The Problem of Inflation in Ethiopia

I have spent a bunch of hours over the last two weeks working on preparing a budget proposal for the Children’s Home in Soddo for the 2013 budget.  While the problem of inflation has certainly not been new to me in Ethiopia, over these past two weeks I’ve been painfully reminded of the challenges it presents for average Ethiopians and for small charities and NGOs operating in Ethiopia.  For foreigners, the inflation has certainly been visible, but not necessarily felt.  When converting to USD, items domestically produced in Ethiopia have always been very affordable (imported items are a very different story; automobiles, for example, are about 4 to 5 times the cost that they would be in the U.S, because of import shipping costs and duty, which can be upwards of 200% on top of the value of the vehicle). In addition, a large portion of the inflation over the last 8 years has been absorbed for foreigners by the devaluing of the Ethiopia currency (the Birr, usually represented as ETB) against the US dollar (USD). Ethiopians, however, have experienced the full brunt of the massive inflation of the past 8 years, and, as I was reminded the last couple of weeks, this inflation has created a great challenge for small charities and NGOs trying to operate in Ethiopia.

Just since 2010, the annual budget for the Children’s Home in Soddo has nearly tripled (it is up 278%) when looked at in Ethiopian Birr.  Some of this increase is because the organization has increased in size and scope during those 3 years.  We now have more kids than we did in 2010, and we have increased some of the staff since 2010.  In addition, there have been legal requirements added for alternative childcare institutions and NGOs since 2010, which require extra funding for reporting, documentation, monitoring and evaluation.  With these organizational increases aside, however, most of the budget increase since 2010 has actually been due purely to inflation.  According to inflation measurements by the World Bank, a basket of goods that would have cost 100 ETB in Jan. 2005, would have cost 223 ETB in Jan. 2010 and will cost 450 ETB by Jan. 2013.  That’s inflation of 450% since 2005 and just over 100% just since 2010.

During this same stretch of time, there has also been considerable devaluation of the Ethiopia Birr against the US dollar, so, for an organization that receives funding in US dollars, a good chunk of the inflation has been absorbed by the increased value of the dollar against the birr.  But, this currency devaluation has not come close to covering the full blow of inflation.  For example, in 2005 the exchange rate from ETB – USD was 8 – 1, so that basket of goods that cost 100 ETB would have cost $12.50 in US dollars.  The exchange rate now is 18.2 – 1, so that same basket of goods, which now costs 450 ETB, would be $24.73 in US dollars.  So, even when prices are pegged to the US dollar, inflation since 2005 has been nearly 100%, and just since 2010, it has been 45%.  This is the primary contributor to the increase in the budget for the CCC Home even in dollars. In dollars the budget for the home has increased by 80% since 2010.  As mentioned before, some of this is simply because of organizational growth and some structural changes, but more than half of this increase is because of inflation.

This inflation has made it increasingly challenging to raise the necessary funds to keep the Children’s Home funded properly.  The primary mode of funding the home is through sponsors in the US.  Sponsors are paired with a specific child at the home in Soddo and contribute a certain amount monthly.  It has been impossible, however, to annually increase the amounts expected from sponsors in order to keep up with inflation in Ethiopia.  As a result, every year, a larger percentage of the overall budget must be raised through special fund-raising apart from the sponsorship program.  By budget-year 2013, over 30% of the annual budget will need to be raised by special fund-raising beyond the sponsorship program.

Ethiopia claims that despite the massive inflation over the last 8 years, the growing economy has produced net benefits for the country.  It is true that Ethiopia has had strong economic growth in recent years.  Despite the economic downturn in much of the world, Ethiopia has averaged 10% GDP growth per year since 2004.  The effects are visible everywhere in the country.  There is a mind-blowing amount of construction, for example, happening everywhere; construction of housing, high-rise buildings, hotels, roads, dams, railways, etc.  Though the new wealth generated by the growth has been very unevenly enjoyed, the growth does seem to be helping to lift Ethiopia out of absolute poverty.  Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that appears to be on target to meet the Millennium Development Goals of reducing extreme poverty, decreasing child mortality, etc.  Ethiopia claims to have reduced absolute poverty from about 36% of the population in 2005 to below 29% by 2013 and seems to be on track to reduce that further to the goal of 21% by 2015 (these figures depend on from what source one gets his information).

(Based on one study that I was able to find with 2010-11 data, the absolute food poverty line in Ethiopia was determined by the min. amount necessary per adult per year to sustain a 2200 calorie / day diet (this does not account for any other expenses, such as those related to shelter, clothing, transport, etc.).  This number was 1985 ETB / year, which would have been about $140 / year based on the 2010-11 average exchange rate.  This particular study determined that in 2010-11, 29.6% of the population was below this absolute food poverty line.  Though I have not been able to find specific statistics, the Ethiopian government claims that since 2010-11, this below absolute poverty rate has decreased and it claims to be on track to reach its goal of decreasing this percentage to 21% by 2015).

Despite this reduction of absolute poverty, inflation has definitely hurt a large portion of the population.  While government expenditures in improved infrastructure, such as irrigation, clean drinking water, roads and access to markets, has reduced the number of people in Ethiopia who are unable to feed themselves, there is a large segment of the population, that segment just above absolute poverty, that segment who live off of low-wage jobs, whose living standards have decreased as a result of inflation.

