Off the Grid – small steps

As I sit inside, warm against the weather, I can hear the winter rain falling lightly outside. At the farm, the fields are green, but it has not been that wet. I can monitor how wet it has been by the level of the Kragga-Kamma lake I drive past on the way to the farm.

Pebblespring Farm has no municipal water. It has no electrical connection. It has no sewer connection. This is of course not a major problem yet, because no one is living there full time. But we will.

In the meantime, the cattle need water and the trees we have potted need water and for this we have installed two water tanks. First a 1 kl tank and then a 5 kl tank. From these tanks I run draglines (very strong, flexible 25 mm diameter black plastic pipe) to the cattle feeding troughs that I have made by cutting in half a 200l barrel.

We installed this 1 kl tank first last year sometime. (I remember posting a video)

5 kl tank. Best price from PennyPinchers

This has been relatively easy to achieve. For now at least all the pasture that I have accessed is at a lower level than the water tank, so I can gravity feed the water. No pumping required. The pasture that is furthest away (and where the cattle are grazing this week) cant be reached by the 100m dragline. For now, until I get around to buying more dragline, I bring water to this pasture in the wheelbarrow carrying a 25l container. I suppose it depends which way you look at it. Some of us will think its a real pain in the ass to trudge up and down in the biting winter wind pushing a reluctant wheelbarrow across lumpy pasture. But those same number among us, find it quite normal, acceptable and pleasurable to drive clear across town to pay for the privileged of battling against sweaty gym equipment designed to give just the correct amount of resistance and strain to mimic pushing a heavy wheel barrow across lumpy pasture. Like with most things its the story I tell myself about what’s going on that is more powerful to me than the actual circumstance. Its the meaning I give to what I do that makes it pleasurable or painful. Even pain is not that  bad, when I am able to develop a story that makes the pain appropriate.US Marines have a saying “Pain is the sensation caused by weakness leaving the body”. Absolute bullshit of course, no hard science at work here, but I marvel at the hundreds of thousands of Marines that would have found push-ups that much more bearable because of that “story”. The story I give myself about the wheelbarrow is that I am giving myself a perfect cardiovascular workout with just the right proportion of weight training.

Wheelbarrow Pilates

Anyway, I really did not want to let you to sidetrack me with the wheelbarrow. I wanted to talk about rainwater and “Off The Grid” stuff. Because, I really can see how we have become caught in the idea that supplying our homes with running water is an incredibly complicated thing that we can only achieve at the mercy of a massive bloated Municipality, with teams of clever engineers and armies of unionised workers. If running water intimidates some of us, then electricity send the rest of us running for the hills. Surely the only possible way to get light into our living room, heat the bathwater, roast the chicken and play “Days of Our Lives” on the TV, is to build massive multi billion dollar coal powered fire stations thousands of kilometres away in Limpopo province?

You see, I have got a sneaky suspicion that is just not that complicated to go “off the grid”. Of course those that make a living out of selling electricity and piped water continue to work very hard to convince us that “Off the Grid”, is the domain of hippies, homeless and hillbillies. Perhaps all the propaganda is completely spot on. Perhaps there is no other way than for us to trek to the office day after day, to earn the salary to pay the taxes to fund the massive infrastructure that will be able to sell to us, at inflated rates, the water and electricity we need to carry on our civilised existence. Yes, they may be right, but there is a small possibility, a minute chance, that the experiment that I am slowly getting going with, can show that I can set up reasonably easily off the grid water and power system that can keep me and my family comfortable enough for us to continue in the experiment.
My promise is to take you along with me. Let you in to all the steps, all the mistakes. Maybe we will learn together that we are not quite ready for this, or maybe we will learn that many others can easily copy me. This experiment is not trying to establish whether the technology exists to go off the grid. The technology has been available since the sixties. This we know. My experiment is a personal one and a family one. It has to do with my budget, my family’s consumption patterns, our climate’s demands on heating and cooling. The experiment is also very specific to the site. I have the advantage of not having any existing services connection to the site. So I am able to compare the cost of bringing these connections to the site to the cost of rainwater systems and Photo Voltaic in and wind turbines. Even the fact that we will be starting a house from scratch means that we can make choices that reduce our electrical load. We can orient a new house to harvest daylight. We can manipulate geometry to shade the house in the summer months but to gain the warmth of the winter sun. We can manipulate building materials to keep the warmth in in winter and out in summer. We are able to make choices like cooking and heating with the wood that is plentiful on the farm or heating bathwater with a solar geyser. All of the these choices may not be immediately available to many of you reading this because you are living in a house built when people did not really think about this kind of stuff, where the idea of ripping out an expensive (inefficient) piece of equipment, to be replaced with another (less inefficient) expensive piece of equipment is a lot more difficult than mine would be where I am starting from scratch. But you are welcome to come along with me an follow our progress.
In the meantime, tonight, the rain is filling my water tanks free of charge and free of fluoride : )

