Just Add Water: Building a Sustainable Community in Africa

By Melissa Antokal

Location, location, location. I discovered this old cliché really did ring true during my eight years in the real estate industry – people want to live, work and play in locations that are closest to the things they value most.

More recently, I spent some time in Kenya as part of a group of master’s students from the University of Michigan working with the Mpala Wildlife Foundation. Our group provided research and analysis to help the organization develop a path to sustainable growth and responsible energy consumption. Through this work, I’ve found that “location, location, location” is also a useful guiding principle for sustainability and growth in the developing world.

When it comes to working with local businesspeople, conservationists and citizens in parts of the world where economic development is speeding up exponentially, it always comes back to the land. It is, quite literally, people’s sense of place that influences their desire to increase wealth without decreasing the long term value of the land on which, and by which, they live.

Here’s what our team learned about sustainable development, and the importance of the land, while in Africa.


Sustainability in the developing world is too often unseen and undervalued. As regions like rural China, India and sub-Saharan Africa begin to emerge as manufacturing and raw materials production centers, these areas struggle with the challenge of supporting sustainable growth. The conventional wisdom is that desperately needed economic development always comes at a cost to the local human and environmental ecosystems – and that Western governments and companies are either limited in their abilities to influence sustainable change, or unwilling to go there.

One organization proactively addressing this challenge is the Mpala Wildlife Foundation in Kenya, which worked with my team from the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and the School of Natural Resources, under the guidance and with financial support from the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, to design and implement a water conservation and alternative energy strategy. The project, which was the basis for the team’s masters project thesis, is part of a wider initiative to engage the Mpala community in sustainability efforts that will protect not just wildlife, but also human development as the region works to attract investments in its infrastructure.

Mpala by the Numbers

The Mpala Wildlife Conservancy includes a research center, working ranch, conservancy and a variety of community health and outreach programs in Laikipia, Kenya. The conservancy covers 48,000 acres and is home to numerous and diverse animal species, from termites to elephants, and many species of plants.

Mpala also is home to humans, and serves the surrounding community of Kenyans through outreach, education and health programs. Among its initiatives is the Mpala School for children of employees.

From conservation mission to sustainable practices

What does the Mpala Research Centre have to teach the world about sustainable design? One might observe that it’s obvious – the center, which is focused on wildlife conservation and protection, has sustainability baked into its DNA.

But what we found during our 18 months working with the Mpala Research Centre, was that sustainability was top of mind – the Centre had approached our team looking for solutions to its water and energy management challenges. But despite their awareness of these challenges, Mpala’s staff was coping with the effects of years of simply adding on to older systems, rather than revamping, upgrading and streamlining each time they expanded.

A variety of factors are at play here: lack of access to capital, lack of expertise in environmental design and engineering, lack of staff to tackle these issues, competing priorities, and a complex political and social landscape. The land is American-owned, and therefore it is sometimes difficult to ask for or receive assistance from the Kenyan government such as like permits and aid.  For example, Mpala is unable to drill a well in the water table surrounding the river. This water is cleaner and less inundated with fluoride, like the groundwater from the aquifer they currently draw from. Since the groundwater surrounding the river feeds into and comes from the river, there is a concern of competition throughout the watershed, which is a highly political issue.

A key part of our role, therefore, was to provide access to insights and ideas that could help the staff and directors of Mpala chart a course for a sustainable future through creative thinking and cost-effective solutions to challenges such as water access, energy consumption and other areas.

A critical look at water resources

Ultimately, though, our research kept bringing us back to one thing: water. Access to clean, reliable sources of water for drinking, bathing, cooking and agriculture is the most critical environmental issue in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, including the region of Kenya in which Mpala operates.

In recent years, the dry season has become drier and the rainy seasons have shortened, but bring more intense rain events. This means longer periods without rain, the local Ewaso Ngiro River running dry for periods of time, and less frequent but more severe rain events causing an increase in damage to land and reservoirs throughout Mpala.

Currently, the conservancy and community rely on a borehole (well), river water and roof-installed rainwater catchment systems and a storage tank for water. At the current level of population, if the available rooftops at the Centre were to be fully utilized as rainfall catchment systems in wet seasons/years, there would be enough water for eight liters per person per day, which our team calculated as the minimum required for drinking, bathing and cooking. However, with projected population growth, there is an anticipated shortfall of 17 days for wet years and 229 days for dry years. In other words, the storage tanks will run dry too often to sustain the population and foster economic growth in Mpala.

