Very late update!

So now we are both back in the UK, and have entrusted our creation to Josie at Butterfly. The final couple of weeks consisted of showing the pump off to some farmers. We successfully watered some tomatoes at a riverside garden. Flow rate seemed improved by using a smaller diameter hose, and we got the whole plot done in nearly no time. The farmers seemed interested in the design, so we will have to keep in touch as the project develops. 


Looking back over the few weeks we spent, it definitely feels like we learnt many more things than we passed on. Some of the technical skills and know how we saw are just amazing, so to be going over as a engineer for appropriate technology seems a bit odd really. EWB Sheffield has a nice range of home made gadgets which members have made over the years, but these are put to shame by some of the ingenious and simple inventions which we saw over there. Some of this cool stuff included –

-Heavy duty luggage rack/passenger seats for bikes. Turns a bicycle into a van with a van. Fuel was about $2 a litre at the time we were there so bike vans were very popular.

-Similarly, home made wheelbarrows. The welder we worked with did a good trade in these and did on the spot repairs for wheelbarrow users.

-Handcycles for people with mobility problems. Can be powered one-handed, and you can coast downhill!

-A phone repair shop, seemingly using a candle as a soldering iron. Although this seems mental so maybe I misunderstood.

-Many enterprising shops offering solar powered phone charging and haircuts where the is no mains electricity.

-Home made step down transformers for welding. Actually these were a bit terrifying, we were told to wear good shoes when visiting the welder shop in case a loose cable made contact with stuff on the ground! Still kind of cool though, it would be good to track down the person who makes these.


All in all it was a very enriching experience as someone starting out in engineering. The amount of stuff you see getting made almost in the street, rather than in a far away factory, is just awesome. Also seeing people interested in what we would consider ‘alternative’ or ‘green’ technology was really cool, as there is a real need to save fuel, and often no ready access to electricity.


Apologies for the lack of photos this time, I need to get my SD card de-virused before I can use it 😦



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Testing the new gear

Following the loss of our squadron of helpers, through school term starting, me and Harry have been plowing on with testing our shiny new pump. The main issue we were experiencing was with the large amount of suction required to draw the lake from the water up to our pump position under the mango tree. After a few too many attempts at trying to fill a pipe with 20l from a watering can, we finally severed our all-too-British attachment to pumping in the shade. Using the portable design we tried putting the pump right down at the lake shore and that solved all our problems with suction. Unfortunately there was a slight trade off in that we were now placing the pump on the rocky shore which reduced the stability of the bike. If a reasonably flat area can be cleared it still works very well, but we’re also looking into the possibility of getting a simple stand on the front wheel to stabilize it abit. We’re hoping that just putting the kickstand on the front wheel will give a big help.

After a couple of tests pumping the water up the hill, it became clear that using a midway tank would be a much quicker way of pumping than trying to do it all in one go. Trying to pump the water all in one go gave a very small flow rate, about 9 times slower than pumping halfway, whilst also overly demonstrating our chronic lack of fitness. With a halfway tank installed the work should be a lot easier and more efficient.
Following the initial tests we gave a demonstration to Katrina, from the department of agriculture. She seemed impressed with the technology and will be organizing for some of the local farmers to come visit aswell.
Unfortunately during the test we were abit careless, and didn’t attach the filter cloth to the inlet in the lake. Subsequently a few small rocks got stuck in our non return valve (thankfully the pump isn’t damaged) and broke valve. This means that every time you stop pedaling air leaks into the system, making it very hard to prime the system or pump for a significant time. Thankfully Josie, the leader of Butterfly Space, is going to Mzuzu today and will be buying a replacement valve. In the mean time we are working on a poster to advertise the demonstration and a construction guide , which just involves making a few small changes to the mayapedal guide. In light of our mishap, we’re also going to use the time to write a guide on how to use and maintain the pump safely. This will essentially be a 2 page guide saying “do as we say, not as we do”



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Getting by with a little help

Quite a lot has come on since the last post. We took all our bits and bobs to a welder in Nkhata Bay, and despite a week of rolling power cuts he managed to fit us in, and turn our pile of scrap into a snazzy metal frame. We then painted it up to stop it rusting and also make it look stealthy and cool.


ignore the clamps, string and rust

 We managed to recruit some assistants, I don’t remember asking for their help but these guys turned up anyway. I now have an example of ‘managing a team’ for job applications, although this lot were a law unto themselves :). We had a about 10 helpers for a bit, which was probably more than we needed. Once we learned how to say ‘Hey!’ ‘No’ and ‘Stop that’ in Chitonga, things calmed down, or maybe it was time for their dinner. Apparently they borrowed my camera for a bit, as there are quite a lot of blurry self portraits on there now. The noisy bike device seems to be too cool a toy to leave alone too, so we had plenty of willing pedallers.





photography skills


The pump works now for a short length of hose, and we had it pushing water up the slope yesterday at roughly 20 litres per minute, which is good news. Slightly more tricky is sucking the water from the lake (about 15m away over rocks) to our shady pedalling spot. Priming the system with water is a bit of a pain due to the long pipes involved, if there’s a knack to it we haven’t found it yet.