Think Local and create jobs.

(I wrote this article for Port Elizabeth’s daily newspaper, The Herald, it first appeared there on 20 June 2011)
The other day I went to watch our local rugby team play at our local stadium. Some local friends and I have taken a suite at the stadium to support the local economy. So, there I was, drinking some local beer and having a good time. At half time we were brought a meal to help soak up some of the alcohol. After complimenting the waitress on the meal, I was horrified as she explained that the Thai Chicken dinner had in fact been pre-cooked in Cape Town and brought in by truck up the N2 that morning. Come On! Could this be?
This meal was creating employment for someone in a Cape Town factory kitchen? What are we thinking? No, I am not picking on the stadium management. I am sure they are doing a great job. I am picking on us, all of us who live here and who need to develop an awareness that we need to support and grow our local economy. This is where jobs and poverty reduction will come from. It is unfashionable to say this I know, but we must come to see that it is more urgent for us to take action against poverty than against global warming. We must come to see that is more urgent for us to address the local economy than to address Rhino poaching. If we allow this poverty time bomb to explode, it will take out every Rhino, every Elephant, every forest and everything that this country has built up over the centuries. It’s urgent!
I had forgotten about my Cape Town cooked rugby meal by the time the May 18 local government elections came around. But, as I listened to the campaigning, I was struck by how few ideas at all were put forward about issues impacting on the local economy. All I got was a lot of hype about killing Boers, media bias, open toilets and police brutality.
I heard no-one, contesting these elections, articulate any understanding of the challenges facing the local economy. This is odd, because local government can and should play a pivotal role in leading us out of poverty and joblessness. We must, of course, be informed by policy developed at a national or provincial level, but our strategy and tactics need to be made completely relevant to the local economy. It is not clear to me from anything I have heard from local government, what our strategy and tactics are. It seems though, that we have developed the idea that we need “outside investment” or an “export programme” to get our local economy to work. We seem to believe that we need GM to get deals that see’s it export more Hummers to Kazakhstan, or that we need to build an IDZ so we can export Aluminium to Argentinean cooldrink can fabricators! We have come to think that we will be rescued by big investment from “outside”. We believe that somehow these actions will make the poor less poor. I am sorry to say, our thinking is mistaken. In order for us to reduce poverty and create jobs, we desperately need to focus on not only on getting new money to come in, but also on how we ensure that he money that is generated here remains for as long as possible. We must work to ensure that money circulates locally as many times as possible before it vanishes to the coffers of transnational corporations in Johannesburg, Hong Kong or London. This is the challenge that our small city is facing. It is not the same as the challenges that Cape Town, Durban or Dubai are faced with. It is our own challenge. It is a distinctly local challenge and in desperate need of local thinking and local leadership.
Each of you reading this will know how in your homes and in your jobs illogical purchasing decisions are being made all the time. As transnational corporations work harder and harder to expand their global reach, we find ourselves making more and more stupid decisions. We buy Irish butter , we get our takeaway from an American hamburger chain, our cars, even those made in the metro, are in some way part of a scheme to enrich a German or Japanese corporation. We watch foreign TV. We listen to American music. Every time we purchase from these transnational corporations we are taking away from the local economy, we take away from local culture, we damage the environment through waist, emissions and packaging. But what can we do?
Perhaps the first step we must all take is to help each other understand that “localisation” (not Globalisation) of the economy is: Good for the environment, Good for job creation, Good for quality, Good for well-being. Maybe the second step could be to build consciousness through our purchasing decisions. We could buy milk from a local dairy. We could support local restaurants (avoid the chains) We could switch off the TV, watch Bay United or the EP Kings at our local stadiums. We could catch a show at the Opera House. We could buy our food at a farmer’s market. We could start a farmers market! We could grow our own food. We could sell our own food. ….I don’t know. There must be a million things we can do to localise our economy. Let’s choose one, and do it today. It’s Urgent.

