An endless stretch of open savannah ushers you to Laikipia county in central Kenya, located more that 200kms from the capital city of Nairobi.
Poor black cotton soils that dominate this vast land have conspired with geography to condemn the people to nomadic pastoralism and its attendant ills of poverty and conflict over scarce pastures and water.
For even though the area has two rain seasons, with an annual average of 600mm, the water quickly disappears into the lower layers of the ground as well as through evaporation, making it difficult for most vegetation types to thrive.
Consequently, mostly thorny shrubs and a few other tough grasses can withstand the vagaries of long dry spells and help to nourish the sheep and goats that are the major source of livelihood for the estimated 400,000 people in Laikipia county.
Access to reliable clean water has not only been a challenge for the pastoral communities, it has been a major constraint to the functioning of schools and hence the inability for generations to escape poverty through education. In fact according to the Zeitz Foundation, 80% of all diseases that affect the people of Laikipia, come from drinking contaminated water. Well, this may be about to change thanks to efforts of two non governmental organisation that have come to the area to promote water harvesting technologies for the people.
Prevailing conditions of water shortage, conflict and the need to protect animals in the nearby Segera and Mpala wildlife reserves, created a perfect marriage between two organisation that appear to have different but mutually reinforcing interests.
The Zeitz Foundation with interests in peace and conservation, attracted Pitch_Africa, a US-based social enterprise organisation that promotes high-yield community integrated rainwater harvesting using sport as a catalyst to develop a water tanks at Endana Secondary School in Laikipia county.
The partnership has resulted into the design and construction of an architecturally unique and impressive school that not only creates safe and spacious learning space for the students, but also has the capacity to harvest and store up to 2.5 million litters of water at a time.
Prof. David Turnbull, who along with Jane Harrison, also an architect with a passion for Africa, founded Pitch_Africa to design and develop Laikipia Unity Football Academy, School and Environmental Education Centre.
The waterbank school that integrates a 5-acre demonstration garden for conservation agriculture for the population of Laikipia, was made possible with donations from renowned Cameroonian and African footballer and former Chelsea star Samuel Eto’o as well as former Puma Chief Executive officer Jochen Zeitz.
Prof. Turnbull, one of the architects behind the school project, explained that the 2000-seater raised platform with steps, will provide vantage viewing for fans watching the five-aside football games, the cemented and roofed parts of the concrete and metal structure, along with the pitch surface can help to collect water that is stored in a 1.5million litter under the surface tank.
All other structures on the campus including the two students dormitories, teachers’ houses and the kitchen have stand-alone underground water tanks – fulfilling Pitch_Africa’s goal of establishing sustainable low-cost water harvesting technologies that can be scaled up and adopted by millions of sparely-populated households in Kenya where centralised water systems are uneconomical.
The entire complex has so far cost up to US$ 240,000 (Approximately Ushs 624m), a considerably higher value for an ordinary school in Kenya. But this is not an ordinary school, as Turnbull observed. The school is the home of the elite Samuel Eto’o Laikipia Unity Academy that brings together eight teams from greater Laikipia county to play soccer as a socially unifying game.
Unity is at the centre of the project, with the provision of safe water for children from the wider community acting as a further incentive for communities living a bit far away from the school to take their children to school.
As Andrew Oloo, the Laikipia Unity Programme Manager observed, members of the seven pastoral tribes in Laikipia have been at each other’s throats for generations fighting over pasture land and water for their animals.
“Using the passion people have in football, it has become easier to bring together worrying tribes to play, interact and bond together, something that was previously inconceivable,” said Oloo.
Th abundance of water from the waterbank, will further be used to irrigate vegetables on a 5-acre demonstration plot besides helping to enhance the diets of community members who face a constant threat of drought and food insecurity.
And according to Turnbull, the combined benefits that come from being able to educate children and the adults on better farming practices and water harvesting, combined with sport makes the school a truly man-made ecosystem.
More importantly perhaps for the less developed parts of Kenya and beyond, is that the school is a live demonstration of the ability to integrate social problem-solving approaches to development through activities like sport and farming.
Aside from the bigger school waterbank project, Turnbull has demonstrated that high-yield water harvesting is possible even with small pastoral or underprivileged households, and yet its benefits to individuals incomes and the wider society are immense.