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Getting to work



Apologies for the infrequent updates, the internet supply here has been a bit temperamental with us. Since we last posted a lot of progress has been made. Having bought all the materials in Mzuzu we set about setting up an impromptu workshop area to use. We found a spot that is likely to be the most idyllic workshop we will ever work in, that definitely tops the hot stuffy lower floors of the engineering department in Sheffield. We used the same area as the pump site as it is in the shade of the trees and right by the lake.


The lab.

Having set up we were ready to get to work on prepping the frame for welding. For this we followed the design process that Mayapedal for their pedal powered pumps. The only change we made was to make the frame slightly longer as it allows the pump to slide further making it more flexible for different bike wheel sizes. This also allowed us to avoid having to source the quick release mechanisms from bikes used by Mayapedal, who have a much larger stock of bits and pieces of broken bike available to them.

Throughout the week we managed to get all the cutting completed, and have the basic frame welded. For this we had to find a local welder with help from Chembe, a local guy who is studying technical construction and has been providing us with invaluable assistance over the past few days. The amount of help he has given us is just another example of the helpful nature of people from Malawi. We have also been meeting with local government officials this week for advice over how this project could work in the long term and the response we have received has been really reassuring. Through Chembe and the department for agriculture we have managed to set up a decent range of farms to visit to test our pump against what they currently use which will really help us to assess the positive impact of the design.

Over the next couple of days we will be building the attachments to the bike axel and having the rest of the welding completed.




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Scrapheap challenge

Today we went to Mzuzu get materials for the pump. I was wondering what it would be like to deal with Steptoe and Son in another country before we came, and was a bit intimidated by the thought. Turned out to be ok – any stress about getting a good-ish deal went away when we realised that we had no idea what things should cost anyway.

Did some very light haggling (think Alan Partridge buying his house), and walked away happy. The customer service is totally charming and probably not scripted (before every transaction  – “How are you?” “I’m fine thanks and you?” “Fine thanks” “Good!” “Ok!”). Here are our scrap metal guys in north Malawi, look out for them if you ever need a bargain piece of angle iron.Image


We also had a poke round the bike repair place in the market. It was totally thriving, and had a few bikes for sale. Out and about, they seem to be used for business as much as anything, with bicycle taxis and bicycle mans-with-vans wizzing or puffing about the town. We’ve seen some really impressive amounts of stuff being carried around on some nifty beefed up pannier racks. It’s nice to see a different side to bike culture – whereas in the UK maybe it’s a bit of a lifestyle choice, here it’s a way to get stuff done without spending on fuel or spending hours walking. There’s probably more nerding out over bike adaptations to come!



The photo doesn’t really do justice to the size of the shop, but this was the least camera shy repair man there.


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First Look at the Site

Today was our first day to get into some work at Butterfly Space. First things first, we had to just look at the site that we were going to be pumping from the lake and the end tank to get a gist of how much work it was going to be to pedal. The two things we needed to know were how long a hose we would need to buy and the height the water had to be pumped to. Both of these required a scrapheap challenge approach to finding some measuring equipment.

actual trundle wheel

artist's impression of trundle wheel

artist’s impression of trundle wheel

For measuring the length of the hose we needed we used one of the broken bike wheels (soon to be rejuvenated as part of a functional bike) with a marking to fashion a trundle wheel. Using a wheel allowed us to measure the length of the uneven ground pretty accurately. In total the length from lake to tank was about 50m, about half of the length we’d been working on based on reports. Things like that really sum up the fundamental importance of getting to the site you’re working on as soon as possible, slightly trickier when it’s thousands of miles away.

Next we had to survey the height of the hill from the lake to the tank, which required us to get a bit more creative. Anyone who’s done civil engineering will have fond memories of the theodolite I’m sure, but for those of you who missed out it’s basically a tripod with a binocular. There’s a 360 degree spirit level which allows you to get a perfectly level view of a measuring stick at a chosen point which gives you the change in height. We managed to busk it with a spirit level and a stick.

Actual Theodolite – £800

Artist’s Impression of Theodolite – priceless


actual landscape

artist’s impression of landscape

We found the total height to be about 12m, give or take, which should be within the capability of our pump. We start building tomorrow, after which we’ll be able to see how well the pump works in comparison to what we think it’s capable of.


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So we’ve all arrived safely in Lilongwe now, and are going to make our way down to Nkhata bay tomorrow to get to work. I was the first to arrive, and have spent a few days generally getting to grips with the buzzing capital whilst researching the availability of the materials and tools that our pump requires.

Just as a belt-and-braces approach to make sure we could successfully build a pump for demonstration, we had purchased tools from the UK with us. Thankfully Lilongwe supplies all the tools and materials that we required, which at first left us feeling abit naïve but at least confirmed that the technology used was appropriate.

Other than that, staying at a backpackers lodge has proved ideal for information sharing and networking, having met a few people doing research into rural irrigation.

The main surreal/culture shock experience had to be the markets. There’s a combination of narrow corridors with wooden stalls selling scrap metal, DVD’s, fruit and everything in between. To save the effort of tailing back, there’s a series of bridges that seem to delicately tread the line between instability and falling.



One of the fine bridges giving us a shortcut over the river to the other side of the market.

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