This has, unfortunately, been the experience for many of the low-wage staff who work at the Children’s Home, despite our best efforts to give annual raises that are in keeping with raises that organizations like ours are giving.  For example, one of the guards that works at the Children’s Home, the most senior of the guards based on his years of experience, was making 498 ETB / month in 2010, which was the equivalent of $38.30 / month based on the 2010 exchange rate.  This was a reasonable wage for a guard.  Guard work is considered unskilled, low-wage labor, often for older men who have had little to no education.  For this guard in 2010, however, this monthly wage, supplemented by his small-plot garden and his few animals, allowed him to live and support his family.  If his wage had kept pace with inflation (45% when using USD), he should be making the ETB equivalent of $55.50 in 2013 (1010 ETB).  In other words, it would require the ETB equivalent of $55.50 / month in 2013 to ensure that our guard had the same purchasing power as he had with his $38.30 / month in 2010.  Instead, despite getting a raise (based on ETB) of 25% in 2011, 10% in 2012 and another 10% in 2013, this guard is now only making the ETB equivalent of $41 / month, which means that his real wages have decreased by $14.50 / month.  In other words, because of inflation, and despite of annual raises, our guard in 2013 is only making 74% of what he was making in 2010.  This same story is true for our other guard and our kitchen staff, who are now making less in real wages than they were in 2010 despite receiving annual raises.  This is the story of millions of low-wage earning Ethiopians across the country.

So the story of Ethiopia’s boom times in the last decade is very mixed.  There is no question that there is an increase of wealth in the country.  There is a new class of people living in Addis who are making lots of money, living in large luxury homes, driving luxury SUVs and enjoying expensive new leisure activities.  There is new business and investment in Ethiopia.  The hotel industry alone in Addis has exploded, with the construction of at least a half dozen high-end hotels in the city just in the last 5 years.  The statistics seem to also show that there is a segment of the population on the very bottom, the absolute poor, who have also benefited to some degree.  This is true at least to the point that the percentage of the population considered in absolute poverty has been decreasing.  But between these two extremes on either end of the spectrum, most Ethiopians will say that their lives have become more difficult and their standards of living have declined in the last 8 years.  This is the part of story that often isn’t reflected by the nation-wide economic statistics and this is the story that I’ve been painfully reminded of during the last couple of weeks.


Update on the Well Project

It’s been a little more difficult to find time to blog lately.  One of the best things about our life and work in Soddo last year was the flexibility of our time.  We were busy and had lots to do, but we mostly controlled our time and when we worked.  Those days are over now that we’re back at “real jobs” in the city.

Nonetheless, we wanted to give a little blog update on our well drilling project.  For those of you who followed our fund-raising campaign at, you’ll know that we met our goal of $80,000 by the end of September.  We were amazed at all the generous people who gave to the campaign.  It was a real “Obama-style” fund-raising campaign with lots of people giving $100 or so until we reached our goal.  Again, we want to say a huge thank you to all who supported the campaign.

So now that we’ve got the money raised, it’s time to get this well drilled.  We’re working steadily towards that.  As with everything in Ethiopia, projects tend to move a little slower than one would like.  We’ve been delayed recently ensuring that we have the best drilling location selected and the best drilling company for that location.  Our originally selected location for drilling, recommended to us by the hydrogeologist, was in the gorge below our compound, about 20 meters outside of our lower fence.  Before drilling, we wanted to compare costs with a drill location within our compound, which would make it a little closer to pipe the water to our storage tanks and would make it a little easier for the drill rig to access the site.  The problem is that now that we live and work in Addis, many of these arrangements take a little more time to coordinate and they involve long day or weekend trips down to Awassa to meet with Water is Life or down to Soddo to meet with the hydrogeologist.

(And as a side note… These trips aren’t any easier when you have to pay a police bribe in order to make a meeting on time because the officer insists that your right brake light doesn’t work, even though it was working fine that morning and still working fine later that day.  Or when you rent a car that doesn’t have a functioning fuel gage, and you end up out of gas on the side of the road in the middle of rural Oromia, 50 km from the nearest fuel station).

Our exploration of this alternative drill site revealed that drilling within our compound fence would increased our depth estimate considerably (from 180 meters to over 200 meters), which meant we had to reach out to some other drillers with the capacity to drill to greater depths.  The companies that operate these larger drill rigs are considerably more expensive because they are purely for-profit drilling companies, they use more expensive equipment, they use larger drill bits, which drill a larger borehole, and they come from Addis.  So, after 6 weeks of exploring this other option, we have concluded that our original plan was the best plan.

We are now hoping to be drilling within the next month.  We lost our slot in line with Water is Life during our exploration of the other option, so we have to again wait for them to have their drilling equipment available.  We also need to secure a written agreement from the Soddo municipality to drill on the public land outside our compound (we currently have a verbal agreement, but are still awaiting on the formal written agreement).

So despite the delays, we’re still very excited about this project and moving forward with it.  If all goes well from here forward, we still hope to have the project completed by mid-dry season so that the Children’s Home doesn’t have to suffer through months with no water again this year.  Thanks again for all your support.  We’ll continue to keep you updated and once the drilling does begin, you’ll be able to track the progress with pictures on our facebook page (

We were able to spend the week in Soddo last week.  Spending the week with the kids again reminded me why we’re doing this project to start with.  We’ll close with a couple of pictures from last week.


Striking from a Distance

Fair Warning:  I want to warn my readers that this is a very different kind of post for me.  We’ve dedicated this blog over the past year to writing about our observations, challenges and needs while living in Ethiopia, particularly at a children’s home in Wolaita Soddo.  That will continue, but today I’m missing Chicago and my former teacher friends and colleagues as they head for the picket lines for the 2nd day as the Chicago Teacher’s Union faces off against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Board of Ed.  This blog post will be political and not really about Ethiopia.  Feel free to cease reading here if you’d prefer.


Before moving to Ethiopia, I spent five years as a CTU member (Chicago Teacher’s Union) and high school social studies teacher at UPLIFT Community High School, a CPS (Chicago Public Schools) high school in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  Those were fabulous years that I have very fond memories of.  During those five years, I learned that Chicago was a pivotal place in the nation when it came to the debate and struggle around public education.  Just to demonstrate the influence of Chicago on the national education scene, President Obama calls Chicago home.  During his years as a Chicago resident, he played basketball often with Arne Duncan, then the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.  When Obama went to the White House, he took Mr. Duncan with him as the new Secretary of Education.  To further cement the Washington to Chicago connection, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now Mayor of Chicago, not long ago replacing long-time Mayor Richard Daley.

