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Crossing cultures

In the summer of 2010, a group of fourteen undergrads and four graduate students led by A&D professor Joe Trumpey visited Madagascar for a course called EcoExplorers. During the trip, Stephanie Starch worked with Chris Parker on designing a treadle water pump for the small village of Ranobe. Little did she know how a new environment would change her design problems and solutions.

By Stephanie Starch

We started getting ready for our trip to Madagascar in February of 2010. The unique island nation of Madagascar is located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa and over eighty percent of the wildlife is found nowhere else in the world. Today the majority of people in Madagascar are living well below the poverty line and rely heavily on agriculture for their survival.

We knew that a major component of our trip would be a five day stay in the small village of Ranobe where we would be collaborating with a wonderful organization there called Ho Avy (“bright future” in the language of Madagascar.) Ho Avy works in Ranobe to ecologically reforest the surrounding terrain, improve agricultural production of the local farmers, better the daily lives of the families in Ranobe and host researchers from around the world.

After some discussion with Ho Avy and Joe Trumpey, we decided that we’d concentrate on building water pumps for the Ranobe village. Watering crops had been a major problem in that particular area: the soil was dry, and soaked up water – which had to be carried by hand in buckets from the wells – quickly. Crops in the village are often the only source of income for the people of Ranobe, so effective watering is very important. Because Ranobe has no electricity the pumps would need to be manpowered.

Chris Parker and I began collaborating with Patty Liao, a grad student and fellow EcoExplorer, who was investigating sustainable water solutions in Africa. With her help, we quickly settled on the concept of a treadle pump, a form invented in the 1970s that used two foot-powered water pumps that alternate for a constant flow of water (and, to American eyes looks a lot like a Stair Master).

Above are designs for pump.

Chris and I knew nothing about treadle pumps when we took on the project. Our pump would have to be built in the field with as little material from home as possible. Our budget was already tight, and we could barely bring more than our design with us to Ranobe. Still, we decided to build a prototype in the United States to get a feel for the good and bad elements of existing designs. With some minor setbacks this prototype was built in a few weeks – but we had no idea how many problems we’d run into when we reached Ranobe.

All the parts of for a Ball Check Valve design. Click to view full size.

Learning the hard way

Building the two treadle pumps in Madagascar was a much bigger challenge than we ever expected in the United States. Almost everything that could go wrong did at some point in our adventure. The two of us learned a lot about how to adapt to working in the third world and how to create a design that works in its environment. Our experience highlighted some of the challenges of social design.

The first and most obvious mistake we made was not taking into account that Madagascar, a former French colony, uses the metric system. This meant that many of the screws and bolts we bought on site did not work with the parts and tools we brought with us. This mistake meant that we had to repurchase simple – but difficult to obtain – tools such as driver heads. Later it became a great challenge to replace some of our parts with Malagasy versions; these did not quite fit with what we brought from the US. After a lot of time and adhesive, everything worked out. However, we could have saved ourselves some trouble if we had thought through the measurement differences.

You can’t always get what you want

We still aren’t sure if some of our parts were lost before or after we left the United States. Luckily, Toliara, the largest city in the south of Madagascar, had quite a few hardware stores, and in the search to find what we needed we had to visit almost all of them. Many of the Quincailleries (French for hardware store) had very limited selections, sometimes just a few cans of paint. We eventually stumbled upon a great store full of variety, the Quincallerie du Centre. Malagasy hardware stores were interesting – everything they have is displayed on the walls so you can just point to what you want.

While the Quincallerie du Centre quickly become our favorite, it didn’t have nearly the variety we are used to in the US. For example, there wasn’t anything like plumber’s tape, which we had planned on using to make our axle. We ended up buying thin strips of flexible steel to make our own. This same steel came in handy more than a few times.

Handmade metal “plumber’s tape” from parts at a Quincallerie. Click to view full size.

Be inventive in the field

Even though we’d already built the first pump once in the U.S., it took a lot of trial and error to reassemble it on site. It turned out that the plastic circles for the insides of the pump pistons were a hair too large, so we had to shave them down by hand. We started shaving the disks down by hand with our pocket knives – but then Chris invented the amazing “Malagasy Lathe”, which was created by putting the plastic circles on the hand drill, spinning it, and then using a pocket knife to quickly shave off the small bits of plastic. After that, it was easy to get the pistons to fit.

