vol 8, issue 5

Engineers Without Borders profiled

20 May 2013
By Kris Sangani
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Seyidka settlement in Berkulan, Somalia

Engineers have to implement infrastructure quickly in famine stricken regions, such as the Seyidka settlement in Somalia

A suck-and-blow tank-sanitation device

A suck-and-blow tank-sanitation device created by EWB volunteer Angus McBride

A Sudanese family

Goal is providing water and sanitation at its many healthcare facilities in South Sudan

Briquettes drying in the sun

Briquettes drying in the sun

Briquette producer showing Hamish Ferguson his locally manufactured briquette machine

An entrepreneur shows Hamish Ferguson his locally manufactured briquette machine

Charging mobile devices

Charging mobile devices can be costly in rural Africa

Micah Melnyk checking out local produce

Micah Melnyk has been involved with several energy projects

Daniel Explaining the concept of a Gulper to two entrepreneurs

Daniel Smith works on developing disposal systems for human waste

Whenever there is a humanitarian disaster, urgent effort is always focused on more medicines, blankets and food. But engineers work throughout the year to develop better solutions.

Perhaps you've always thought that the main reason you came into engineering is to improve or help society. Certainly this is one of the top reasons given by students of engineering for why they moved into the profession in the first place.

For many, however, it may prove difficult to get involved in the big global issues very early in their career. As in most professions, engineers may have to serve time at the coal face before progressing to a stage where they feel they can make a difference.

There is, of course, the possibility of working with an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the developing world. Humanitarian relief, social enterprises and regional development work are just some of the activities undertaken by engineers trained by NGOs Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and RedR (Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief).

The UK chapter of EWB is fairly new. It was started in 2001 in Cambridge when a group of student engineers and recent graduate engineers decided to pool their expertise and work with various NGOs in the developing world.

In 2002, with the help of an initial £10,000 donation from British multinational mining company Anglo American, EWB-UK arranged its first overseas placement in Pondicherry, India, with ORSED (Organisation for Social and Environmental Development). The first EWB-UK training course also took place, and work began on building research and knowledge-sharing capacity.

Since then, the number and variety of training courses, overseas placements (now 60 per year) and research projects has grown significantly. The number of branches has now grown to 31.

Engineering skills and expertise

Looking at the work that charities such as Oxfam publicise, you would be forgiven for thinking they are only interested in medical and direct humanitarian skills. However, engineering is a humanitarian requirement, and is in huge demand.

Of course, it can be hard to make the move to humanitarian without previous experience. Building the infrastructure to cope with a crisis, for example, requires forward technical planning; engineers are needed to design and develop systems, sometimes prefabricated, that can be installed and put to use immediately.

This does not mean, though, that there are no opportunities for student engineers to get involved in Africa. Solving some of Africa's most immediate issues, such as heat and energy provision to rural areas, employment, food supply and sanitation requires engineering skills. Many African nations cannot afford to train enough engineers to undertake this type of work. As these skills are so widely prized around the world, it is common for home-grown talent to be lured abroad by higher salaries.

Therefore, a good many NGOs are increasingly offering what they consider to be more sustainable solutions for Africa's most urgent problems. Many are involved in setting up and running social enterprises. A social enterprise draws up goals that are not merely financial but act to improve the communities in some way.

Viable social enterprises

Great Lakes Energy, based in Kigali, Rwanda, is one example of a social enterprise. It provides solar energy to millions of rural low-income households across East Africa, while in the process replacing harmful and inefficient kerosene lighting used by an estimated eight million rural consumers in Rwanda.

Ray Gorman, chief engineer at Great Lakes Energy, was originally seconded by EWB-UK in October 2011. He now leads a multi-disciplinary team in the design and execution of a variety of energy- and water-related projects, ranging from solar PV for off-grid health centres to custom-built irrigation systems for plant propagation.

"Social enterprise may be a trendy topic at the moment," he says, "but it is an important business model that provides more sustainable solutions than not-for-profit-based models. We make profits, we pay taxes and, therefore, are very viable. We are also growing fast."