Legally, this strike in Chicago is over teacher compensation.  Rahm wants to lengthen the school day for students in CPS without a fair increase in compensation for teachers and he wants to attach compensation of teachers to student scores on standardized tests.  Unofficially, though, this strike is about much more than teacher compensation, but because of state law in IL, the CTU can’t strike over the real issues; they can only strike over compensation.  The real issues are about class sizes, resources, and a well-rounded support staff in schools (social workers, educational psychologists, nurses, special education teachers, librarians, after-school activity directors, etc.).  It’s about standing up for neighborhood and community schools, which have become under-resourced dumping grounds for all the students with certain challenges that the magnet schools and charter / contract schools don’t want.  It’s about standing up for the teacher profession, because most CTU teachers in CPS are good, qualified teachers who are doing their best everyday to help provide an education to students in an incredibly challenging environment.  It’s about saying, “we are professionals, we are teachers, we are educators, we have skills and knowledge and abilities; stop dumping all the system’s problems on us and give us the tools and resources we need to do our job before you condemn us.”

Though I’m a long ways away from Chicago now, and can’t claim to be intimately involved with this specific strike and struggle, upon reflecting on my current situation, I felt I had something to add to the conversation to show my support to my former colleagues and friends.

About two months ago, I took at job at a private international school here in Addis Ababa.  My family and I wanted to remain a longer time in Ethiopia, but needed a job that paid money in order to do so.  This job provides that for us.  This school is a private, English language international school that serves the international community of Addis Ababa. Most of the students have parents that work at embassies, the Africa Union, the UN, or some big international development organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and USAID.  As a fully private school, the yearly tuition is no joke; it is steep, on pare with lots of private schools in the Chicago area.  As a strong proponent of public education, I find myself in the awkward position of now working for a private school only accessible to families with considerable resources.

One of the things I’ve learned from this experience so far, however, is just what a private education looks like.  My previous experience in CPS and now my new position, has provided me with a unique opportunity to compare the two.  I now have an insider’s perspective on the kind of education that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s kids are likely getting while attending the private University of Chicago Lab School.  It’s interesting that politicians who send their kids to elite private schools are often the ones saying things like, “we can’t fix public education by just throwing money at the problem,” or citing some research study that claims that class size doesn’t actually matter when it comes to quality of education.  Strangely, someone failed to pass that kind of research on to the people running private schools like mine.  Let me tell you a little about my school, where my school puts value, and what kind of education kids get when there are resources.

My new school has a large, open campus, with green space, playgrounds, sports fields, a track, flowers, trees and gardens.  It has excellent facilities, including science labs, music and art rooms, computer labs, a well-stocked library, a nice gym, cafeteria, etc.  My school has new uniforms for all the sports teams, it pays its coaches, it sends its teams on out-of-town trips for tournaments and competitions, and it has a well-qualified athletic director whose sole job is to oversee the athletic program and ensure its quality.  My school has a bunch of great after school activities offered four days / week and some on weekends. My school has new-edition textbooks, literature books and supplies for all students.  My school has a 1-to-1-laptop program where all students from grades 6 – 12 are issued a laptop for the duration of their academic year.  My school has great wireless Internet throughout the campus, and has access to online e-learning and student e-portfolio programs that are integrated into every class.  My school has an extensive, professional IT staff that services, maintains and provides support for all technology on campus.  Every classroom in my new school is equipped with an LCD projector and many classrooms have smart boards and document readers.  The student cafeteria serves fabulous meals that are healthy and have variety at very reasonable prices.

My new school values its teachers and recognizes that a quality education requires teachers that are taken care of and provided with appropriate resources.  There is a full-time staffed copy center that can turn around my photocopy requests within 30 min.  There is a non-stop supply of coffee for teachers and staff in various locations around campus.  There are computers and printers (with ink) at every staff workspace.  There is a “teacher store” on campus where teachers can go get pretty much any classroom supply he / she could ever need without paying for it out of his / her own pocket.  Teachers are provided with adequate preparatory time, collaboration time and professional development time, built into the school day.  Teachers are compensated with a good salary and great benefits (medical, dental, retirement, etc.).  Teachers are given appropriate benefit days, including sick leave, personal days, and professional development leave days, and teachers are not made to feel guilty for using these days when they need to.  Teachers are given $1500 / year as a professional development allowance so they can attend professional development conferences and trainings.  Teachers are given a personal technology allowance, so they can stay updated with the necessary technology tools to be an affective teacher.  Teachers are provided with opportunities to further their education and encouraged to participate in these opportunities (in CPS I knew principals and district staff that voiced frustration over teachers getting higher degrees because it meant they would cost more on the school’s budget… I was also part of hiring committees that were told we couldn’t hire teachers with more than one degree or with more than a couple of years experience because the school couldn’t afford it).  The administrative staff and school board also often host appreciation events with food and drink just to show teachers that their hard work is not unnoticed.

And as for that issue about class sizes and staff-to-student ratios: all of my classes are between 15 – 20 students maximum.  I never have a classroom without adequate desks and space.  I always have enough textbooks and literature books for all my students.  There is a whole staff of teaching assistants, most of which have teacher qualifications of their own.  Every elementary school classroom, despite only have a maximum of 20 kids, has a primary teacher, plus a qualified teaching assistant in the room, not to mention the extra “specials” teachers for art, foreign language, music and PE.  Despite being a relatively small school by CPS standards (about 800 students from PK – 12th grade), there’s a whole ELL department with several qualified ELL teachers who provide pull-out and push-in support.  There is a special education department that includes school social workers, educational psychologists and special education teachers that provide both push-in and pull-out support, though only a small percentage of our student body has special ed. needs (compared to 30% of the student body at my previous CPS high school).  Beyond this, there are custodians, lab techs., grounds keepers, facility maintenance staff, extra coaches and coaching assistants, office staff, security staff, after-school activity staff, etc.  For a student body of 800 kids, there are 80 full-time faculty, plus 40 TAs, 6 full-time IT specialists, and an administrative team of 20 (and, by the way, the school director and principals are all actual educators who have spent years as teachers in classrooms; they’re not former lawyers, business-people, nor military generals).