Trimming down the plastic circles – before Chris invented the “Malagasy Lathe”. Click to view full size.

With the help of Anthony and Martina and our fellow EcoExplorers, Chris and I were able to finish the first pump in five days. We learned so much from this first pump, but our biggest discovery was that our one-way valves could only close and create suction if they were vertical; they needed the help of gravity. On the second pump, I reworked this system to keep the one-way valves always vertical. This system had to be partly rebuilt because we were missing essential hose barbs from the US.

When you can’t talk the language, draw it out

Another element that needed major redesign was the steel plunger inside the PVC pumps. After we were all finished with the first pump, we tested it in front of a large crowd of Ranobe villagers. When our American threaded steel rod bent into a ninety-degree angle, it put a halt to our celebrations. It turned out that this piece was too thin to do its job. However, the quincailleries had nothing like this rod and eye-hook that Chris had found in the US. We decided to get this important piece custom-made.

Meeting the metalsmiths was an amazing experience. The people who custom made our pieces were part of a family that lived together in a small crowded house inside of Toliara. They didn’t appear to have electricity, and did all of their metalsmithing with a hot fire and hand tools. At first it was very difficult to describe what we wanted. I had my sketchbook, so I drew them a quick picture. In the end they made us exactly what we needed within a couple of days. They were able to take a half-inch thick steel rod, bend a hook in the top, and thread the bottom six inches. They even hand made nuts to fit it the rod. It blew me away.

Having backup plans: your drill might break!

Building the second pump did not go nearly as smoothly. It was hard to work without the help of Chris and the rest of the group who had already left the country. I was excited to test out some of my redesigns, but things started to go wrong quickly. On the very first day our battery powered drill failed. I was distraught: how could we get the second pump built without the drill? It was essential to almost every stage of construction.

I was lucky enough to have some major help during the next month. Two men from Ranobe, Martin and Lary, joined me. We were able to work together to build everything without the drill. It was hard to overcome the language barrier since they only spoke Malagasy and I only spoke English. Sometime Martina would be around to translate, but other times we relied only on hand gestures and drawings. It was an interesting experiment in communication.

We used a lot of Malagasy techniques. We used hand drills to make the holes which worked great, but was slow. To drive the screws and bolts we used screwdrivers, wrenches, and Malagasy muscle. To drill holes into the metal we had to use Malagasy ingenuity: Martin and Lary started a fire and heated the steel. Then, with a pair of pliers, they took a screwdriver and drove the tip into the metal until it created a hole. It was an intense process that ruined the screwdriver, but worked well. It was really great to see this low-tech way of doing things.

Martin and Lary heat up metal in the fire and drive a screwdriver through it to make a hole.

Photo courtesy of Martina Petru. Click to view full size.

Involve the people you are working for

Working with Martin and Lary meant that the treadle pump became as much theirs as it was mine. They took ownership of it and were very proud. Martin referred to it fondly as the “Malagasy Tekniki Pompy”, and Lary brought his elderly father over to see it. The two of them are very invested in this pump; they understand how it works, and they will be the ones who lead the other villagers to use it. They also know how to fix the pump if it breaks. The second pump has a much better chance of lasting longer in the community because they were involved in making it.

Leaving Madagascar

The struggle we went through to get these treadle pumps up and running was the best crash-course in social design we could have asked for. Unfortunately, there was still more design work to be done: the pumps needed a hose irrigation system to hook into so they could be used more effectively for crop irrigation. It was so difficult to leave with this unfinished, but we had run out of time – and Ho Avy and the Ranobe village seemed ready to continue the work.

Chris and I want to extend a huge thank you to the people who supported our process and helped us build our pumps: our fellow EcoExplorers, The SNRE Graduate Students, Professor Joe Trumpey, Martin, Lary, Zack Jacobson-Weaver, the Starch family, and of course Anthony Arnold and Martina Petru of Ho Avy.

And for more about the trip to Madagascar, check out this video by fellow traveller Shannon Kohlitz:

EcoExplorers Madagascar 2010