RedR also offers training to engineers and technicians in the field so that communities can withstand future threats to their lives and livelihoods. The organisation was founded in London in 1980 by engineer Peter Guthrie following time spent delivering aid during the Vietnamese Boat People Crisis. On the advice of Oxfam's chief engineer Jim Howard, Oxfam provided seed funding and RedR was formally registered as a charity.

Humanitarian training

RedR's UK programme delivers a range of training courses, from a basic introduction to the sector to specialist courses for professional aid workers. The company offers credit-rated courses in partnership with Oxford Brookes University in an effort to further professionalise the humanitarian sector.

EWB and RedR work closely with each other. Nic Scarborough, communications and marketing manager for RedR, says: "Engineering, technology and innovation are crucial in the fight against poverty, in rebuilding disaster-stricken communities and in the mitigation of climate change. By uniting on this common cause we can strengthen our impact and make a real difference to those in need.

"Issues of global water security, increasing population, urbanisation and climate change mean the world we live in is changing rapidly and we require innovative solutions to meet these new challenges."

Around the world, disasters are becoming more intense and more frequent. In the last 10 years, 2.6 billion people have been affected by natural disasters, compared with 1.6 billion in the previous decade. 2011 was a record year for the cost of catastrophes to the global economy, totalling US$300bn, compared with $226bn in 2010.

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Case study – Mechanical Engineer

James Brown is a mechanical design engineer who recently graduated from Glasgow University. He works with Irish NGO Goal, an international humanitarian agency dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the poorest people around the globe. Currently he is working on a project at a refugee camp in Maban, South Sudan, where, due to a famine, numbers have swelled to more than 108,000 according to the latest figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Multiple refugee camps are located in Maban. They are largely occupied by people fleeing armed conflict in Sudan's Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. The largest camps are Jemam, Yosuf Batil, Gendrassa and Doro. They are supported by the World Food Programme through food air drops.

Goal is providing water and sanitation at its many healthcare facilities in South Sudan, and is also involved in the extensive rehabilitation and the provision of existing and new water sources in the surrounding catchments. Goal is also constructing new boreholes and establishing and training water user committees at each location to manage the water sources and maintain the pumps. One important objective is to train local technicians to carry out overhauls of the boreholes. Existing water committees are receiving refresher training.

Goal is also building public latrines, which will be overseen by a local sanitation committee. A stock of spare parts for the pumps and the boreholes will be supplied and placed at the disposal of the local rural water development office.

"My role is to ensure that they have adequate water and sanitation," explains Brown, whose role has been to design a water supply system for the Maban refugee camp. Such systems have to deploy very quickly and are often pre-fabricated to enable them to be implemented at a moment's notice.

The project has had a big influence on Brown's future career path. Rather than take his experience back to the developed world, he plans to make working in the humanitarian relief sector a permanent career path. "It's really important that humanitarian response becomes professionalised. We have a duty-of-care to those who fund these projects," he says.

Case study – Avionics Engineer

Hamish Ferguson now works for BAe Systems IT security subsidiary Dettica, but this time last year he was involved with Global Energy Village Partnership, a non-profit organisation that works to increase access to modern energy and reduce poverty in developing countries.

The organisation works with small businesses and entrepreneurs in those regions which state interventions are slow to reach. It helps establish and grow micro-, small- and medium-energy enterprises in poor rural and urban areas, creating lasting access to clean energy. This takes the form of advising energy businesses and enabling them to secure the financial resources they need to grow.

The particular project that Ferguson worked on was based in Nairobi, Kenya, where he helped to develop a more sustainable alternative to the firewood and the imported charcoal that is widely used in domestic cooking. There is widespread acknowledgement that these methods of cooking are contributing significantly to deforestation in the region. Many of the charcoal briquettes are either formulated by hand using charcoal dust or are imported with little benefit to the Kenyan economy.