This is the kind of education that kids from well-resourced families are getting.  This is the kind of education that Rahm Emanuel’s kids are getting.  Now, while it may be true, that taxpayers can’t afford to pay for the full extent of this kind of education in our public system, it is also true that resources do matter.  If resources didn’t matter, why would those who can afford it, send their kids to private schools with absurd amounts of resources?  If we really believed in equal education for all of America’s kids, don’t you think the kids coming from the least privileged backgrounds are exactly the kids who need the resources?  Don’t you think the schools with student populations that are 95 – 100% free and reduced lunch are exactly the places that should have extra resources?  Don’t you think that schools with student populations with 30% special education needs are exactly the places that need full-time social workers, qualified special education departments, and educational psychologists?  Don’t you think the schools where students bring a lot of pain and baggage from their pasts, their homes and their neighborhoods are exactly the schools that should have smaller class sizes?  Don’t you think the schools in gang invested, high-crime and violent neighborhoods are exactly the places that need more resources for after-school activities?  Don’t you think the schools in predominately immigrant communities are exactly the schools that needs greater ELL support?  Don’t you think the schools with transient student populations and with kids well-behind grade level are exactly the schools that need adequate and current educational materials?

And don’t you think the teachers that work in these schools deserve to be taken care of?

Support the CTU and support public education.

Sticker Shock

Eighty thousand dollars is a lot of money.  A price tag with $80 thousand on it causes some sticker shock.  This is what we’re trying to raise for the deep borehole well in Wolaita Soddo for the kids at the CCC orphanage.

We’re at nearly $60 thousand.  A lot of people have given generously to help us get to this point.  We have enough to move forward with the drilling and casing of the well, which is scheduled to begin in October.  We’d like to express a big thanks to all of you who have donated to this cause.  We still need $20 thousand more to fully complete the project.

In the process of raising funds for this well, we’ve experience some push back from some people asking why it costs so much to drill this well.  These are very legitimate concerns.  It is a big price tag and with the amount of wastage and corruption that sometimes happens with “aid and development” projects, I fully respect these questions.  If people are going to donate to a cause, they want to be assured that their money is going to be used wisely and effectively.  Below I have set out to provide a little explanation of the costs for the CCC well project.

The price is a combination of factors, mostly connected to the depth to which we have to drill and from which we have to pump in order to have a consistent, reliable water source, given our location.  People who haven’t been to Ethiopia, do not always realize that much of the country is highland terrain.  People often have images of dry, low-lying savanna and desert.  There are certainly parts of Ethiopia that are hot, low and dry, but the majority of the country actually sits on terrain above 6000 feet.  The capital city of Addis Ababa, for example, lies mostly between 7500 and 8000 feet.  The town of Soddo in the Wolaita Zone, where the CCC orphanage is located, lies between 6000 and 7000 feet (the CCC orphanage itself is at 6500 feet).  This elevation, combined with the specific geological and hydrological characteristics of the area, means that in order to hit an aquifer that will supply year-round water, a deep borehole well on our compound will likely be between 500 and 600 feet deep.  That’s a very deep well.

There are very few places in North America where people have to drill to 500 feet to hit a consistent water source.  I grew up with my family home on a well outside of Moncton, NB, Canada.  Our well of 90 feet has served my family home well for over 30 years.  I just did a quick search online of well logs in various regions of the United States.  This is by no means an exhaustive piece of research, but in Ohio I found most wells between 30 – 80 feet deep.  In Oregon, I found wells between 100 – 200 feet deep, with a few over 300.  In Missouri, I found wells everywhere from 50 – 300 feet.  Even in Colorado, where the elevations are similar to Ethiopia, I found most wells between 200 – 400 feet, with very few over 500 feet deep.  In fact, in regions of Colorado where the elevation was similar to Soddo (between 6000 – 7000 feet), most of the wells I found were still less than 200 feet deep.  The same would be true of most of the African continent.  There would be very few places in Africa with terrain at the elevation that it is in Wolaita Soddo.  Every well will be different and very specific to the exact drilling location, but the point is, drilling to over 500 feet to find consistent water is a problem quite unique to our location in Wolaita.  Drilling to this kind of depth is expensive.

The best quote that we received for the drilling and casing of our well is through Water is Life International ( and their drilling partner Hawassa Salem Drillers PLC.  They have quoted us at $80 / meter.  Of course, once a well is drilled, it must be cased to keep the well from collapsing.  Our costs for casing will be at $60 / meter (for PVC casing because steel was just too cost prohibitive).  Obviously, the deeper one has to drill and case, the more costly a well will be.  At these costs, just the per meter costs of drilling and casing a well to 180 meters is over $25,000 and that doesn’t include mobilization costs for the rig and equipment, purification and testing costs for the well, site preparation costs, etc.  It also doesn’t even touch on pump purchase and installation costs, water storage costs, piping costs, labor, taxes (15% VAT here in Ethiopia), etc.

Another unique aspect of the CCC compound is that it sits on a side-hill that slopes at a 60-degree angle, down into a small gorge about 600 feet below the children’s home.  Our hydro-geological survey and report for the site recommends that we drill on the lower end of the compound because that is the cheapest and most probable place to hit water.  What this means, though, is that we have to, not only pump water to the surface of the well, but we have to pump it up our side hill to the top of the compound and then to the top of our storage tanks.  We will, therefore, need a pump with the capacity to pump water a total of 1,100 vertical feet (over 500 feet from water level to the surface of the well, then an additional 500 vertical feet from the surface of the well to the top of our water storage tanks).  These kinds of pumps are expensive, to the tune of $12,000, plus they require 3-phase electrical power, which the orphanage compound does not currently have.  Installing 3-phase electrical power with a 21 KW transformer on our compound costs another $9000.  You can quickly see how these costs are adding up.

As we explored this project and costs of it, we researched all the cheaper options available.  Unfortunately, each of these options failed to meet the specific needs of our orphanage compound.

