A charity set up by a Leeds business is helping make a world of difference to villagers in Africa, reports Neil Hudson
Retired Leeds businessman Raymond Rowan says there’s a very good reason for his affinity with Africa and it goes all the way back to his childhood.
“I used to have a big map of Africa on my wall,” recalls the 74-year-old, who, incidentally, has helped build more than 100 wells in the continent. “I remember looking at it and being fascinated and wanting to go there when I was younger.”
He would be in his 60s before he would realise that dream but since 2000, he’s travelled to the continent eight or nine times, to oversee the building of water tanks, school rooms and wells paid for by Poverty Relief Foundation (PRF), the charity he set up with colleagues Mike Madeley, from Harrogate and Peter Millican from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Before all that, however, Ray raised a family and built up property business Brassington Rowan, buying and selling commercial properties.
The father-of-two and grandfather-to-three is now semi-retired but spends a good deal of his time overseeing the work of the charity, which to date has built 117 wells across the northern Kagera region of Tanzania, close to the shores of Lake Victoria, in addition to some school rooms and water tanks.
He said: “This is our tenth year since we began building wells and I’m pleased to say we have passed the 100 mark - in fact, we have built 117 with more on the way. Each well costs about £2,000 but typically they serve around the same number of people but they make such a difference to people’s lives. Instead of having to walk between three and five kilometres to fetch a bucket of dirty water, now they have much quicker access. It means the children can go to school and learn and the parents can get on with tending their farms of whatever it is they are working on.”
Ray grew up on Park View Terrace, Heaton, Bradford and was one of 10 children, his father working as a brewer’s foreman for 54 years with the Hey’s Brewery. He recalls a relatively carefree childhood, playing out on the street until late and going to the park with siblings and friends. When he started work, it was in a warehouse “tying up parcels” and later “selling tyres”, before he moved into insurance and eventually answered an advert for an estate agent.
“I was 21,” he recalls. “It was the start of my career. Eventually, we set up on our own as Brassington Rowan. We didn’t deal in houses, it was all commercial property. I think there came a time when we were looking for some way of giving something back and while there are a lot of worthy causes in this country, here at least we have social benefits, whereas in parts of Africa, when you have nothing, you really do have nothing - there’s no fallback.
“I think it was that and the fact I’ve always had a fascination with the continent, right from when I was a boy looking at the map on my bedroom wall.”
The charity was initially called Property Relief UK but it changed its name in 2005, the year it began building wells.
“Before the wells, we built some rainwater tanks but they were very expensive and I was always aware that, while they are meant to be free to people, at the end of the day they would be owned by someone because they would be on their building and if the level of water was low, there’s a risk of people being turned away. With a well, it belongs to the whole village.
“During my trips to the country and when we go back to see some of the wells which we built in the beginning, people tell us that more children now attend school as a result of the well, because they are no longer fetching water and diseases have also fallen.”
The wells are hand dug down to around 50ft and then lined with concrete rings before a pump is installed. Once operational, the water supplied is typically much cleaner than that villagers were previously used to.
Whenever he visits the areas where wells have been built, he is often honoured with gifts by the local people.
“Over the years, I’ve been given lots of chickens, about six goats, eggs, I was once given five litres of honey and a 50 kilo bag of rice - in all the cases, it’s worth a lot to the villagers but to not accept it would be to insult them. Of course, I don’t bring them home - they usually end up being kept by the people who go round with me.”
So far, PRF has raised about £250,000 and that has been mostly through word of mouth, with donations coming both individuals, community groups and clubs and businesses.
One such is H&C Whitehead Ltd, a textile finishers in Brighouse, whose managing director David Whitehead said he was pleased to support the cause, adding: “When you look at the third world, you see some places do not even have things like a clean water supply. Also, I’ve always believed the key to solving many social problems is education, so we are happy to support the projects Raymond is involved with.”
Another of the schemes started by the PRF is known as ‘revolving loans’ and is a kind of social enterprise scheme where people can borrow money to fund projects.
Raymond explained: “We started it off with £700, which we loaned to 30 women, the idea being that they repay the money with interest, at a rate set by them, so that they can then loan it out again to more people. Ten years on and the fund stands at £8,500, with loans out to 225 groups.”FACTFILE
PVF began building water tanks in the remote Kagera region of Tanzania in 2000 but has since built over 100 wells.
It prides itself on investing 100 per cent of donations into projects, with charity workers footing their own travel and accommodation costs.
Companies who donate enough can opt to have their name on a well and pictures of it for their records.
Contact Raymond via the charity’s website: www.prf.org.uk, www.facebook.com prf.org.uk or call him on his mobile: 07974 350 656