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Engineering Extremes: Bringing water to rural communities in Malawi

Alex Eliseev

Cornelius Mpesi’s (below) work has an immediate effect on people’s lives
Cornelius Mpesi’s (below) work has an immediate effect on people’s lives

Twist a tap and water gushes out. Living in a bustling city, it’s difficult to imagine someone walking for hours, buckets in hand, to reach a water point. And, once there, waiting another hour or two for the borehole pump to pull water to the surface.

With Cornelius Mpesi’s help – and the work of Water Mission Malawi – these long walks are vanishing, one by one, and hours of waiting are shrinking to minutes. He and his colleagues are working to install taps for rural communities.

Not all engineers get to experience how their designs touch the lives of people out in the real world. For Cornelius, 29, every project pulls him into that magical place where engineering and humanity collide. 

Solving puzzles 

Cornelius is the second youngest of 10 children. Growing up in Area 15, in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, he admired his siblings, and his parents, who piled their love and energy into raising doctors, scientists, accountants, entrepreneurs and engineers. 

There’d always be an older brother to help him learn to paint a wall or figure out a plumbing problem. His father, also an engineer, drew puzzles for Cornelius. The kind of puzzles where he had to count how many squares or triangles were hidden in a design. 

“He helped me see things differently,” Cornelius explains on a video call, as the sun beats down and a rooster crows somewhere in the distance. “My dad helped with my maths homework and gave me books to read.” 

Mechanical engineering wasn’t his first choice, but that’s the route Cornelius landed up on. He was a bit scared of it at first. But, towards the end of his course at the University of Malawi, he began discovering the beauty of the machines he was studying. 

Apprentice becomes designer

The first machines Cornelius worked on produced fizzy drinks and beers at Castel Malawi Ltd. He’d already had a taste of a similar production line at Illovo, the sugar factory where he spent a few months while earning his degree. But this time it was a job, not work experience. He trained to keep the equipment running and fixed it when things went wrong. He loved seeing the process from start to finish – from the ingredients going in, to bottles being sealed. He loved being inside the factory, doing a small bit of maintenance or helping with a major overhaul. In a way, it was like being at home, with so many people teaching him new skills. 

Cornelius Mpesi

Cornelius Mpesi

After a couple of years, a new opportunity sprung up. There were new kinds of machines, and plenty of process, but no factories. Cornelius’ new job, as a project engineer, was designing and installing water systems in far-flung villages across Malawi. 

Each project involves a survey of the land and what lies beneath it, the design and the build. On top of that, Cornelius negotiates with village elders, briefs fellow engineers and technicians, and scopes out how much each project will cost. He’s already worked with more than 10 communities and on 20 or more designs. 

Changing lives  

Cornelius remembers how long it took him to finish the first design. He kept double-checking every detail: pump size, pipe diameters, flow rate, water pressure, elevation, solar-power requirements and a hundred other pieces of the puzzle. Working at a non-profitmaking organisation, the design had to be cost-effective and there was no room for mistakes in the budget. 

Gradually, the process got easier, and the work more and more rewarding. 

“I take pride and joy in helping people get clean and safe water,” he says. “It’s a joy to see my designs come to life, knowing that lives have been changed.” 

Water Mission, a Christian engineering NGO, says many women in countries such as Malawi not only spend most of their day walking for miles to reach water, but face waterborne illnesses.   

More recently, Cornelius has led a handful of water projects and helped communities in the southern part of the country recover from a cyclone. 

Just getting started 

An associate member of the IMechE, Cornelius plans to become professionally registered. Like his father, he’s drawn to music and plays piano. His faith is important to him, as are the conversations he has with other engineers. When he meets younger engineers, he tells them to always keep an open mind and break down any limits they’ve set themselves. His advice is: work hard and grab every opportunity. 

When he’s not at the office or on site, he’s watching movies (he loves any film about superheroes) or writing poetry. To finish off the interview, he quotes a couple of lines that have been attributed to different thinkers and writers across the centuries: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”


Get to grips with the future factory at Advanced Manufacturing (18-22 July), part of the Engineering Futures webinar series. Register for FREE today

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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