On Thursday 14 August 2014, Tertium helped organise a symposium in Delft for VIA Water, a 4-year, 10 million euro programme of the United Nations that focuses on water innovation projects in Africa. Twenty-five PhD-students from seven different countries, mainly Africans, spent half a day brainstorming the agenda for the VIA Water programme.
Tertium suggested a structure for the workshop, with a plenary introduction and conclusion. In between, participants split up into three groups that rotated along three different workshops, continuing the discussion where the previous group has left off. This way, every group was able to build onto what others had already discussed.
To inspire the participants, the plenary started off with a series of cool innovations in African water management. Amadou Keïta, one of the participants from Mali, told how he was involved in a United Nations project that endeavoured to find innovative small and low-cost irrigation systems for Sub-Saharan Africa and try them out in several countries. Although the project finished before a large diffusion of this knowledge was achieved, the UN-team produced a 15-minute video in French, describing all the steps for constructing the five small systems, in the village, without electricity and from materials easily found in any local hardware shop. Keïta: ‘I uploaded the video on YouTube, and since February 2014, it has been viewed or downloaded around 200 times every month. So I guess people appreciate and find it useful.’
The first workshop discussed what type of people should join VIAs professional community that is going to evaluate ongoing projects, give advice and discuss unforeseen obstacles. While narrowing down a list of personality traits, the groups worked towards a clear profile. The terms ‘accountability’ and ‘trustworthiness’ lead to a discussion about what these terms actually mean, the consensus being that professionals should be acceptable as trusted representatives for both the VIA water project and the local community.
At the closing of the workshop, participants formulated a profile for members of VIAs professional network. They should be people ‘who are passionate about water problems in Africa’, who have an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ and ‘are willing to contribute time and knowledge to the project’. They should also be able to represent both the VIA water project and the local communities in partner countries. During the plenary closing, one of the participants wittingly points out that ‘everybody working in water innovation in Africa should fit this description’.
In a second session participants discussed important trends that could influence the list of pressing needs in the future. While looking into a glass bowl, they summed up the main trends that should be taken into account while evaluating project proposals.
Among them general trends such as the increase of IT-use in Africa and climate change, but also more specific trends such as the increasing importance of nutrient recovery and re-use of waste water, or the rise of decentralised systems of sewage. As a specific African trend, participants mentioned the need to improve sanitation in the ever-growing slums and informal urban areas.
Participants assembled a longlist of different trends (PDF). Interestingly enough, many focus on potential policy changes by African governments. Most participants appeared to be rather optimistic about the future of their home countries and expect the ‘rise’ of a new generation of well-educated and independent professionals who will be able to manage the chances and challenges in their regions.
The third workshop discussed the variety of water issues in Africa. Participants had to narrow down a long list of problems to what they perceived as the five most pressing needs. On the top of the list they put sanitation. As a second important topic they chose community participation and capacity building. Protection of natural resources came third, followed by improving local water supply. Participants agreed all this should be done while promoting new technologies using possibilities of IT. They stressed that while urban areas are important, the programme should not lose its focus on the rural areas.
During the plenary, it turned out that some real choices have to be made concerning the pressing needs in order to have real impact. A lively debate emerged around the question whether sanitation and agriculture – poop is the new gold – could be regarded as one topic. Some argued that innovation should focus on projects that combine sanitation and agriculture, whereas others pointed out that these are, albeit important, separate issues that are more related to health than water.
There was a lively conversation about the use of animation, as a new way to teach farmers to use new irrigation technologies. As one of the participants pointed out, these new approaches to knowledge transfer may also inspire the well-developed Dutch gaming industry.
After three hours of talks, the participants were asked to vote for representatives that will join the board meeting of VIA Water that will set the official programme agenda. After the counting of the votes, six PhDs from Kenia, Mozambique, Rwanda and Ghana kindly accept the invitation.