Can families root out Poverty?

This piece first appeared inThe Herald (Port Elizabeth) on 8 December 2010.
Nguni Matroos, the one armed geriatric Tsistikama farmer,…an inspiration!

Minister Ebrahim Pattel proposes that the salaries of the rich are frozen. While it is easy to see how this move would score points with the labour movement, the Minister has not argued how this limitation will address the challenge of poverty. We speak a lot about poverty in South Africa.y, rural poverty, “endemic poverty”, “entrenched poverty”. In talking, we have almost abstracted poverty; elevated to the status of an issue. Something requiring the world’s attention like global warming or rain forests. But how much do we really know about poverty? We think we know what poverty is. Surely the answer is obvious. But is it? South Africa like other developing countries are today the front-line, we are at the battlefront of the war against poverty. Here, poverty is real, tangible and palpable. This is not the case in Japan, New Zealand or Sweden.  Our friends in those countries can be forgiven for assuming and arms length theoretical view of poverty. But for us in Africa, we have got to develop an understanding of poverty useful  enough, to use to take action. Poverty is a problem effecting real people with real lives. I have slowly begun to grasp that we often think of poverty as the “inability to consume”. We think that poverty is simply that we haven’t got enough stuff or the money to buy stuff. But I wonder if it would not be better to understand the “inability to consume” rather as the symptom of the problem we are trying to solve. Would it not be more useful for us to see that it is the continued inability to produce and be productive that is the root of poverty?

Much of poverty is caused by ordinary people being robbed of their ability to be productive.  This robbery has been carried out in the name of colonialism, apartheid, crime or capitalism. Government’s welfare and housing programme’s are addressing the fallout from the robbery. They are to be applauded for this effort. But, does a social grant and an RDP house stop poverty? Is a poor woman still poor the day after she moves into her new RDP house? Yes. Of course. She is simply a poor person sleeping under and asbestos roof.  For us to take this woman out of poverty, we need to find out what stands in the way of her being productive. This is where it becomes difficult for government. It is impossible for government to go door to door, intervening at a household level . Government is doing what governments must do. Government have cemented our macro economic fundamentals and they have put in place safety nets for those that are too sick, too old or too young to look after themselves.
So if the institution of government cannot root out poverty at the household level, which institution can? This is where I propose, for discussion, that we do not overlook the family as an “institution”. The family institution has real power and it has broad reach. A family has the ability to identify those of its members who are victims of poverty. If it is not your sister, it may be your cousin, if it not your cousin it may be your second cousin. Extend definition outward from the core as far as you need to find a member trapped in poverty. Once we find this person, I suggest we get personally involved; understanding what obstacles this member faces to being productive. Remember we are trying to help this person to take the first step out of poverty. To earn even R1000.00 a month may revolutionise this family member’s life. What blockages stand in the way of your family member growing chickens? Selling firewood? Making vetkoek?  Mending dresses?  Painting houses? Growing pumpkins? Washing sheets? Baking Bread?  Don’t be cynical or patronising. Remember obstacles that may seem small to you could seem insurmountable to them. Once you agree on the project, help unblock the blockages. It may require a small cash loan, it may require some advice, it may need you to assist with an alcohol addiction, you may need to fence in the chickens to keep the neighbours dogs out. Each situation will be different, but know that you are the best placed person to help. One by one, family by family poverty slowly begins to withdraw to be replaced by a generation of productive, efficient and competitive families.
Could this be the path we should walk? Let us discuss it.