First, we looked at hand-dug wells with hand-pumps.  These types of wells are very popular around Africa because they’re cheap.  You can dig a well with local, unskilled labor and install an pretty low-tech pumping system like the India Mark II or the Afridev or even a rope and washer system and have a well completed that can serve the needs a 100 or so people in a village for probably between $500 – $1000.  The cost-to-impact ratio of these types of wells is fabulous.  Let’s say a $1000 well with India Mark II pump serves a community of 100 people.  That’s $10 / person.  That’s really ensuring that donated funds have maximum impact.  The problem is that the CCC compound has a hand-dug well that’s 18 meters deep and is completely dry and useless for almost half the year because shallow groundwater simply isn’t sufficient in Wolaita to supply year-round water.

Second, we looked at new hand-drilling technology like what is being used by groups like iDE in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia.  This technology involves a human-powered bit apparatus that can drill through soft geological formations down to 200 feet using only local manpower.  These drill teams are charging about $6 / meter (as compared to the $80 / meter that we’ve been quoted).  This type of technology is having a huge impact on communities in the Rift Valley because it’s bringing a consistent water source to farming communities for drinking and irrigation at affordable costs.  A 200-foot well, installed with a small diesel pump, can provide water to a community of a 100+ families.  With drilling, casing and pumping, this kind of deep well could be done for well under $10,000, which could easily provide water for 500+ people with a cost-to-impact ratio of less than $20 / person. The problem is, this technology cannot handle the medium-to-hard geological formations of Wolaita, nor the 500+ feet of depth required for a year-round well in Wolaita.

Third, a lot of people have suggested to us water filtration systems.  Biosand filters have become a popular tool for purifying water in developing countries.  These filters can be developed for about $100 and can serve about 100 people.  That’s a great cost-to-impact ratio; that’s $1 / person to provide clean drinking water.  Obviously, though, the catch is that one needs to have a water source in order to purify water through a filter.  In Wolaita during the dry season, its not only an issue of unclean water, it’s an issue of water period.  If we don’t receive water from the town (we commonly only receive a few hours / week of town water from Dec. – Mar.), we have to rely on “donkey water,” which is water carried in jerry cans on the backs of donkeys from a spring 30 min. away.  As we learned last year, it’s very difficult to run a healthy children’s home of 60 kids when our only source of water many days is by the jerry can.  It would take 1 donkey water carrier with two donkeys all day to make the 6 trips to and from the spring necessary to supply enough water for us to barely function at the home.  Barely functioning meant that drinking water was rationed, toilets weren’t flushed, and cleaning and bathing was limited.  Our issue at the CCC orphanage is less about water quality and more about water access.

So it is very true that the cost-to-impact ratio of our well project for the orphanage is poor in comparison to other possible water projects one could donate to.  You could donate $1000 to an organization installing Biosand filters and impact 1000 people.  You cold donate a $1000 to an organization digging hand-dug wells and impact at least a 100 people.  You could donate a $1000 to an organization involved in hand-drilling technology, and together with 10 other like-donors, you could impact 500 – 1000 people.  Or you could donate a $1000 to our glassofhope project for a well for the CCC orphanage, and only after we raise another $79,000, could you help to impact 60 kids.  If you base it on the cost-to-impact of your donated money, our project does not make sense.

But here’s the thing.  Donating to all those other great water projects doesn’t help get water to the 60 kids living at the CCC orphanage in Wolaita Soddo, because those projects don’t work for the CCC compound.  There is sticker shock with this project, but it is the only way to provide consistent, year-round water for the CCC orphanage.  We only have $20 thousand more to go; please help us keep the momentum going.  Please share, email, facebook, tweet, blog, etc.



Just to put it slightly in perspective…  the two presidential candidate campaigns for U.S. president during the month of July alone received a total of $175 million in donated funds.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to do the cost-to-impact analysis of those funds…

It’s Green and Wet Now…

When we lived in Chicago, Richelle worked for a number of years with a refugee resettlement organization.  As a result, we had a lot of contact with new-to-America refugee families, many of which, for a few years, were from East Africa.  During the summer, we were often part of planning picnic events at the park with these families.  Often refugee families had been told by resettlement case workers about how cold Chicago gets in the winter, but having recently arrived in Chicago, sitting on the beach in July watching their kids swim in Lake Michigan, it was very difficult for them to imagine.  While playing soccer, barefoot in the sand, it was impossible to explain to them how in January the lake freezes over, there’s snow on the ground, and the lakefront is completely void of people, because even with parka coats, gloves, hats and boots, the cold biting wind can chill you to the bone.

Ethiopia does not have such seasonal differences of temperature, but its annual cycles are no less extreme.  In Ethiopia it is precipitation that sets the seasons apart.  This morning, looking off the veranda of the CCC Home, I see beautiful, green, lush, rolling hills descending to the south and west of Soddo.  The Wolaita region received decent belg (spring) rains and it’s now krempt, the main rainy season, during which the region, like most of Ethiopia, receives about 80 – 90% of it’s total annual rainfall.  Farmers in Wolaita have corn, barley, wheat, sorghum and lots of vegetables growing. It’s a very fertile time of year.  Because of sufficient rain, streams and springs are running and shallow wells are giving water.  With all the rain, there will be plenty of water for the next several months.

But it doesn’t remain this way in Ethiopia.  If someone was just visiting the country for the first time right now, it would be difficult to imagine why this country often suffers from drought and food shortages, but that’s the seasonal extreme of Ethiopia.  Come December in Wolaita, the landscape will be brown, all the streams will be dry, the springs will have deteriorated to a trickle, and the hand-pump wells will pump nothing but air.  The fine dust will lie like snow banks on the sides of the dirt roads on the outskirts of town, and the clayish soil will harden and crack like bricks.  It will remain this way from early December through the end of March.  Wolaita actually has one of the shorter dry seasons compared to most regions in Ethiopia.  The fact that it remains relatively green through into Nov. is unique in this country.  But the problem in Wolaita, with both food and water, is compounded by population density.  Despite being overwhelmingly rural (88.5%), Wolaita is the most densely populated region in Ethiopia (a population in 2007 of 1.5 million in a area a little smaller than Delaware; this gives it a population density similar to Rhode Island, the 2nd most densely populated state in the U.S.).   This is why, despite being relatively fertile with relatively high levels of precipitation, there are problems of malnutrition and there is a lack of access to water.  The resources and infrastructure are not sufficient to sustain the population.

