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BYU capstone project continues to help others as global nonprofit

By Sarah Hunt - | May 31, 2023

Courtesy WHOlives

A group of villagers in Africa watch as community members pass the Village Drill's handles in a circle, powering the dig to an underground reservoir in this undated photo.

At 5 years old, girls in underserved parts of the world carry half a gallon of water on their heads throughout the day to bring it back to their families in the evening. By age 10, they’re carrying 5 gallons while their male classmates get to sleep in and play.

In 2010, WHOlives founder John Renouard was inspired to take action after visiting Kenya and Tanzania, where his son served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Even in large cities, like Arusha, Tanzania, running water is scarce.

“I just couldn’t believe that, here we were in 2010, and we were still living like this. They were still struggling even in major cities to get clean water,” Renouard said.

On his plane ride home, Renouard couldn’t help but feel angry. He was angry that innocent people were suffering because governments and nonprofits were failing to come up with a sustainable solution to provide a resource as essential as water.

Access to water would greatly improve health, mortality rates would decrease and girls could have more time to attend and study for school.

Courtesy WHOlives

WHOlives founder John Renouard poses for a picture in this undated photo.

Upon returning to Utah, Renouard started WHOlives and initially made contact with the BYU engineering capstone program about a brick press that would allow people in these areas to build more stable homes.

One night, Renouard had a dream with the design of the Village Drill, a human-powered machine that could access clean water stored in underground reservoirs. He woke up, sketched it out, and went back to sleep.

The next day, a BYU capstone representative called asking if he had an idea for a project. Renouard told them about the Village Drill, and later pitched it to a team deciding on the final capstone projects for the year.

The project was approved and a team was formed, consisting of seven engineering students, Renouard, suppliers and Professor Chris Mattson, who oversaw the project. After months of research and multiple drafts, a computerized rendering of the drill was finalized.

“I went to my computer, opened up the email, clicked on the drawing, and the picture popped up. And quite honestly, it just hit me, emotionally, because I immediately recognized it from my dream. That’s it. And that was probably the first time where I was just like, ‘holy smokes. This is actually going to happen,'” Renouard said.

Courtesy WHOlives

A group of villagers in Africa watch as community members pass the Village Drill's handles in a circle, powering the dig to an underground reservoir in this undated photo.

A prototype named “001” was built, and the machine drilled successfully during a test in Utah. With the help of donors, the team was able to travel to Tanzania where the drill found a reservoir during the first four days of digging.

“Before the Village Drill existed, many smart people told the development team that drilling 250 feet into the earth was not possible by human power. It was amazing to see the students stick with it, run tests, do engineering analysis and prove — as best they could — that it would actually work. Going to Africa with the students and seeing the drill work was priceless,” Mattson said.

Thirteen years later, “001” is still functioning — alongside 137 drill teams operating in 37 countries. Village Drills have dug over 12,500 wells, helping over 12 million people. WHOlives operates differently than most nonprofits; instead of gifting the drill or digging a well for residents, local drill teams sell the wells to the villages.

For sustainability, it is essential for the wells to be paid for by the villages, excluding times when extreme emergency needs arise. Two dollars a month for 10 months is paid by each family in the village.

Other nonprofits use motorized drill trucks to make wells, but these wells frequently collapse when being dug. Other manual drill machines are not strong enough to get into the aquifers and stop digging when they reach ground water, which dries up quickly. Villagers assume based on many past experiences that the nonprofits will never come back to fix the well, so they default to once again assigning women and girls to fetch dirty river water daily. Drinking this water increases the mortality rates of babies raised on clean water by 80%.

Courtesy WHOlives

A villager watches as community members pass the Village Drill's handles in a circle, powering the dig to an underground reservoir in this undated photo.

The Village Drill goes deeper, past ground water, through a hard layer of rock, into a naturally replenished reservoir of clean water that rarely, if ever, dries up. Owners that have a well drilled by the Village Drill now face minimal issues with their water source and have already seen improvements to their health, education, agriculture, and more.

After each well is completed, the first drink of clean water is often given to the valedictorian of the high school’s senior class. On one such occasion, Renouard recalled that the valedictorian exclaimed, “it tastes like nothing!” after her first sip.

“We forgot to explain that water is supposed to taste like nothing because the dirty water definitely has a bad taste to it, and the idea that water had no taste was so foreign. But just to see those reactions, pumping the water and taking their first drinks, and even having water fights, it’s amazing! I mean we’re in Africa, you know, who would have a water fight here?” Renouard said. “There’s not a lack of water in Africa. They have more water and aquifers than we do here in America. So it’s not a lack of water, it’s just the lack of access.”


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