Wellspring Africa

A Proposal to Reorient Rural Water Development Efforts
toward a more Entrepreneurial Model


Ill start by introducing myself and my involvement in water resources and simple water technologies. Then, with your indulgence, Ill summarize the state of rural water development in developing countries and the lessons Ive developed over 20+ years in the field. Finally, Ill lay out a scheme for growing small-scale water development into a much more ambitious industry.


My involvement with water procurement started in Alaska as a teen, where I helped our homesteading neighbors dig and drill wells.

Years later, as a member of a health team setting up a new clinic in rural Liberia, I was struck by how much of the misery we were seeing could be traced back to inadequate water and poor sanitation. My innocent suggestion that we might dig a well launched me on a life-long mission to improve water well drilling capabilities.

I learned that my Kru friends in rural Liberia were fearful of evil spirits that they believed lived underground, so I became hard pressed to find an appropriate alternative for villages that were five hours away from the nearest road.

So I hit the history books and, with a gaggle of fellow students at the Evergreen State College, reconstructed a number of old drill processes before deciding upon hand-powered percussion drilling.

I took courses at a local community college, pestered drillers all over America (especially the older ones), and worked with some local metal workers to fashion some innovations using more modern but commonly available resources.

In 1984 I founded Wellspring Africa (http://www.wellspringafrica.org) and solicited enough funding to spend 1985 in Liberia teaching well drilling in the same isolated villages Id visited in 1982.

Since then I've distributed over 500 copies of a handbook called "Drilling Wells by Hand" and made a video on the subject. (Both of these resources now come on a single CD-ROM and are available at the Web site http://www.wellspringafrica.org )

I've coached drillers from every corner of the planet (including a surprising number of US do-it-yourself-ers), supported several small-scale water projects across Africa, and trained drillers in Nigeria, Niger, and Tanzania.

In 2010 I collaborated with the Practica Foundation to write another percussion drilling handbook as a part of a series on manual well drilling. ( https://www.practica.org/wp-content/uploads/Manual-percussion.pdf  )


After 20+ years of following this path I've become convinced that my strategy and efforts have been woefully inadequate. Sure there are lots of new wells and a few more drillers, but with most Africans still living in dispersed rural agricultural communities, every country needs tens of thousands of potable water installations and hundreds of full-time caretakers to keep them sustained.

My greatest failing is shared by many in this field: it seems that most water projects are conceived, funded, orchestrated, and assessed by outsiders. Few of the technicians I've trained - even when my initial goal was to set them up in business - have prospered as well drillers.

Having been involved, at least peripherally, in dozens of projects and having read the reports of a hundred others, I've detected a consistent pattern. The story reads like this:

A missionary/technician/volunteer/NGO warms up to the idea of drilling wells for a community/church/school. They research drillling/digging technologies, garner advice, raise awareness in their communities, raise money, meet with others who have done similar projects, figure out the best pumps to use, collaborate with local government ministries, meet with community leaders to garner buy-in and plan locations, maybe even consult with international and local hydrologists. Finally they are ready to train local drillers...

Except that the best learning opportunities have already passed.

I have personally made this mistake (more than once) and I have heard it from countless others.

"We trained them, we gave them tools, we told them how to find customers," say the frustrated Albert Schwitzers. Then they fall into using one of my least favorite phrases: "These people..."

"These people..." Can't run a business... Can't see past tomorrow... Have no gumption... Can't say "no" to family and friends... Can't manage money... Can't keep contracts... Can't follow a schedule...

Now I must admit that I have occasionally taken refuge in this privileged mindset. It's a convenient place to go when my idealized intentions are confronted by messy reality. But there are two quick observations that uncomfortably contradict this perspective:

  • I've known lots of African "these people" who run airlines, manage universities, practice brilliant medicine, direct banks, and organize performances with large cadres of other artists. (And do so with miniscule budgets!)

  • I have way too many American "these people" in my classes at my university. (The difference is that my students, after several years of very explicit training and several years of apprenticeship in their fields, will come into their own in their various fields and then return to mock me when they make twice as much as I do. Damn ingrates!)

