How falling ill with dysentery inspired a Kenyan teenager

Story highlights

Joel Mwale is a Kenyan student and entrepreneur

He built a borehole near his home to provide water for people in his village

Mwale then went on to start up Skydrop, his own bottled water company

CNN  — 

When Joel Mwale was hospitalized with dysentery, his doctors advised him to focus his energies on making a full recovery.

The Kenyan student had caught the illness after consuming contaminated water distributed by his municipal council during the country’s annual dry season.

But as he lay in bed yearning for medication, Mwale, 18, came upon the idea that would provide his community with access to safe drinking water and put him on the road to becoming one of Africa’s most promising young entrepreneurs.

“I thought that what if this thing keeps on happening, year in, year out, what if next year the same problem happens?” he says of the illness which also affected numerous other people in his home village.

“I should do something,” he said to himself. “I’m not just going to sit back and watch things happen.”

Africa’s leaders of the future

Upon his release from hospital Mwale invested his life savings, 10,000 Kenyan Shillings ($95), in building a borehole in his village – a deep well that could reach the water flowing far beneath the ground.

With the help of local volunteers and tradesmen, he began digging on a patch of land close to his home and before long they struck water.

The team then set about putting the pipes, infrastructure and mechanical system in place that would enable its extraction.

Almost four years on and the project has been so successful that it still provides clean water to around 500 households, says Mwale.

“It works in such a way that somebody has just got to turn a wheel then a lot of water comes out on the other end,” he says.

Galvanized by his DIY borehole success, Mwale soon set about planning bigger projects and investigating how he could bring safe and reliable drinking water to the wider Kenyan population.

He was initially held back by a mixture of financial constraints and the need to help his unemployed mother, but before long he found the spark that would bring him his next project.

“One day while I was walking around my community … it was raining and I saw water running off the ground,” explains Mwale.

“So I said that if there’s anything that I can do to be able to trap this rain water, store it in a reservoir, then be able to purify it and sell it to the public … this can be a good idea,” he adds.

With the help of a financial loan from a local farmer, Mwale began investing in the necessary equipment and business infrastructure to put his idea into action.

Within a matter of months he had founded Skydrop – a company that would come to specialize in capturing falling rain water in a series of giant tanks before purifying and bottling it for sale on the commercial market.

Africa’s ‘green drought’

The start up has since helped Mwale bring clean drinking water to a much wider consumer base – selling 33,000 bottles in the last financial year alone – as well as providing a service that is more reliable and cheaper than those provided by the Kenyan government, he says.

It has also enabled him to provide for his family, offer employment to a growing number of people in his community and win him the Azisha prize – an African award for innovation that comes with a $30,000 prize.

Such high praise and financial rewards seemed a long way off as he lay prone on his hospital bed, admits Mwale.

But he adds he hopes his success will inspire others in Africa to act upon their ideas and become more involved in different types of entrepreneurship.

“I think there are many more youths who are sitting on their potential,” he says.

“But the most important thing is that in order for Africa to realize its goals … youths and everyone will need to embrace the true spirit of entrepreneurship because it’s only (through) true entrepreneurship that people are able to utilize their full potential.”

By taking chances and acting on their instincts, he adds, African people can help solve the myriad problems their elected representatives have so far failed to address.

Eoghan Macguire contributed to this story.