Among the solutions we designed and proposed was a strategy to create enough storage so that during a wet year, back up or safety water stock can be stored away for the shortage during one or two dry seasons because droughts can last years at a time, as the folks at Mpala know too well. This might include aboveground tanks or belowground cisterns – each has benefits and drawbacks including costs and maintenance, but can be reasonably easily implemented with little disturbance to the existing system.

In addition to water harvesting, the cleaning and filtering of water is another major concern at Mpala, which is “off the grid” and can’t access large-scale water treatment. Our team did an analysis of current systems and made recommendations regarding relatively cheap yet effective technologies such as floating filtration in water tanks and in-line filtration, which is inexpensive and low-maintenance. In addition, we recommended installing a UV device for sanitation to make water potable.

Total cost of aboveground storage, filtration and Treatment: about $51,000. This investment would allow Mpala to rely less on the borehole (which uses energy to extract water through a pump), and prevent Mpala from having to buy water during droughts, which the organization has had to do in the past. Resource independence is also a safety issue and a political one, as well.

While assessing water storage and treatment, we also looked at how demand for water consumption will rise as Mpala grows. The staff of Mpala hope to significantly increase the number of visitors to the center each year, and in order to grow sustainably, they need to institute technologies and processes that will address higher demands on natural resources – specifically, water. So we recommended installing faucet aerators, low-flow toilets and other conservation mechanisms, such as the use of grey water for toilet flushing.

So water and land are two faces of the same coin for Mpala – if the organization and the region are to achieve sustainable growth, they must address the challenge of clean water access and its impact on agriculture, flora and fauna. In turn, these impacts reverberate throughout the community, changing migration patterns for humans and animals and influencing how and what kind of work people choose to do.

Mpala vs. sustainable design 101

Any student of sustainability can cite Daly’s components of sustainable design – the tri-colored set of overlapping circles representing social equity, economic viability and environmental benignness that comprise sustainable design.

In working with Mpala, we discovered that the group’s activities –wildlife conservation; research; education and health outreach; etc. – all relate to these concepts, but that the relationships between various players in the circles were far more complex than a simple diagram could represent. So in addressing Mpala’s challenges and developing strategies for solving them, we had to break down our assumptions about what comprised sustainable design and take a clean-slate approach.

Here’s what we found:

1)      Policy, tools and education are the holy trinity of sustainable development – when it comes to water usage and conservation in Mpala, it is essential to have the right conservation and usage policies in place, the tools to support those policies, and formal education of staff, families and visitors about the importance of sustainability in support of the organization’s mission

2)      Solutions that are not rooted in human experience will never succeed – technologies and policies are essential, but they must account for human behavior, and must make room for the time it takes to change those behaviors. Even the most passionate conservationist might be unpleasantly surprised by showers with timers for automatic shut-off; maintenance staff used to dealing with crude filtration or boiling to sanitize water will need training in using and replacing in-line filters and UV treatment bulbs.

3)      A water problem is an energy problem – Mpala sits at a water-energy nexus because its challenges in sourcing, storing and managing clean water are intimately linked to its energy needs. For example, the traditional method of sanitizing water is boiling it; boiling requires energy to heat a burner. And borehole water sources, which are currently used by Mpala residents, require energy-consuming pumps. So we devised a set of recommendations for solar-thermal energy to operate water pumping and heating.

4)      A sense of humor is at least as important as a set of econometric models – although our final report was an intensive, 122-page report including in-depth quantitative analyses of water and energy use, our experience was a rich, challenging and at times funny one. If you think about it, the issues that are at play here are truly life-or-death: without clean water, life cannot survive at Mpala. But the people there bring humor, wisdom and great perspective to the challenges they face, which meant that more than once we had to put our earnest intentions in check and laugh at our own assumptions on occasion.

Conclusion: Not Foregone

When the conversation turns to sustainable development, Africa is an afterthought. India and China seem to hold much more promise in terms of economic growth, and indeed have captured much more attention and airtime on economic and environmental sustainability issues.

But the Mpala project was a worthwhile challenge in helping a geographically isolated community, without connection to municipal services, thrive with the most local of resources without affecting the balanced ecosystem that exists there.  In drawing on my business skills and my environmental education from the Erb Institute, along with the guidance and expertise of faculty advisors like Erb Institute Director and Professor Andrew Hoffman, I was able to contribute to a project that will help Mpala continue to run smoothly as a nonprofit business.

Ultimately, our goal was to help them take a step towards accomplishing that, while setting an example for financially-strapped communities in similar regions.  The initial upfront costs of these projects would probably make our recommendations difficult to implement elsewhere, unless there were affordable financing opportunities or government money.


Melissa Antokal is an MBA/MS candidate, class of 2012, The Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan

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