I'm convinced that what is lacking in most water training programs is a rigorous steeping in business management and logistics.

We need to train entrepreneurs who are businesspeople first, well drillers second.

And we need to develop models for these nascent industries to grow to a scale that will serve every rural village. That probably means two hundred practicing professionals in every country, with a couple dozen graduates moving from technical school to professional apprenticeship every year.

And these need to be professionals who can help the village plan, offer multiple funding options, drum up new business, and offer an array of solutions that fit the local economy -- all while making a decent profit and maintaining a stature that will attract others to the industry.

A visit to the local mall in any industrialized country will demonstrate that individual entrepreneurs are a rare breed. From coffee to financial services to clothing to plumbing, the majority of successful small businesses are franchises. And it only makes sense. No need to spend time and money reinventing the wheel: the franchisee gets a head start with everything from floor plans, purchasing, marketing research, personnel policies, procedures, and advertising. The computer code has already been written, the letterhead composed, the brand name recognition has been established.

What would an ecosystem of water resources franchises look like in Africa?

  • Imagine a billboard on the outskirts of the capitol city that advertises an all-inclusive $2000 package deal for a village well.

  • Imagine entrepreneurs who know a dozen ways to create a water source and another dozen ways to purify drinking water and present this in a full-color flip chart to prospective customers.

  • Imagine franchises offering a five-year warranty on their water wells rolling all the maintenance costs up into a single amount that is escrowed with the corporation and paid out in installments over the five year period.

  • Imagine public and private technical schools around Africa adopting a standardized and demanding curriculum that immersed students in hands-on labs filled with tools of the trade, that had them actively producing water sources while learning a wide variety of techniques, and gave them a deep understanding of the entrepreneurship and communication skills they need to succeed.

  • Imagine small-scale irrigation systems commoditized to the point where state governments budget 800 new points every year, comfortably knowing that local and regional entrepreneurs will bid, win, and complete the projects.

  • Imagine a local entrepreneur who, year after year, signs service contracts with a local government to have her staff maintain 600 hand pumps.

  • Imagine an entrepreneur who, counseled and assisted by program staff, saves a stipulated amount, prepares a business plan, and five years later reaches the point where he can take out a loan to purchase a second truck and expand his operations.

  • Imagine a Canadian church reliably purchasing the installation of a hand pump at a partner school in Ghana through a Web site.

  • Imagine local banks advertising that they underwrite well loans through certified water resource entrepreneurs.

  • Imagine a failing franchise being purchased by another which takes over stock and continues to serve the customer base.

  • Imagine the executive director of the professional society lobbying to improve national standards for sealing abandoned wells.

  • Imagine an NGO putting out a request for proposals and having a dozen name brand local companies submit professional quotations and specifications.

  • Imagine a price war between competitors or seasonal specials on water-related services to keep staff working during the off season.

  • Imagine 200 well drillers gathering for a week-long professional national conference to share tips and tricks and further their education -- and announcing the winners of the group's annual scholarships.

  • Imagine a 62-year-old driller selling his robust franchise to an apprentice before retiring with a decent pension managed by a regional investment firm.

All of these things would be possible because the numbers had been crunched, the risks shared, the incentives crafted, the procedures tested, the reliability established, the benchmarks understood, the trust built, the performance proven.

We need lots of "drillers" with a host of technical skills in water procurement, water treatment, and sanitation. And they need a lending library of rarely-used-but-occasionally-critical tools, a network of colleagues, research on local solutions, and experts backing them up all the way.

What I propose we do is brainstorm what kind of curriculum, infrastructure, and resources wed need to start building a cadre of water professionals who can create an industry and reshape the development of water resources across the continent. Who would we need to partner with? What kind of buy-in would we need from governments, the private sector, technical colleges, and philanthropists?

Can we develop a visionary proposal to develop a permanent, profitable, self-sustaining small-scale water industry to serve the poorest, most rural villages in a way that lifts the communities and their respective countries to a higher plane?

 -- Cliff Missen 2008

Last updated January 21, 2012 by