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Originally published August 17, 2009 at 12:05 AM | Page modified August 17, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Everett man building fleet of ferries for Africa's Lake Victoria

An Everett boatbuilder and his workers are crafting wooden catamarans for a fleet of ferries to strengthen transport and commerce across Lake Victoria, Africa's biggest lake.

Seattle Times business reporter

Everything about Rob Smith's project defies conventional thinking.

He's building a two-level passenger ferry in Everett, dismantling it piece by piece and shipping it by container to Africa to sail on a landlocked lake. He's using the cheapest, simplest materials and running it on locally grown biofuel. And he expects to make a healthy profit operating it.

But Smith doesn't let doubts deter him. He has the fire of a mission from God in his heart.

"The Gospel gives us a ticket to earth, not just to heaven," he said. "It should transform the way we live and how we treat our neighbors."

Smith, who grew up in South Africa, had created the Agathos Foundation, a nonprofit to feed and house orphans and widows affected by the AIDS crisis in Africa. He funded it with the equity in his home. But he realized they needed more than charity.

He started EarthWise Ventures in Seattle to link Puget Sound's boatbuilding expertise to Africa's development.

From a warehouse in Everett, he is putting the finishing touches on a 65-foot catamaran — the first of 10 — that will hold up to 200 passengers, help restore transportation links across Lake Victoria and eventually, he hopes, revitalize the region's economy.

Africa's largest lake, bordering Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, once had a thriving water-transport service built by the British during colonial rule, but the aging steel boats fell into disrepair and the system collapsed.

The two remaining government-operated ferries have limited service or have been prone to accidents and delays.

"You would not even want to put your shoe on the boat because you're not sure it will make it to the other side," said Peter Gishuru, a Kenyan who is president of the Pacific Northwest African Chamber of Commerce.

By land, travelers have to drive one to three days on bad roads to get around the lake.

Persuasive Ugandan

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Uganda native Calvin Echodu is the one who persuaded Smith to build a new ferry system.

"I just felt sad. It was just horrible — how can the second-largest (freshwater) lake in the world not have a ferry service?" Echodu said. "As an African, I was ashamed. At least the British left us something, but we can't even maintain it."

Echodu runs Pilgrim Uganda, a nonprofit he started to help former child soldiers and sex slaves, victims of abduction by rebels in the northern part of the country.

He saw ferries operating successfully elsewhere in the world and often thought about trying to get a loan to launch one in Uganda.

Echodu was spending time in Seattle, where his wife was working toward her Ph.D., when he met Smith. He heard about Smith's company, Thain Boatworks, which builds wooden pleasure boats.

Echodu had found the expert he needed. "I told him you have to build a ferry," he said.

The two Christian nonprofit leaders agreed to become business partners, with Smith building boats in Everett and Echodu operating them through EarthWise in Uganda.

Ten months of work

The first wooden ferry fills a cavernous building on the Everett waterfront, the result of almost 10 months of work by 12 Thain employees.

The hull of the catamaran is made by bonding layers of inexpensive, ultrathin plywood with resin.

Between the layers is a waffle-like mesh of small wood squares, adding strength without weight.

Materials were chosen so they could be sourced locally in Africa, but the ferries will meet U.S. Coast Guard standards, Smith said.

Such a method of building wooden boats was common for U.S. ferries for a long time, said Kurt Hughes, a marine architect who designed the EarthWise ferries.

More expensive aluminum or steel eventually replaced wood, which added three or fours times the weight and fuel consumption and increased the price nearly tenfold, Hughes said.

EarthWise can build its ferry for $1.2 million, while similar ferries made with steel cost at least $8 million, he said.

How to get it there

Until now, the problem holding up any plans for a new fast ferry service on Lake Victoria was how to transport a 30-ton completed boat to the inland lake, 1,000 miles from the nearest port.

EarthWise's solution is to build, ship and reassemble, which means the ferry in Everett has to be cut into pieces and shipped in 40-foot containers to Kampala, Uganda.

"I call it a boat in a box," Smith said. "Everything you see has to come apart."

Smith will run EarthWise as a for-profit venture. He has raised about $1 million toward a goal of $2.4 million in seed capital from investors.

He expects a return of at least 7 percent back to investors the first year of operation.

The ferry will reduce the time to cross the lake from an overnight trip to about seven hours, and starting at $25, the ferry ticket is about the same as the current bus fare, he said.

Service is aimed at small-business people and tourists, as well as postal service and international delivery companies.

The venture reflects Smith's Calvinist ethic.

"Growing up in Africa convinced me not only does Africa need good investment, but our kids need an example," Smith said.

They see a culture of aid organizations handing out money from donors abroad, not people earning a living through productive labor, he said.

"The richest people I knew were missionaries. Once a year they went home to beg," he said.

"Africa is intrinsically dependent," Smith said. "They haven't learned self-sufficiency."

Smith split from Mars Hill Church in Seattle two years ago after he opposed a change in bylaws and crackdown on dissenters. Starting new churches was the focus, not helping the poor, he said.

His plan to contribute to Africa's economic development includes growing Jatropha, a hearty oil-rich hedge that can be planted alongside food crops and used to produce biofuel.

Through Echodu's work with Pilgrim, 1,200 farmers have committed to growing Jatropha for the ferry project.

If the ferry system can provide a consistent demand for the fuel, it will help biofuel compete with petroleum. But because the marine engines aren't made to run on biofuel, they degrade faster.

EarthWise is collaborating with Columbia University to compare one engine running diesel and the other running on plant fuel to measure wear.

Smith said he believes the ferry's lower cost and fuel consumption will more than make up for the cost of rebuilding engines sooner.

Forty jobs

EarthWise is planning to build the 10 ferries in Everett, and employ about 40 people in Uganda to assemble and operate each ferry.

The plan is to eventually build the African ferries in Uganda and ferries for other inland markets in Everett.

Smith said he believes he has found a unique edge with low-cost ferries that can be shipped anywhere by container.

"This project is ideal," said Gishuru, the African Chamber of Commerce president. "It's trade, not aid. It's creating jobs in Washington state and also in Africa. This vision is long overdue."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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