During the dry season (Dec. – Mar.) the town water system wells run low, so the supply of water from the town is greatly reduced.  The system is unable to supply consistent water to the growing population of the town.  During the best of weeks during this time of year, the CCC Home only has running water from the town system a couple of days per week, and usually not for more than a few hours at a time.  In addition, the compound hand-pump well runs out of water by Dec. and usually is not useable again until sometime in late April or May when enough rain has replenished the well.  All this means that for several days per week from Dec. – Mar., the CCC compound is without water, making the entire operation of the home of sixty children (cooking, cleaning, flushing toilets, washing clothes, drinking, and bathing) dependent on water carried from a spring 30 minutes away in jerry cans on the backs on donkeys.

The issue of access to clean water for the African continent has become a very popular cause in recent years.  A quick google search of water and well related charities involved in Africa will pull up a long list.  Some of these organizations have some very heart-rending stories on their websites.  We get a little fatigued with over-sentimentalized stories of hardships in Africa, so I’m going to try to describe the water needs at the Children’s Home with an example that I hope will help readers understand without over-stating the problem.

Summer in the U.S. for many American families involves sending kids off to summer camp for a week.  Now I want to be very careful about comparing the Children’s Home in Soddo to a summer camp.  It very much is not a summer camp.  The Children’s Home in Soddo is a permanent home for our 60 kids because they have no other home.  They don’t have parents to come pick them up at the end of the week.  Many of our kids have or will spend most of their growing up years at the Children’s Home.  Having said all that, imagine arriving at a summer camp to pick up your kids at the end of a week-long camp experience and learning, after your dirty, stinky kids have hoped into the car, that the entire camp compound had been without water for the whole week.  In order to cook and provide some limited drinking water for the campers, the camp manager had placed a bunch of old jugs in the back of his pick-up, had driven out to a spring 30 min. away and had filled up the jugs.  But because of the limits of how much water could be carried in jugs on the back of his truck, the camp staff were forced to severely ration the use of water.  Water was used primarily for cooking, washing dishes, washing hands before meals, and providing some rationed drinking water to the campers.  Most of the remaining water, after these priorities were covered, was used at the end of the day in the toilets so that toilets could be flushed at least once to reduce some of the stink from the bathrooms.  Because of the lack of water, there were no showers or baths, and no cleaning of floors, cabins or clothing.

If this went on for just one week at a summer camp, it would not be the end of the world.  Probably a lot of campers don’t bother to shower while away at camp anyway and most parents expect to pick up dirty and stinky kids.  That’s part of the camp experience, right?  But you can imagine how conditions at the camp would deteriorate if it tried to function an entire summer season under these circumstances.  You can imagine how filthy, stinky and fly-ridden bathroom facilities would get.  You can imagine that the camp would have to contend with lice, fleas, bed bugs, ringworm and head-fungus at increased rates.  You can imagine that there’d be more sickness because of unclean drinking water, dirty dorms, reduced sanitation in the kitchen and a lack of camper hygiene.

This is a pretty accurate depiction of the months of December through March at the Children’s Home in Soddo.  This past year, we would get up each morning to check if there was any water from the town system in our storage tanks.  If yes, we’d ration it out for some drinking, cooking, and high-priority cleaning.  If no, we’d scramble to track down a donkey-water carrier to bring us some water from the spring 30 min. away.  We figured out that it took about 12 donkey’s worth or water (4 jerry cans / donkey) to get us by on absolute-minimal mode per day.  Given the distance to the spring and the lines at the spring to fill up, it would often take one donkey carrier with 2 donkeys all day to make the 6 trips necessary to get us this bear minimum amount of water.

The Children’s Home needs a consistent, year-round source of water.  This is necessary for a number of reasons:

  • cleanliness of rooms, bathrooms, eating area and kitchen
  • washing of clothes and bedding
  • showering and bathing of children
  • water for cooking and drinking
  • flushing of toilets and washing of hands

Unfortunately, getting access to a consistent, year-round source of water is not easy in the Wolaita area of Ethiopia.  We have explored all the options:

  1. Fight with the town water dept.:  During the months of Jan. – Mar. this past year, I made weekly visits to the water dept. to speak with the manager.  I had his personal mobile number on speed-dial on my phone.  He was a very helpful and cooperative man, always willing to listen to my complaints and usually doing his best to squeeze out a little more water from the system and direct it our way, but he was limited by the system itself and the amount of water available during dry season.  The town water system is dependent on a series of wells around the outskirts of the city.  During dry season, the water levels in these wells run low leaving little water to be rationed out to the town.
  2. Install an additional water storage tank: Up until the beginning of last Nov., we thought this idea would greatly improve our situation.  If we could store more of the town water when we got it, we could stretch out our stored supply until the next time we got town water.  Then the dry season hit us and we discovered that the water pressure coming from the town when we did get it was so low that it wouldn’t even ascend the pipes to fill our elevated storage tanks.
  3. Dig another hand-pump well:  We have one already that’s about 18 meters deep (60 feet).  That’s pretty much the maximum depth for a hand-dug well and from Dec. – Mar. it’s useless.  If it was servicing a single family, it might be possible to get by year-round on this type of well, but with 60 kids, we’d need to dig about 15 of these hand-dug wells if we wanted to get through a dry season with water.
  4. Use new hand-drilling technology:  There are some well related organizations that have developed hand-drilling technology.  It involves a drill bit apparatus that can be operated with the manpower of several people.  This is fabulous technology that has been used with great success in some more lowland parts of Ethiopia (in the Rift Valley, for example).  It’s very economical.  With local labor, it costs less than the equivalent of $10 USD / meter to drill with this method.  The technology has the capacity, depending on the geological nature of the drill site, to drill down to 60 or so meters (200 feet).  Unfortunately, Soddo sits on highland terrain (above 7000 ft. elevation).  We’ve had a hydro-geological survey completed for our site and we’ve looked at the other deep borehole wells in the area.  We’ll need to drill down beyond 150 meters (500+ feet) to hit an aquifer that can supply year-round water.

