To many people, the 20th century started when the theory of evolution was proved scientifically and universally accepted. That point in time defined the beginning of a new era; the era in which we have learned that humans evolved from an animal member of the primate family. One of major leaders in the development of this scientific milestone is Richard Leakey. Richard Leakey is a world-famous anthropologist that guided several of the discoveries that helped confirm the hypothesis first proposed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century, and described the evolution of humans. Doctor Leakey, a professor and chair of Stony Brook University is now determined to offer technical support to those communities near the area where most of the decades of his work have yielded the greatest results; the Turkana Basin in Kenya. The scientist had already built an educational facility and begun an anthropologist school in the area for students from around the world and thought that engineering students could also use the facilities to learn about sustainability and engineering, while helping the extremely deprived communities of the area in securing food sources, developing water infrastructure, and establishing systems of energy production.
At the beginning of 2017, the School of Engineering of Stony Brook decided to accept Dr. Leakey’s proposal and started evaluating the means for a study abroad program in Kenya that would fulfill two goals: provide hands-on training to students from Stony Brook, and establish a program that would provide the services to enhance the standard of living of the people near the Turkana Basin, specifically in the town of Ileret located in northern Kenya, only a couple of hours from the border with Ethiopia.
In March of this year, a group of faculties from Stony Brook Engineering School headed to Ileret, an isolated community of approximately 18,000 people of pastoral-nomadic nature that resides at the east edge of the Turkana Lake. I was one of the privileged members of the expedition and our job was to get acquainted with the area and to observe the living conditions of the people and their culture. Initially we thought we would look for opportunities in which our western views and technological advantages could be implemented towards empowering of the people of Ileret. However, gradually we started to realize that not only our tool set was incapable here, but we needed to reevaluate all we have learned so far if we were going to offer any help to these communities.
The problem in communities like this that are currently living a reality so far distant from our own is that they do not have the same understanding regarding many issues, one of them being technology. The people in Ileret seem as if they were stuck in a time period that resembles our world 3,000 years ago. Above 90% of the people are illiterate, sanitation is a distant word that did not make it through the region, and water contamination is something they are forced to live with. If in proposing a better standard of living we suggest using means that are widely used and widely understood in the western world, we would fail dramatically. To alleviate some of the problems in Ileret, innovative solutions that were both sustainable in the region and congruent with their culture needed to be advanced. This challenge was uplifting, and the students and I together began the study abroad program in Ileret and officially called this mission “Global Innovation 2017.”
The program was divided into 2 consecutive classes, each worth 3 full credits and each one having its own set of goals. The first class’s main objective was to identify problems that needed immediate attention and to come up with solutions using only the limited resources available within the region, which was mostly a desert. The ten students, nine from Stony Brook University and a professional engineer from Nairobi (Kenyan capital) were encouraged to observe the living environment of the people and evaluate the few public buildings to determine what could be done to improve their conditions. After visiting the town and deliberating in class about their observations, the students came up with five projects that needed to be addressed quickly:
- Improve the conditions of the sanitary sewer in the Health Clinic.
- Evacuate the students of the Primary School from 3 of the 8 classrooms that were observed in conditions of imminent collapse.
- Design a program that would encourage collective garbage gathering and recycling.
- Study a solution for preserving medicine that needed to be stored at low temperatures.
- Improve the conditions of the photovoltaic (PV) systems in the Health Clinic and in the Primary School. Most of them were installed but had stopped working.
- Each project had two students devoting their time to addressing the much-needed help and almost all groups were able to propose realistic solutions that were implemented within the first two weeks of the program.
- Improving the conditions of the sanitary sewer in the Health Clinic.
This group was in charge of designing a system that would improve the conditions of the existing sanitary sewer disposal arrangement. The existing sanitary collection consisted in a decaying piping array that collected the wastewater from the maternity room and directed it towards the back of the building openly into the ground. The scene in the back of the building exhibited a very dangerous situation for the people transiting the area and specifically for the children that were frequently spotted playing in the vicinity. The students designed a septic tank with a leaching field that prevented the free flow of wastewater into the ground. The project was a successfully installed and the community showed great appreciation for the work.
2. Evacuating the students of the Primary School from 3 of the 8 classrooms that were observed in conditions of imminent collapse.
The Primary School had been built over a period of approximately 30 years, and it has a capacity of approximately 100 students from 1st to 8th grade. One of the most dramatic problems observed during the evaluation was the poor conditions of three of the classrooms in the school. The façade of one of the buildings was deteriorated to the point that the team suggested the students be evacuated to another building. However, the lack of infrastructure was an issue and the only other space available was an abandoned dormitory that was infested with bats, wild cats, and several types of insects. The goal of team number 2 was to rehabilitate the facility and make it available for the students to move in. This project was also very successful and had a major impact in the community. The new classrooms, when finished, became very attractive to the students and they were happily transferred.
