Uganda’s lush landscape and recent history means that different aspects of modern technology were adopted in a curiously different sequence compared to the developed world. As we arrived in Uganda, we were greeted by an abundance of telecom kiosks in every town and village. Domestic wired internet never quite made it to Uganda, so when 3G was rolled out, Uganda went straight from unconnected to mobile. Even YWAM Hopeland, the local ministry we worked with, uses a MiFi as their primary internet connection.
And your phone does even more! Instead of banking with a bank, you can load all your money onto your phone and pay your local shop by mobile money. They can then withdraw the money from the phone at the telecom kiosk at a small premium. With phone, internet, and bank all in the same system, no wonder they’re everywhere!
The next thing that captured our attention was the prevalence of outdoor elevated water tanks. The wide availability of plastics in the modern world created an opportunity for this low-maintenance way to store clean water. Crestanks, the main outdoor water tank manufacturer in Uganda, must be making a fortune.
Consumer products aside, this is the developing world after all, so we can’t expect to have cutting-edge engineering tools on site. Some tools we can ship in from the developed world, such as this water quality testing kit. We borrowed it from eMi East Africa, who in turn bought it from the USA.
To assist design work, each volunteer brought their own laptop and their own copies of design software. Consequently we drew on myriad different versions of AutoCAD, which caused a compatibility nightmare back in the office! Also, the power occasionally went out, so a good battery life was quite important.
But there are other things which we can’t ship in. So instead of using sophisticated sieves and ovens to determine soil properties, we relied on the experience of geologist and grandpa Ray. He can gauge soil texture using his teeth. This sample was a silty clay!
In other situations, the lack of equipment meant that we had to revert to simple hand tools. We excavated three holes of 2m × 1m × 1.5m deep with hand-held shovels and hoes for the purposes of soil strength and percolation testing.
The last thought that I want to share is that when I stayed with my Ugandan university neighbour Nick after the project trip, we spent an hour hacking his laptop to get around a broken spacebar. It isn’t that he couldn’t afford a new keyboard; it’s just environmentally friendly to reuse everything as much as possible, and I fear that this conservationist attitude is lost to the first world. The challenge of appropriate development is to improve the standard of life without making the same mistakes the first world has gone through, and I’m glad to have taken part in this challenge as part of eMi.
Deryck Chan, eMi-UK civil engineer intern