So that leaves us with one final option.  We need to bring in a drill rig, drill to a depth of 150+ meters (we’re budgeting for 180 meters), case, install a submersible pump, and set up a water system that will allow our compound to be water self-sufficient.  Because of the cost of materials in Ethiopia, the depth to which we need to drill and case, the size of a submersible pump necessary to pump from that depth, and the 3-phase electric power necessary to run such a pump, this is a costly endeavor… costly to the tune of $80,000 USD.

Here’s the good news:  we’ve already raised $42,000, we’ve already partnered with a drilling organization (, we’ve already paid for the 3-phase power installation, we’re already scheduled to start drilling in mid-Oct. and we’ve already lined up the pump supplier and installer.  If we have the funds, we’re completely on track to have this whole project finished and online by the end of Dec., just in time to be water self-sufficient for dry season.

Aerie Africa has just launched a concerted fund-raising effort to raise the remainder of the funds for this project.  You can find out more about the project, Aerie Africa, the fund-raising campaign, and how you can contribute by going to our newly launched fund-raising site at

Please consider how you can help and please pass on this blog and the site address to others you know.  As always, don’t hesitate to email us or respond with questions or thoughts.

Personal Update

Dear family, friends and other interested readers,

This blog post is more a personal update.  As you know, we have been living and working for the past year in Wolaita Soddo in southern Ethiopia at a children’s home (orphanage).  This past year has been a great experience for us.  We have learned a lot and, in return, we think we were able to help in some ways as well.  Up until about a week ago, we had every intention of continue to live and work here for at least another year.

However, about two weeks ago, a teaching position opened up suddenly and unexpectedly at the International Community School in Addis Ababa (ICS).  Within a matter of just 5 days we learned of the position, traveled up to Addis to interview and Nathan was offered the job.  We did not immediately accept the position.  The timing was very sudden and difficult for us.  We really were not ready to leave our life and work in Soddo.  The thought of leaving in general, but especially so soon, was very sad for us.  But after some very careful consideration, we decided to accept the position.

Our role here at the Children’s Home has been a volunteer position.  Our housing has been provided and we’ve received a small monthly living stipend.  We’ve known all along that we could not financially sustain this position for long into the future.  We anticipated that we could manage for up to two years, then we’d either have to find something in Ethiopia with a paycheck, or we’d be returning back to the U.S.  To find a paying job in Ethiopia is not an easy task.  We’ve watched for years for job positions in Ethiopia; they are very hard to find and often very temporary.  We’ve even watched for several years for job openings at ICS; in social studies, there haven’t been any for several years.  So we’ve decided that if we want to continue living and working in Ethiopia, it would be foolish to turn down this recent job opportunity.

Beyond allowing us to sustain ourselves in Ethiopia, the ICS job also will allow us to live in Addis.  We have enjoyed our life in Soddo, but our years in Chicago made us into big-city people.  We have always liked Addis and look forward to living there.  This move will also provide a good school for Titay as she goes into first grade.  She will be able to attend ICS tuition-free.  While she has enjoyed going to KG here in Soddo in Amharic, she is excited about going to an “American-style” school for first grade.  She will also benefit from a more stimulating school environment.

This decision feels very bittersweet.  We are excited about the opportunity, but it comes with the very hard decision to leave our work with the Children’s Home, which we have very much enjoyed.  We do not really feel ready to leave the home.  We still have some only partially finished goals for our work here.  We have grown to love the staff and kids of the home, and we’ve grown to greatly enjoy the beauty of the Wolaita region.  We have had a sad week here as we’ve shared the news of our move to our friends, colleagues and the kids.

But Soddo is really not that far away from Addis (327 km, to be exact).  We’ve gotten use to overnight bus rides up to Addis for a weekend; now we’ll just do that trip in reverse.  We want to and plan to remain very connected to the Children’s Home.  Before accepting the job in Addis, we sat down with the school academic calendar and planed out all the dates we could spend in Soddo.  At least through the end of 2012, we plan to come down often for long weekends, fall break, etc.  In fact, after speaking with the board in the U.S. and the management here in Ethiopia, we’ve agreed to remain in the roles of home managers, though our roles will obviously change.  We will clearly be less involved in the daily life of the home, but we will continue to partner with the Ethiopian management to support them in their roles, we will continue to oversee a few projects that remain in progress (the garden project, setting up a database, the well project), we’ll continue in the liaison role between the U.S. board and the Ethiopian staff, and we’ll still be involved in the budgetary process.  In some ways, we see this job in Addis as a way to remain involved at the Children’s Home for even longer, because it provides us with a means to remain in Ethiopia for longer (for now the job at ICS is just a one-year contract, but we anticipate that it will be extended in the future).

Probably many of you are wondering what this all means for our well project.  Since January, we have spent considerable time developing the plan to drill a deep borehole well on the Children’s Home compound to ensure a good quality and consistent water source for the home.  At this point, the U.S. board has raised about 2/3rd of the needed funds.  We have formed a partnership for the drilling/casing stage with Water is Life, a water/drilling NGO that operates in southern Ethiopia with the plan to start drilling in October (see  We have already paid for the 3-phase power installation and expect to have that installation underway in the coming couple of weeks.  And we’ve already completed or developed all the other components of the project: hydro-geological survey, pump research, quotes from pump and water system installers, etc.  This project is going to move forward.  It is a very important one for the Children’s Home.  We will remain managers of this project, both from Addis (many of the materials have to come from Addis anyway) and through trips down to Soddo (we’re working to schedule the drilling during Nathan’s fall break, for example).  If all the funds come in and all goes roughly accordingly to schedule, we expect to have the well fully up and running by the end of 2012.  We will certainly continue to keep you updated on this project through facebook and the blog.

