ONE of the region’s most successful businessmen has given £1.2m to help keep a vital African hospital running.
Durham’s Sir Peter Vardy, who made his fortune after he took over his father Reg’s car dealership in 1976, has played a major part in saving countless lives by creating a hydroelectric power plant in a remote area of north-west Zambia.
Sir Peter, who lives in Houghton-le- Spring, near Sunderland, with his wife Lady Margaret, with whom he has three grown-up children Richard, Victoria and Peter, became aware of the need for the plant through his friend Mr Peter Gill, an orthopaedic surgeon at Sunderland’s Royal Hospital.
Mr Gill, who is originally from Lisburn, County Antrim, explained: “After my family and I came over here from Northern Ireland, there came a point where we didn’t want an ordinary package holiday any more.
“We wanted to do something that would make a difference instead, so it was actually Sir Peter’s brother David who said why not visit Kalene in Zambia? Up until then Africa hadn’t even crossed our minds, but we’ve now been visiting the area as a family since 1996, working with the missionaries.”
Mr Gill, whose wife Isla, daughter Christine, 23, and son Matthew, 19, also volunteered in the area, used four weeks of his leave each year to work as one of two doctors at Kalene’s Mission Hospital.
The building was powered for just three hours each night with diesel generators that had been installed in the 1970s, but it soon became clear a more permanent source of power was needed and, in 2003, Mr Gill helped set up the North-West Zambia Development Trust.
He said: “The diesel had to come from South Africa, which was 2,500km away, and the nearest Tarmac road was 50 miles away, so the system was unsustainable. Kalene is in the middle of the bush.
“But a plan for a hydroelectric power scheme had actually been drawn up in the 1960s and had never come to fruition, so we decided it was about time we put it into practice.”
It was at this point that Mr Gill mentioned the project to Sir Peter, a good friend for many years through their church, the Bethany Christian Centre in Houghton-le-Spring.
And Sir Peter didn’t hesitate. He promised that through his charity The Vardy Foundation he would match whatever was raised by the trust’s fundraising.
Sir Peter said: “This was just three years ago and it’s amazing what has been achieved in Kalene since then.
“The area has had 24-hour power since July this year and the whole thing was built by the local people of Zambia, mostly by hand.”
THE £2.4m Zengamina Hydroelectric Project, named after the local chief, was switched on a few weeks ago and serves the hospital, four schools, one farm and a few thousand homes.
It harnessed the power of the Zambezi River rapids four miles away and created jobs, allowing local people to build a future for their families.
Mr Peter Gill said: “On the day the scheme was switched on, a couple with a sick baby rode 400km to Kalene, and we were able to operate at night for the first time. If Kalene Hospital had ceased to be, there would have been no emergency medical support for about 1,000km, because there is nothing to the north into the Congo, and nothing to the west into Angola.”
Sir Peter Vardy said: “That is what is so amazing about this project. We have put in place an infrastructure on which everything else can now build, and it is sustainable for at least the next 100 years.
“In the UK the total cost of this project would not have even paid for the feasibility study, but the difference it has made is just incredible.
“About 75% of the locals had never had any kind of employment before, and this scheme gave them enough income to be able to afford mosquito nets, therefore reducing malaria in the area; chlorine tablets, therefore reducing the numbers of water-borne diseases being contracted; and shoes, therefore reducing the number of parasitic infections.
“The locals were motivated and even made their own bricks from termite mounds. Their natural resources are being used to prosper themselves, rather than line someone else’s pockets, and I feel very privileged to be part of it.”
Mr Gill said: “We now have 24 oxygen tanks at the hospital and can ventilate, operate and care for patients throughout the night, which just couldn’t have been done before. …
“People think being a surgeon is to reach the pinnacle of life, but my epitaph will definitely be my involvement in this project.”
To find out how to help, visit www.nwzdt.org