The charcoal-compressing machines that Ferguson helped develop and promote to local entrepreneurs allow them to ramp up production of locally produced briquettes, using more sustainable sources and less carcinogenic forms of biomass as a raw material.

So how did an avionics engineering graduate from Bristol University end up in Nairobi? “I got involved with our local EWB quite early on in my degree and attended quite a lot of information and training events,” says Ferguson.

He explains that although at first glance his qualifications may not seem the most relevant, but getting involved with this social enterprise project proves just how interdisciplinary engineering skills have become and how valuable an engineering outlook is.

In fact, just before Ferguson left for Nairobi last year, during the final year of his degree, he obtained his current role as a consultant for Detica – proof again of how transferrable his consulting skills working with entrepreneurs in Nairobi are when he now deals with large corporations and government departments back in the UK.

Case Study – Communications Engineer

Micah Melnyk is a dual Canadian and British citizen who gained a masters qualification at Cambridge University. He was recently involved in a solar-charging project in Uganda supported by GVEP (Global Village Energy Partnership). Much of rural Africa still lacks basic access to electricity to light homes and enable communications.

The solution is the use of small-scale, decentralised renewable energy technologies, specifically solar, to supply off-grid electricity.

According to Melnyk: "The private sector is playing an increasingly significant role. The poor in Africa spend a great deal on kerosene for lighting, while solar energy has the potential to provide better lighting that is cheaper, safer and cleaner."

But the cost of solar panels would be beyond many rural communities. The lack of access to grid power means users may have to trek for miles to find a charging station powered by a diesel generator. Rural areas need stronger signals from mobile devices as there are fewer mobile masts nearby – a further drain on power.

Melnyk worked on a project to look at how the solar panels could be paid off over time. The solution was to allow users to pay for these products using micropayments on the mobile phone itself. This offers an efficient and faster method for transferring payments and the charging station is designed to be portable allowing it to be transported village to village.

A number of organisations are developing portable charging stations powered by solar to provide energy to those living off-grid. A solar-powered mobile phone charging station, which is activated by text message, has the potential to charge up to 30 mobile phones a day. A solar panel charges a battery, which is then taken to the village on the back of a bicycle, for example. The battery extracts power from the solar panel which is used to charge up the mobile phone.

Melnyk hopes that in future this business model could also be used to power lighting as many homes in the developing world still use kerosene, which is expensive and hazardous. However, making this work will take a lot of effort. "I see my future, my career, to overcome this challenge," says Melnyk, who is already making plans to go back to further develop the technology.

Melnyk has also been involved with other social enterprises. He helped develop sustainably sourced briquettes, which are widely used in domestic cooking in the region.The briquettes, similar in appearance to regular charcoal, are made from clay, water and the small pieces of charcoal which are normally considered unusable and would have previously been disposed of as waste.

Case Study – Civil Engineer

Before he trained as a civil engineer at Cardiff University, Daniel Smith was a chef. How ironic it is, then, that he is now developing solutions on how to hygienically dispose of human waste. Smith is currently working as a research and development engineer for Water for People in Kampala, developing sanitation.

"There isn't much research and development in sanitation, but there is a lot of well-meaning tech developed in isolation," explains Smith,' who is working to develop a viable market for improving sanitation in rural areas in Africa and beyond by converting the byproduct into fertiliser or biomass for energy production.

Certainly there is a lot of effort being put into sanitation ' driven at the moment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made the improvement of sanitation a top priority to reducing disease and death in the developing world.

However, Smith sees sanitation as a viable business in the developing world and is researching products that could form part of a practicable business proposition for entrepreneurs in the region. The role of Water for People is to subsidise the market in the initial stages.

But how did he move from being a chef to working on life-changing sanitation R&D in rural Africa? I decided to retrain as an engineer because I wanted to make a real impact on communities, explains Smith.

"I got involved with Engineers Without Borders at university and a friend put me in touch with a small NGO. I spent two months in Uganda and decided to get further involved."

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