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Development flows in Africa

Energy, health, education and agriculture: key elements for the growth of a community, made possible with Eni's help in Angola and Congo.

by Davide Perillo
30 March 2021
15 min read
by Davide Perillo
30 March 2021
15 min read

Did you expect it to have such an impact? "In my head possibly yes, when the project was designed, there were ideas and goals, but it was all on paper. Then to see things gradually becoming real was exciting”. Ana Patricio, Eni coordinator of sustainability programmes in Angola, talking about excavations and wells. Which is normal for an energy company. This time, however, she’s talking about water. Something badly needed in much of Africa. And that, especially in certain areas, such as the southwest of the former Portuguese colony, is an acute emergency and a heavy burden on many aspects of people's lives.

SDG number 6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda, which advocates access to drinking water, is one of the most cross-cutting. It touches on everything, health and agriculture, education and the fight against poverty… And in these places you can see that all too well. As you look around, you immediately understand why it is worth starting here, a short journey that can help people understand many things. About Africa, about water and much more.

Local development alliance

Eni has been working on an Integrated Social Project in Angola since 2017. The project addresses people's needs on different but connected levels. Firstly, agriculture, with more than a thousand farmers involved and 28 farmer fields, through which we can teach how to manage the greater availability of water. In a particularly arid area, where agriculture was previously not developed because of the lack of irrigation. Now, being able to grow okra, cucumbers, carrots and aubergines has enriched and diversified the local diet. But the project also involves schools and medical centres, which came to this area together thanks to another source of life, energy

Ana explains "Supporting a country towards the Development Goals is part of our way of doing business. "We see the areas that need help most, we consider the SDGs and we select the projects that appear to be the most effective for people." The difference, in this case, is that the help is in an area where Eni does not operate. "But we saw that the inhabitants there were in great need and no one could help." This is an area between two provinces, Namibe and Huíla, with two municipalities —Bibala and Gambos— and involves nine communities. That amounts to 60 thousand people. "So far we have completed 8 photovoltaic systems and as many water wells". We dig 100 meters deep, with pumps powered by clean energy. And the beneficiary "is the whole system, including schools, animal famers and health centres”. Take the right action and you can respond to a whole range of SDGs. "There is a great deal of education around health in particular. We have people going into homes and schools to promote it and we have launched a programme to curb the spread of the pandemic”.

A local NGO, Adpp, Ajuda de Desenvolvimento de Povo para Povo, “the people for the people”, is also lending a hand. “If the project just involved installing a panel or a well, we wouldn't need help” says Ana “But this is a question of reaching out to people, helping us understand the ways of doing things, day by day. Help of that kind is indispensable”. This has been enough to change many lives for the better. Giving water to the Taka medical centre, which took a huge leap forward. Or to the Kamupapa school, where teachers used to bring the water from home. But the benefit is widespread. "We have installed 900 tippy-taps, very simple systems for hand washing without wasting water" explains Ana "It’s a tank connected to a pedal, press it, it tilts and a trickle comes out”. A simple act that makes a big difference, also in protecting yourself from Covid.

Not only water

But the impact is even more powerful, if we consider that along with the photovoltaic wells comes light too. This means the chance to study in the evening, to keep medicines and vaccines in the fridge and even to meet up after dark. “The wells have become a meeting place, because there was no light before. And imagine what it means, simply, to be able to turn on a TV. There are people who previously did not know what was happening around their own country. Now that’s possible”. Not to mention another sustainable effect that water brings with it. From the list of SDGs, this deals with two, numbers 5 and 10, gender equality and reducing inequality. For women, this is a revolution. They are the ones who spent hours and effort going to wells, the ones who worked at home by candlelight or oil lamps. 

“Now they have LED lights and can cook things no one has eaten before, because they weren’t grown here. It's a huge change” Ana points out. But what effect has it had on you, personally? "It was a surprise. I work for Eni, which is a multinational. But I'm Angolan and I'm a woman. I’m happy to see such an impressive outcome for the lives of so many women in my country. Before, they didn't stand much of chance. Now, they do". This is also why, when you ask Ana to put the Goals to be achieved in order of importance and to say where on the list she’d put SDG number 6, she replies “Each SDG is fundamental, we cannot say that one is more important than the others. But if we are talking about communities, water is the basis of everything. If you don't have access to energy, somehow - with a great deal of effort - you can survive. Without water, that’s impossible. It is life”.

And it unites people, even where you don't expect it. A few weeks ago, Maria Florida Joaquim, 41, a resident of Kapangonbe, was asked how the water project had changed her perspective and she replied “I learned to grow new plants, to start nurseries, But I’d never seen people from different tribes, like the Mucubals and the Mumuilas, doing things together. Now that happens. We work side by side”. "That's true, and it's one of the nicest things" Ana notes “The project has made it possible to strengthen bonds. They know they can work together”. In short, it works here. Could it be a model to take elsewhere? Ana Patricio only needs a split second to think about that. “Certainly, it can be. We are working in different situations and with people very different from each other, because they are spread over very large areas. It's difficult. But if you can do it here, it can work elsewhere as well. The future is open”.

Eni in Congo, a long story

These are words echoed in another language, from a country further north, the Congo and the second leg of the journey. "For us, this project is liberation," says Monsieur Jacques Mbemba-Mayela. And it’s enough just to look at his face to see this is not rhetoric. This is his way of saying that life has really changed. His and that of the other inhabitants of Hinda. A place of farmers and livestock. An arid and hard to cultivate land, where the rainy season sometimes lasts for months. But there is no drinking water. Or rather, there was, but miles away. You could always see "women coming and going with water cans on their heads." Now it's here, at your fingertips. "Water is life."