Many of you have supported us financially over the past year, either with funds for the Children’s Home project in general, or with funds for some of our personal living and work expenses.  We want to again express our great appreciation for all of the support.  Being the recipient of others’ great generosity has been one of the strange and unexpected, but also very beautiful aspects of this experience this past year.  Many friends, relatives and total strangers have given very generously, despite the very real needs of their own.  We know that for many of you, you have given partly because of your connection to us.  We hope that going forward, though we’ll actually have a paycheck of our own and won’t be living and working full-time at the Children’s Home, you will continue to keep this project in mind and consider continuing to support it.  We have chosen to remain involved with this project partly because we believe it’s a good project, involved in work of real value, led by good and honest people. If you want more information about how you can continue to support the Children’s Home, we’d be glad to provide that for you.

So what’s next?  We will remain living and working full-time here at the Children’s Home until the end of July.  During that time, we’ll be making some quick trips up to Addis to try to secure some housing.  Nathan will start his new job on July 31st.  Richelle and Titay will still be traveling back to the U.S. for part of Aug. through mid-Sept.  Nathan, unfortunately, will now not be able to join them.  Richelle and Titay, however, are looking forward to seeing and visiting with some of you.  Titay will begin first grade at ICS in Sept.  Richelle will probably continue doing some social work consultancy with some Addis agencies.  And, of course, we’ll continue our involvement with the Children’s Home and continue to provide updates at and we’ll continue to blog.

As always, we welcome your comments, feedback and questions.  We also welcome visits.  We’ve greatly enjoyed visits from a number of friends and family this past year; don’t stop visiting.  We enjoy seeing you and Ethiopia is a great country to spend some time in.

Gardens and Water… Making Progress

We haven’t provided much information lately about our two most popular blogging topics:  the garden project and the well project.  We’ve been intentionally trying to diversify the topics a little.  But since there has been exciting progress in both of these projects, I guess it’s time for an update.

The Garden Project

I (Nathan) and the kids have been enjoying the garden project.  We’ve had a good wet spring since the beginning of April.  We have lots of garlic and red onions growing, plus some carrots, potatoes, green beans, peas and lettuce.  Richelle and I have been enjoying a few green beans and some lettuce already (by buying them off the kids who grew them).  We hope that the kids can be harvesting their first round of garlic and red onions in about a month, then turn around and get a second planting in so they can harvest again in October or so.

We’ve learned a few things along the way.  For you gardening experts out there, these may be obvious lessons, but they’ve been new to us:

Number one: garlic likes a good chilling.  A gardener can spur-on the growth of garlic if the bulbs are chilled for a while before “cracking” and planting.  This is why in North America, most people plant garlic in the fall.  The winter cold, followed by the warming soil of the spring, helps initiate growth within the clove, so that long before the ground is warm enough to work and plant other vegetables, the gardener can already see garlic shoots above the ground.  We don’t have a cold winter season here in Ethiopia… but we do have mountaintop villages where the nighttime temperatures dip consistently down into the 40’s.  That’s why the locals in the market all suggested, if we’re purchasing for planting, that we seek out the ladies selling garlic from the top of Mt. Damota (the mountain just north of Soddo, which rises to about 10,000 ft).  Unintentionally, we did a little experiment.  We bought our first round of garlic from the ladies from Damota.  The ladies even opened up some cloves to show us how the shoot was already beginning to develop within the clove.  Once planted, we had shoots above the ground within a week.  When we ran out of the first round of garlic and the kids still wanted to plant more, we went to the market again but couldn’t find any ladies from Damota, so we just purchased some random garlic.  It took over a month for the second round to show shoots above the ground.  We had almost given up, but just recently, shoots are popping up.

Number two: when you use compost on your gardens, you get the added excitement of seeing what random things grow from the compost.  We have maize, tomato and potato plants growing in the most random of places… places where they were never planted.

Number three: buying small red onions from the local open market and using them as onion sets can result in some ugly onion “clumps.”  Without access to prepared onion sets, we just selected out small onions (1” diameter or less) in the market and planted them as sets.  It seems, though, that some of these “sets” that we planted were either already “split” (harvested from an onion plant that had already bolted) or for some reason, once planted, they split immediately.  Instead of nice single-bulb onions, we have these weird clumps of 2-4 onions growing from the same “set.”  We’re going to experiment with a couple of clumps, try digging them up, separating them and re-planting.  We may also try letting some go to seed and try planting some from seed next time around.

Finally, number four: given the incredibly powerful rainstorms that sometimes hit Ethiopia when rain does come, we have learned that terracing a side-hill is not enough to prevent erosion.  We have spent many hours digging ditches to control rain run-off.

The Well Project

We are still moving forward with our deep borehole well project.  We have already begun the process of installing 3-phase electric power to our compound (needed to run the submersible pump that we’ll eventually have).  We hired some workers the other day to level out a path next to our football field so that an electrical utility truck can get in to install the transformer.  We hope to begin installation of the high voltage line and transformer within the next couple of weeks.  We have chosen to work with Water is Life as our partner for the drilling and casing stage.  Water is Life is a U.S. registered non-profit that operates out of Hawassa, Ethiopia and works on well and water projects throughout southern Ethiopia (check them out at  We are planning on drilling in Oct. after the ground dries out a little from rainy season.

After drilling and casing, we’ll be purchasing a submersible pump, installing the pump and setting up the water system from the well to our current system.  We hope to have the whole thing up and running by the end of 2012.  Of course, Aerie Africa has also been working on fundraising for this project.  Because of the depth that we must drill to hit quality, consistent, year-round water, the whole project will likely cost between $70 and $80 thousand.  We’ve already raised over half that amount (if you’re interested in contributing, please feel free to email us or go to

As always, we’re very interested in feedback (and gardening advice or contributions to the well project).  Please feel free to reply to this post, email us or post to our facebook page at