In his first trip back to his native country of Ghana, as an undergraduate in a student service program, Kwami Williams saw poverty up close. The trip changed his life. “It was a huge wake-up call,” he says. “There has to be a way to use engineering to help solve to these problems.” Instead of ending up at NASA, where he’d interned earlier, Williams ’12 co-founded MoringaConnect, a startup that helps local farmers in Ghana sell Moringa tree oil on the global market.
Williams switched, as a senior, from Course 16 (aeronautics and astronautics), to 16-ENG, a new flexible degree program. The change made for a challenging year, but it also gave him the training, confidence, and inspiration to buy a ticket to Ghana and try to put a dent in poverty.
The 16-ENG program was launched in 2010 and has so far produced 10 graduates, many of whom have gone on to graduate school. Today, about 15 percent of Course 16 students enroll in the program, which includes a core curriculum and a complementary concentration. Students can select from 10 predefined concentrations, such as energy, computational engineering, or space exploration — or they can design a custom program. Williams modeled his concentration in global development, thereafter offered by Course 2-A, the mechanical engineering flexible degree. “The beauty is that students can define their own path,” says Karen Willcox, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics.
Williams entered his senior year looking for a practical engineering project with tangible implications for the developing world. Along with fellow classmate Zachary Ybarra, '12, Williams found one in a core Course 16 experimental projects class. A company wanted to change the aerodynamics of its humanitarian food drop packages to improve safety. “Engineering today is not just about technical disciplines,” Willcox says. “We strive to educate our students about the broader implications of technical decisions. These flexible engineering degrees are a way to provide more of that context.”
As part of his concentration, Williams enrolled in D-Lab, which brings students together to design and implement technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty. During a winter trip to Ghana, he met with a small cooperative looking for a market for Moringa seeds. Moringa seed oil is valuable for cosmetics and as a biofuel, and its seed pulp can be used as animal feed, fertilizer, or as a flocculent to purify water. Moringa trees are fast-growing and prolific across Ghana and other subtropical areas. Farmers already harvest the nutritionally dense leaves (which are seven times the vitamin C of oranges, four times the vitamin A of carrots, and four times the calcium in milk), but they discard the hard acorn-sized seeds because of a lack of equipment to process them.
Seeing an opportunity to put his engineering training to work, Williams retuned to MIT in the spring and partnered with fellow D-Lab student Emily Cunningham, a recent Harvard University graduate, to design a small-scale oil press. In May 2012, he won a D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellowship, which allowed him to return to Ghana and put his technology into action.
He hit many hurdles, one of which was social. Promises had been made — and broken — to the farmers before, so it took time and a lot of negotiation to gain their trust. Another hurdle was technical. The seed presser was noisy and did not produce oil at a sufficiently high quality. So Williams and Cunningham decided to centralize processing and invest in a commercial machine. “From those early experiences, we gained a lot of insight about what would work,” Williams says.
Today, MoringaConnect is buying seeds from about 20 families across six of Ghana’s 10 regions. Several cosmetic companies have made purchases and more than 60 others from around the world are in negotiations. The team, recently infused with $25,430 from an Indiegogo campaign, plans to expand their reach to 100 farmers and produce one metric ton of oil by the end of March. “A lot has happened, and there’s a lot more ahead that we’re excited about,” Williams says.
Back at MIT, a Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, of which Willcox is a co-chair, released a preliminary report in November (future.mit.edu), with a final report due this spring. “One key theme is flexibility,” Willcox says. “Our students want to take courses all over campus or spend a year in Africa or at SpaceX. They want to change the world. The students are looking for flexibility not because they want to make their degrees easier, but because they want to do more with their time at MIT.”