The taps were turned on in December. This is the final stage —for now— of the Hinda Project, which has allowed Eni to dig thirty drinking water wells in 22 villages in the area, in the southwest of the country and a few kilometres from the ocean. Small places, like Tchitondi, Dionga, Bondi. Clusters of houses full of life and humanity. Hinda is a large project and a story that started long ago. The first memorandum of understanding between Eni and the government dates back to 2011, but the six-legged dog has had a presence in the country since 1968. Hinda involves various sectors, including health, agriculture and education. Plus, indeed, water. "The project is truly integrated", explains Yvon Nkouka-Dienita, head of Eni Congo's community and regional initiatives division. “The wells provide 25,000 people with clean water. But the impact touches on many aspects of their life”. 

This is also why it’s important to understand how we got there, to those wells. Eni has several offshore and onshore plants in this area. Before Nené Marine, offshore, the blocks of M'Boundi, Kouakouala, Zingali and Loufika were opened. As always, working to help the population is part of the agreement. The Hinda Project started with school restructuring and training for farmers. Then it began to address health problems and the water emergency. The company opened discussions with the state technical committee on water.

"Together we chose the villages for activities and assessed the sustainability", explains Nkouka-Dienita. And given that the first condition for making a project truly sustainable "is that beneficiaries consider it their own", the next step was to get the village leaders and population onboard. "Everyone is involved in the strategy. they provide the land, that’s their contribution. And it’s important that they understand that”. This is why, before starting excavations, "we asked AVSI, an Italian NGO that works with us, to go there and carry out awareness work. They explained what would happen and the impact it could have on their lives”' And help them understand management of the fully operational well would be down to them, the locals. "They elected a comité de gestion in every village, which decides on access, times and maintenance”.

The wells here go down a hundred meters and have photovoltaic energy pumps. Each took an average of three months of work. And the project has not slowed down, even with the arrival of Covid. "There were problems, but we carried on. In 2020, we delivered 5 wells, three new and two recovered”. This is why you hear Hinda residents like Ruth, probably in her twenties with long straight hair, saying "we have been waiting for this change for years". Before, people had to travel twenty kilometres to buy water, now they have it three hundred meters from home. "Clean, safe, with no risk of disease," says Nkouka-Dienita “They can drink, cook and wash. And it saves time, because before going to work many had to allow an hour or two for fetching water”. It's a huge gain, even in a part of the world where time seems to go slower than elsewhere. 

And when Edith Lucie Makosso, one of the local administrators, standing next to the tank in front of the village school remembers that "this well is not only for those who come here, but for the whole community", she makes another important point. "Wells have an impact on all social structures," explains Nkouka-Dienita “Our pipes reach the Health Centre, where there is one. And the schools, which almost always have a canteen. Children travel 5 or 6 kilometres to get to class and they can’t go home for lunch. But a canteen needs clean water to prepare meals…”. It is interaction again, a close link between health, education and clean energy. Or, in terms of sustainability, between the SDGs numbers 3, 4 and 7, plus all possible knock-on effects.

Partnerships for the sustainable development

However, there’s another effect. More subtle, but just as important when it comes to making a difference. Many others have dug wells in this part of Africa: No one, or almost no one, has chosen to hand over the management to the locals. "I’ve seen cases where someone digs, someone finds water, someone opens up, but after a while everything falls apart, because no one is responsible” says Nkouka-Dienita. Here, someone is. The management committee, in fact. They also decide the contribution share requested from locals. Almost token payments of around one euro a month per family. "But it's important that it's not all free. The money pays for simple maintenance, but above all it makes individuals responsible”.

This model led Unicef to recognise the Hinda Project wells among the local best practices of sustainable development during a conference a few months ago in Brazzaville. And that helps us to better understand how important another factor is that’s linked to water, partnerships. And that is the basis of another UN SDG, number 17. Working with others who give what you can’t, and vice versa. "Our job is not to build water wells, we are still an energy company” says Nkouka-Dienita. "But the focus on people is not only in combining business with social activities, it also involves working with professionals who help you to succeed. Avsi, in this case, and the companies that worked together”. 

All those involved who have now made it possible for Fidele Gentil Boungou from Dionga, to simply say “we are very relieved, because water is the source of life”. And for Nkouka-Dienita himself to say how much it means to him to see a project like this realised. "I'm happy. As an Eni employee and as a Congolese”. A pause. "But if you’ll let me, I’d like to explain why". Please, go on. “I’ve been working for this company since 2006, but when I joined I was a doctor. I’d spent ten years dealing with healthcare in sustainable activities. Then they asked me to become project manager. I changed my life to help change that of my people". But wasn't he already doing that as a doctor? “It makes me happier to open a well that makes two thousand people happy than to cure one. Or to help a school with a thousand pupils, rather than looking at an ultrasound. Healthcare in Africa is also very important, of course. But when I come here and see the children going to school, I'm happier”.

The author: Davide Perillo

Journalist, he currently deals with sustainability, social issues and Third Sector. He was director of Tracce magazine for 13 years. He is a member of the editorial staff of the Rimini Meeting (an international event for which he has managed numerous meetings), he was editor-in-chief of Sette, a magazine of Corriere della Sera newspaper and covered the economy section for L'Europeo. He has a degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Journalism.