In rural Cameroon, about 47% of the population doesn’t have access to potable water. One of those places without clean drinking water is the community that Franck Eben Onambele comes from. This 28-year-old student left his home country to study in the United States in 2005. However, for the past three years, he has returned to Cameroon each summer as part of his project to build wells, thus improving the lives of people from his region.
Franck Eben Onambele grew up in Oyak, which is located on the outskirts of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. In 2005, Onambele left Cameroon to major in International Agriculture and Rural Development at Cornell University in New York.
In 2013, Onambele made a trip back to his home region after years of being away. He immediately noticed that, during all the time that he had been away, life hadn’t improved for his friends and neighbours. No structures had been built to improve access to water for local people. Onambele decided to take the matter into his own hands. He created “One Summer, One Well”, a project to construct wells in his native region.
When I was young, every day, I walked several kilometres to collect water. Back then, that seemed normal to me. When I returned to Cameroon after going to university abroad, the living conditions shocked me. I remember seeing a heavily pregnant woman carrying two large buckets of water up a muddy hill to her home. I helped her, but the situation made me feel terrible. I felt guilty that I had had the opportunity to go live in a country where no one has to do that kind of time-consuming, backbreaking labour to drink or wash.
Another problem is that some of the water that the locals collect isn’t safe to drink. For example, a lot of people collect drinking water from the rivers, even though they also wash themselves in that same water. River water can also be polluted, especially from a build-up of rubbish and sewage.
When I returned to my university in the United States after my trip back to Cameroon, I enlisted the help of several of my classmates to launch an online campaign to build wells in Cameroon. We set up a budget including the cost for the material, the construction, the labour, the maintenance. In total, we estimated that it would cost $10,000 to build one well that produces drinking water.
We raised the money and, in summer 2014, I went to Cameroon to build a well in Oyak, my home town. I worked with a company that specialises in drilling bore holes to find the right location for the well. After it had been in operation for a year, I was able to see what a success the well is.. It produces about 1,500 litres of clean drinking water per day. This well provides enough water for 40 families.
“I didn’t have any support”
The second year, I was also able to collect generous donations from both my university and private citizens. I raised enough money to install a well in the nearby community of Nkoayos. This past summer, I installed a third well. This latest one was in Nkoabang, which is another suburb of Yaoundé.
This project came with a lot of challenges. When I first started out, I didn’t have any support, except from my school. I sent messages to humanitarian organisations but no one responded to me.
Then, when I was actually on the ground, I had to convince the local people to accept what I wanted to do. Even if I grew up in the region, I still had to gain locals’ trust. However, when people actually understood how the well was going to help them, they all came to lend a hand with the construction!
For now, I work on “One Summer, One Well” on an entirely voluntary basis. I finished my degree in agriculture and development and I took a year off to work on my project. I am hoping to start a business that builds wells across sub-Saharan Africa. I also want to run training programmes to teach other people how to start similar initiatives.
To raise awareness about his project, Franck posts photos and updates on the “One Summer, One Well” Facebook page.
He has also presented his project at different conferences where he hopes to catch the eye of potential investors as well as international organisations. However, he also hopes to inspire other students to work for the good of their community!