- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

Evangelical Christians have been plowing money into Africa for decades, even before megachurch pastor Rick Warren made it fashionable with his development program in Rwanda.

One of the more unusual ideas that’s come across my desk belongs to a South Africa-born Seattle resident who believes that Africa needs capital investment, not another handout.

So Rob Smith, the son of a Nazarene pastor, has begun EarthWise Ventures, which seeks to build a fleet of ferries on Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. Thirty percent of the Ugandan economy once depended on a water-transport service built by the British during colonial days but which Africans failed to keep up once the British left.

There are two untrustworthy ferries operated by the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments that have very limited service, but most of the 1,600 people who journey between the two countries instead choose a two-day grueling bus trip. EarthWise’s ferries will move between Kampala, Uganda, and Mwanza, Tanzania.

Mr. Smith is the founder of the Agathos Foundation, which has been feeding and housing African orphans and widows devastated by AIDS since 2002. In 2006, he encountered a Ugandan, Calvin Echodu, who runs a similar Christian nonprofit helping former child soldiers and sex slaves in the northern part of his country.

After Mr. Echodu told Mr. Smith of the need for a ferry system to help his native land, the South African realized here was a solution that would help orphans and widows by building up the local economy.

Plus, the Seattle area relies on an extensive ferry system that connects the Olympic Peninsula and various islands in Puget Sound with each other, so it was not hard to grasp the benefits a similar system would be to Africans.

He has raised $800,000 of the $1.2 million he needs for a 65-foot wood-and-fiberglas catamaran, the first in a series of 10 boats, that will hold 200 passengers and revitalize the economies of the three countries, including Kenya, that border the lake. He needs to raise the rest by mid-September, which is when the first ferry will be sent overseas.

The 30-ton catamaran will run on biofuels, specifically the jatropha plant, that can easily be grown by local farmers. It is being built at a plant in Everett, Wash., then will be disassembled, shipped to Africa in 40-foot containers, then reassembled there. A crew of 40 in Uganda will assemble and operate the ferry, which it is hoped will start operating by December.

It can go up to 32 knots per hour, making the run across the lake in an easy six to 10 hours.

Mr. Smith is no head-in-the-clouds kind of guy. He hopes to run EarthWise as a for-profit venture and expects a return of at least 7 percent to investors a year after the ferry is up and running.

All the key players are Christian, but they don’t have to be.

“We’re doing this because of our sense of calling to Africa,” he says, “which is primarily to reach out to the poor and the needy.”

All ferries will be constructed to U.S. Coast Guard standards and tickets will cost about $25, the same as the bus fare.

“It will have such a big footprint,” he says. “It will help the indigenous farmers in Tanzania, the local economy and our orphan farms in Uganda, which will also benefit from our purchase of our fuel.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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