, color coded by length

So the end of the rough road with the roundabouts brought us to place that has risen up to offer much to the people in the water-poor regions of East Africa. Their engineering is not aligned with my areas of expertise ( analytical fluid- and thermodynamics) but because of my long association with the more mechanically oriented design engineers at Trane, I could appreciate the progress made in arriving at the windmills and pumps manufactured by Kijito. They are elegantly simple and, by all reports, reliable and effective. Plans for the one in Gambella offer the possibility that it will serve an even more important role than just the pumping of water. More about this as we proceed down the road...

You can learn more about Kijito using the link in the text above. You can also Like Kijito on Facebook; they are there as Kijito Windpower Limited.

We drove back to the guesthouse. I was able to unwind, but Jeff and Wubshet still had work to do. They would be back at the Nairobi airport to meet three more of the team flying in on separate flights. I stayed at the guesthouse since the car we had hired would not accommodate all of us and the luggage. I was only just a little disappointed!

It was dinner at the guesthouse tonight – tilapia. But this is not the tilapia we are more accustomed to. Most noticeably, we are offered the entire fish for our dining enjoyment. It was cooked in a way that rendered it pretty dry, but this provided a functional benefit we here in the U.S. do not often consider. The fish had been scored deeply and I found, after struggling to get a piece off with a knife and fork, that the scoring provided the option to break off french-fry like pieces with your hands. One real advantage to this approach is that you get pieces that are mostly bone free; and, if there are a few bones, you can feel them before putting them into your mouth. Brilliant!

Tilapia, African style!

Much later, Jeff and Wubshet returned with Chris and Tony. But no Heather. And in this, there is a lesson. When it comes to international travel, your passport is effectively expired 6 months before the date printed on the photo page! Heather had gone to the airport with her e-ticket confirmed. However, she was told that she would not be allowed to travel because her passport expiration date was only about 4 weeks out. No exceptions, no recourse. Bummer! But now you know – keep a close watch on the dates as you plan your next international trip.

Coming next: The Road to Isiolo

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