Work for All?

This piece first appeared in The Herald on 5 November 2010.

Tim Chats to Engineer, Hashiem Agerdien, as the private sector hoists the first truss at the state funded, NMBM Stadium

AT first Cabinet’s new growth plan seems unlikely: five million jobs in 10 years. Finance Minister Pravan Gordhan makes it clear the bulk of these jobs will be delivered by business. Is this even possible?
If we are to achieve the jobs target laid down by our president, we would see unemployment dropping from its current levels at 25% to a level closer to 15% by 2020. This equates to a 10% improvement.
So, simplistically, it seems, that if I have a business that employs 20 people, to achieve my share of the target today I would have to employ another two people (a 10% improvement). Suddenly, it seems a little more possible.
But, if it is we in business who have to deliver on these targets, are we up to it? Do we have what it takes? I would say we do, but there will have to be some serious changes made.
Firstly, we in business will have to stop being mediocre. We need to realise we must be world class – from the sign at our entrance, to the kettle in our tea- room, to the management systems we put in place.
We cannot continue to do as we have done because “we have always done it that way”. We must improve continuously. Read. Travel. Find out what best practice is and change our organisations for the better.
Secondly, we must stop our obsession with easy money, dodgy tenders and incentive schemes. There are more than enough real business opportunities with real demand for us to pursue.
Spending all our time brown-nosing people, claiming they can “get you a tender” or “fix you a deal”, is a big mistake. Let us spend our time building our businesses.
If there is a tender advert in the Sunday Times, let us put in our bid like everyone else. Let our achievements and capacity speak for themselves.
Thirdly, we must stop whinging. Sure, we’ve got poor leadership and we’ve got corruption. Get over it!
Don’t let that stand in our way of being excellent. Don’t complain. Do something! As a business you can do a lot more than an ordinary voter:
You can fund a campaign or a political party.
You can leverage your profile in business to run for public office.
You can use your profile to put your perspective across to leaders at a meaningful level.
Don’t complain, don’t whinge. Take action!
The business sector has a lot of work to do, but there is critical support we need. Government has provided the leadership to set the jobs target, but business needs a little more from them than that.
Firstly, can the business sector get a little more credit for the role we have played and continue to play in transforming this country? We are a key part of this country’s success.
Can you cut us some slack? There are rotten apples in the business, just like in government, but please, the word “businessman” is not synonymous with “bourgeoisie capitalist pig”!
Government does not need to choose between being friends with business or with labour, but just know that, by definition, labour cannot create jobs. As soon as labour creates a job, it is no longer labour, but business.
Secondly, government, don’t scratch your head trying to think what new programmes you should dream up to create jobs. Rather, let’s focus on doing what you have already promised to do.
There are some big job-stealing problems that you need to get right like education, crime and public transport, but there are small things that government officials and elected representatives can and must do immediately. It may help if they are pointed out:
Make decisions;
Make sure the water runs when we turn the tap;
Make sure the light goes on when we flick the switch;
Answer your phone;
Return your calls;
Reply to your e-mail;
Fire those that are incompetent;
Promote those that excel;
Process applications;
Issue permits;
Pay us when you buy something from us (on time); and
Spend your budgets.
Get these things right so business can go ahead and create jobs. You are slowing us down.
Like US president John F Kennedy, famously setting a target in the ’60s to put a man on the moon “before this decade is out”, our president’s act of setting a target has an already added value by getting you and I thinking about how to get it done. But now, we must act.