Gorman (centre back) with fellow Engineers Without Borders members.

An Irish engineer in Africa

In his first blog for E&T Magazine’s Students and early career, electrical engineer Ray Gorman tells us how he came to find a career in international development, his work so far and preparing for his new placement in Kigali, Rwanda.

So how does a 24 year old Dublin-educated electrical engineer find himself about to depart for the land of a thousand hills? Trust me, you aren’t the only one asking that question, I seem to pose it internally on a daily basis!

First steps into development

Like many, I’ve taken a somewhat circuitous route into international development. I first dipped my toe into this ‘glamorous’ vocation through the Niall Mellon Township Challenge, an Irish NGO operating a voluntourism model which sends large numbers of volunteers to the townships of South Africa for week-long ‘Building Blitzes’. I took part in these during the breaks from my BEng in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).

On the blitzes, I quickly found my tools and materials knowledge coupled with some building site experience to be of much more use than Kirchoff’s Laws and slotted into a logistics role; riding back and forth on a ‘baccy’ (pick-up truck), delivering and pre-empting the tools and materials needed by tradesmen around site. Manning another such baccy on my first blitz was experienced civil engineer Hugh Brennan, but more on him in a moment. These trips were a nice distraction from my degree and a way to feel, for at least a short period, that I was making a difference.

A victim of the economic crisis

Upon finishing my degree in the summer of 2008, I found myself one of the first victims of the economic crisis. Unable to find qualified work I began to volunteer with the then embryonic Haven, which was being headed by my previous acquaintance Hugh Brennan. My volunteer role shortly lead to a paid position within the team, working as a dogsbody on anything from database development to analysing (and translating) household survey results. From here I was hooked and wanted to make development work my career.

Engineers Without Borders UK

I moved to the UK later that year to study renewable energies at Loughborough University, with an eye on rural electrification projects and opportunities. While there I met others with a penchant for making things and a passion for development, with whom I managed to secure funding and set up Loughborough’s first Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UK) branch. This was my first, but certainly not my last interaction with EWB-UK, as I went on to briefly hold the staff role of training programme manager.

I quickly gained a number of new skills, contacts and knowledge on areas I wasn’t traditionally used to with an electrical background, anything and everything involving water and sanitation being the top of that list. But I learned quickly, soon running sessions on rope-washer pumps and designing rain water showers – as you can see in the picture above, that’s me in the back row, smiling as someone is about to get wet!

I went somewhat sideways after my role as training programme manager ended, doing consultancy work both for and on behalf of EWB-UK. The largest of these projects being to manage and run the Small is... Festival 2011, which took place earlier this month. Not many people can claim to have been a ‘festival engineer’ or have run a session as part of a Cambridge masters programme, but it is a role I relished.

Heading overseas

So, this is the point at which I find myself now. I have clocked up a varied and interesting resumé of work in the UK and Ireland, but am yet to properly sink my teeth into overseas development work. However this is all about to change as I am due to depart on an EWB-UK placement to Kigali, Rwanda in just a few days time.

There I will be working with Great Lakes Energy, a rural electrification enterprise, to improve their marketing, improve lightning protection systems and train their staff. How long I will be staying and my exact duties on the ground are both things I am still somewhat uncertain of, but waiting with excitement and trepidation. As and when my adventures unfold, I will keep you up to date here.


Ray returns with a new blog entry in December, once settled into his new home…

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