By Dr Christian Andres

Introducing: Obrobibini Peace Complex (OPC)

OPC is an NGO bringing together various cultures to evolve regenerative communities adopting low-impact lifestyles, so-called “ecovillages”. Besides engaging in organic farming, these communities practice off-grid living, which can include clean energy (ex. solar and biogas solutions), as well as solar-pumped groundwater distribution and filtration systems to ensure the availability of sufficient, high quality water. The ecovillages’ main purpose, however, is to provide a platform for people to unfold their full potential; living in harmony with the soil, animals, other beings, and oneself is a complex undertaking that is not taught in public schools. Thus, OPC assumes responsibility to fill this knowledge gap, teaching people not only how to work towards creating healthy environments that ensure healthy bodies, but also how to have a healthy, peaceful mind and thus find happiness in life, regardless of external circumstances.

OPC’s first such “learning centre” is located in Busua, a colourful fishing village in the Western Region of Ghana, and one of the country’s focal points of the nascent surfing scene. Often dubbed “Africa for beginners,” Ghana is politically stable. The equatorial climate is characterized by two rainy periods (May – July, September – November) and a prolonged dry season (December – March). Thus, especially during the dry season, irrigation needs are high. The piece of land on which we are currently building the first OPC measures four acres in size and is located in a beautiful little valley tucked away behind the village within walking distance from the beautiful beach of Busua (about 1km as the crow flies). Villagers usually fetch water from surface wells for bathing and washing. For drinking, they buy so-called “pure water” – half-litre-sized hard plastic bags filled with filtered, and sometimes chemically treated, drinking water – at a price of around 5 Cents per litre. Plastic pollution with pure water bags is a big problem throughout the country.

Various water needs and our off-grid solution at OPC

At this time, there are about 10 people living and working at OPC. The residents take care of the vegetable garden, water the mushroom farm and the agroforestry system that combines different trees and crops, and care for the animals(dogs, cats and bees). All of this requires water on a daily basis. In addition, we are about to start producing certified sustainable and organic palm oil to help local farmers earn a decent living. Our mill has a capacity of 1’000 litres per day, and because oil palm fruits are boiled before the oil can be extracted, every litre of oil needs two litres of water. Thus, we have a high need for water every day, which would incur considerable costs if we were to rely on Ghana’s governmental water distribution system alone. Besides, we are not even covered by the national water grid because of our remote location; we had to build our own access road with a bulldozer, a milestone we accomplished in April 2019.

With a fresh access road, we were finally able to drill for water, and luckily found an abundant reservoir at roughly 40m depth in May 2019. Before that, we had to fill our gallons with wheelbarrows at the next surface well at a distance of about 1 km, a tedious task! Once we had the borehole, we were able to send water down the hill with a simple hose, still using our gallons, and produced drinking water with a camping-style and sized microfiltration module. At this time, we operated the submersible pump that was lowered into the deep well with a 2 kW gasoline generator, which we finally replaced in 2020 with a 3 kW solar system – what a relief! Thus, we now run a decent solar-pumped groundwater distribution and filtration system featuring different storage tanks and our beloved PAUL (Portable Aqua Unit for Lifesaving), an ultrafiltration-membrane module (gravity driven membrane filtration (GDM)) that retains bacteria and viruses. Our system results in filtered drinking-water-quality water without the use of any plastic whatsoever. The PAUL is able to provide us with some 4`000 litres of drinking water daily, which is definitely enough for us.

How we came to install the PAUL at OPC and our experiences with the new system

First, we conducted a groundwater analysis in 2019, which showed that the main function of the water filtration system needed to be the exclusion of bacteriological contamination, since we found E. coli in the samples. On the other hand, dissolved parameters (e.g. salinity or dissolved organic carbon) were at low levels and therefore not critical. We measured a certain level of arsenic in some of the samples, but in-situ colorimetric tests did not confirm arsenic contamination. These advanced water analyses, (carried out by the water lab at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi) help tremendously in designing water treatment systems in decentralized places.

After the testing, we conducted technology and market research and selected the GDM technology using the PAUL as perfectly suited for the decentralized, small-scale application we were looking for. Another challenge was the long distance between the borehole and the point of use (kitchen, garden). After talking to some experts on GDM at KNUST, we opted for a layout of the water tower as close as possible to the kitchen, thus keeping the freshwater pipes as short as possible. The next step was the more detailed layout and procurement of all the necessary materials. Once all the materials were available at the site, we discussed the whole project with a local mason, who helped us build the tower. We integrated two wooden beams, and after finishing the plastering works, we placed the PAUL in the middle. Piping and plumbing was another skill we had to learn, and the pretty straightforward approach that brought tangible results very quickly was delightful and lifted the spirit of the whole team involved in the project considerably.

Results and outlook

Since the PAUL ultrafiltration module started running in May 2020, we have filtered some 21’000 litres of water in nine months, which equals some 1’400 packs of pure water or roughly 700 USD. Since the costs for the whole system were roughly 2’000 USD, we expect to recover the investment costs for the whole system in roughly two years. In addition, we save costs on transporting pure water to the site and have non-monetary side benefits like ease of use and general improvements to the hygienic conditions in the camp. One of the main benefits is that we do not contribute to the plastic pollution with pure water bags, a very important point for us as an ecovillage.

Surrounding community members can now conveniently fill their head pans of water at our tank without walking a longer distance to the next well and without having to fetch  water with buckets from down the well, which is a real improvement to their daily life. This improved the harmony between the ecovillage and surrounding community members. In addition, people passing through the ecovillage to go to their farms can now fetch filtered drinking water into their gallons, thereby helping to safeguard the environment.

The next upgrade of our water system will be the automation of the whole system. First we will place another “main distribution tank” on top of a three-storey building we are currently constructing close to the borehole. This tank, as well as the borehole pump at 40m depth, will be equipped with float sensors that communicate with each other. Thus, all the water we use at OPC first goes through the main distribution tank. As soon as we use water at any point of use throughout the site, the water level in the main distribution tank drops, which activates the float sensor to tell the borehole to pump water. In this way, we can avoid having to walk to the borehole site to operate the pump at any time anyone needs a significant amount of water at any point of use throughout the site, which will facilitate work and life considerably.

As a final word of gratitude and appreciation, I would like to thank Gaia, Mother Nature, who provides us with everything we need; it is really a huge pleasure to live off-grid in a peaceful place like OPC (I personally live there for most of the year). We appreciate the work and dedication of our volunteers and workers, especially Nicolas Stöcklin who conducted all the research, designed and planned everything, as well as Noah Silvani who was the main person responsible for construction and implementation of the system. 

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” (Janis Joplin); thus by the power of our collective virtue, we have created and will create by being involved in this project. May every living being find ultimate peace and happiness, and thus come to realize that there is, in fact, nothing to lose. This is freedom. “OPC – Freeeeeeeeeeee!!!” (that’s our local call on the streets of Busua).

Dr Christian Andres is the Founder, President (Switzerland) and Executive Director (Ghana) of Obrobibini Peace Complex (OPC). He holds a PhD in tropical agroforestry and his research focuses on sustainable cocoa and oil palm production systems to fight climate change. Besides the NGO and his research, he is currently building up a centre of excellence in tropical agroforestry on his own 20ha organic farm in Ghana.