3. Designing a program that would encourage collective garbage gathering and recycling.
One of the observations during the initial visits to the town was the amount of garbage spread out in the streets of Ileret. Without the training that we receive in the more developed nations, the inhabitants of Ileret were ignorant to the risk of being exposed to bacteriologically contaminated trash and other type of trash. Consistently throughout the town all kinds of waste was disposed openly in the streets, from fecal waste to plastic battles, to bones from the cattle they consume, etc. In an initiative to educate the town, group number 3 decided to start up a program that would ignite the interest of the people to keep their dirt paths free from hazardous materials. The students reached out to the school and several churches that are very active in the community to implement a collection system that could be sustained over time. The project had such good reception in the town that massive gatherings of kids and adults alike helped with the efforts of cleaning up the town.
4. Studying a solution for preserving medicine that needed to be stored at low temperatures.
One of the most problematic issues of Ileret is the lack of a reliable energy source. This problem affects everyone including the public buildings. In the Health Clinic, for example, some of the medication that needs to be stored at low temperatures is simply lost due to the lack of refrigeration. Group number 4 decided to face this problem, which without a doubt was one of the most challenging of all. After several iterations in the planning board, the group came up with a concept that in theory would allow reaching temperatures that were low enough for storing the medications without the demand of an electrical supply. The concept was based on shielding the medications using charcoal as an insulator, and allowing the evaporation of water of an external chamber to ignite the transferring of temperature from the inside chamber, containing the medications, to the surrounding area. As studied, this will be achieved if there is adequate conditions of air transitioning in the room where the apparatus is installed, and as long as the sun is not shining directly into the chambers. The prototype was only drafted in the planning board and although it showed great theoretical potential, the lack of the material needed for building a real prototype did not allow the group to get to the next phase. The concept is still being evaluated and hopefully will be installed in future visits.
5. Improving the conditions of the photovoltaic (PV) systems in the Health Clinic and in the Primary School. Most of them were installed but had stopped working.
Both buildings, the Primary School and the Health Clinic were equipped with PV systems that were used to generate the much-needed energy of the facilities. However, in both areas the PV arrays were observed malfunctioning and needed technical aid. Group number 5 was up for the challenge. With very little knowledge of solar energy, but with enough material to research and the will to improve the conditions of the people of Ileret, the two students started analyzing the systems and deliberating through class discussions what was wrong with the arrays. The group concluded that two key pieces of the system were broken consistently; the controllers (regulator that controls the flow of electricity charging the batteries) and the batteries. However, while in some rooms the controller was broken, in others the batteries had collapsed. This discovery helped the team to come up with an idea that was ultimately a complete success; they decided to group the elements that were still alive and build working arrays that were to be installed in the most critical areas such as the maternity ward. The students put together enough systems and have them running so that the school and the clinic were equipped with energy again; supplying the most critical areas of both facilities. These were done within the first two weeks of initiating the program.
During the second half of the program, the class was challenged with a new task. Instead of looking to solve the immediate needs of the people and the facilities within the town, students were encouraged to look at the deeper end of the problems and propose projects that were intended to provide long lasting solutions. The following are some of the projects that were chosen by the students and which are to be developed as a Capstone Project, since the majority of the students are now in their senior year at Stony Brook University.
- The Dry Bathroom:
Since it is part of the culture of the people of Ileret to openly defecate in nature, students came up with a concept that may help improve the risk of spreading infectious diseases while keeping their ways more or less intact. The dry bathroom is a concept in which fecal matter is converted into fertilizer with minimal human interaction.
- Nomadic Education System:
Since most of the people of the area are nomadic in nature, the students decided that in order to give kids the most basic educational tools such as teaching reading and writing, the best system would need to include the fact that they are nomads and therefore their schools must also be nomadic.
- Cleaning Water Using Bone Charcoal:
During the visits to the town, we observed that big quantities of animal bones were spread out in the area and two of the students thought of a use for this waste. Ion exchange is one of the many technologies available for processing water which enables the removal of some undesirable material from the water. In Ileret the water is contaminated with a high presence of fluoride, and after some research and practical experimentation, the students were able to verify that bone charcoal is a very effective material to remove fluoride from water. This experiment promises to be the one that may impact the community the most since fluoride in high quantities poses an enormous health risk.
- Refrigeration System:
As the short-term project related to finding a way to refrigerate medication ended up inconclusive, students wanted to expand within this concept so that a way to provide refrigeration without energy demand could be achieved.
- Solar Energy System:
Students will evaluate the concept of proposing to provide a centralized solar energy system that would offer solutions to some of the most demanding problems of the community such as a place for kids to study at night, and place to refrigerate food.
D&B Project Manager/Design Engineer and Adjunct Professor of Stony Brook University