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Students work to engineer solutions in Ghana

The entire ENGhana Team. MIT student Tim Heidel is on the right and MIT student Kathleen Connolly is in the center.
The entire ENGhana Team. MIT student Tim Heidel is on the right and MIT student Kathleen Connolly is in the center.
Photo courtesy / Tim Heidel
Ghanaian women making shea butter.
Ghanaian women making shea butter.
Photo courtesy / Tim Heidel
The ENGhana team helped teach children about measurement while documenting the dimensions of a temporary school in a Ghanaian village.
The ENGhana team helped teach children about measurement while documenting the dimensions of a temporary school in a Ghanaian village.
Photo courtesy / Tim Heidel
Ghanaians bore for water.
Ghanaians bore for water.
Photo courtesy / Tim Heidel

Seven engineering students from schools on three continents converged in Ghana last summer to help identify some of the persistent problems plaguing rural areas in the West African country, and bring the problems to the attention of engineers who can find solutions.

MIT senior Tim Heidel, an electrical engineering major, came up with the idea while studying at Cambridge University in England on exchange during the 2003-2004 school year. Many of his peers at Cambridge participated in student-organized expeditions aimed at serving broader purposes. For the many students who went on these learning adventures, the experience changed their lives. Heidel noticed that while expeditions were often academic in nature, few had been done in the field of engineering.

"I decided I wanted to go to Africa," said Heidel, who knew that engineering work would be particularly vital for rural communities, many of which were suffering from water scarcity and bad roads.

Heidel put out feelers, and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana responded favorably. Despite being a country well-endowed with natural resources, Ghana remains heavily dependent on international financial and technical assistance.

Two students from Kwame Nkrumah joined the expedition along with three from Cambridge University, and Kathleen Connolly, an MIT senior in electrical engineering and computer science who was attracted to the project by the human element. "One of the negative things about engineering is the little interaction with people," said Connolly.

Together, the students were able to raise the necessary funds. "We did a lot of grant-writing," said Connolly. The group raised $12,000, largely from Cambridge University, the MIT Public Service Center and the Royal Geographical Society. As per the rules of any Cambridge University expedition, each student was required to supply 300 pounds (roughly $450) of their own money. "But it was less than the cost of the plane ticket," Connolly said.

On June 20, the crew left for Ghana. They stayed first in the Adaklu Mountain communities, about 10 miles outside of Ho, a regional capital city. The team then spent two weeks in Kumbungu, about 25 miles north of Tamale, capital of the northern region.

Primarily focusing on problems the citizens identified themselves, the team held discussions with community members of all ages to encourage reflection on resources that might already be available but not utilized. "We weren't interested in documenting challenges they didn't see as challenges," said Connolly.

The problems would also need to have solutions the villagers could take on without a lot of outside help. To gain further insight into challenges, the team of students participated in most aspects of the communities' daily activities.

As predicted, road conditions were a problem. The dirt road connecting Adaklu to Ho is pure mud after rains and blindingly dusty during drier times. After heavy rains, "they are left with the inability to reach town or the hospital," said Heidel. Clearly, a way to better maintain the road is needed.

Another problem the students found was water scarcity in both areas. During November through March, no rain falls; the wells dry up. The current method of rainwater collection, in giant oil barrels, can only save water for about a week, Heidel said. "We need to design a way to store water in a long term way," he said.

All told, the students identified at least 10 engineering problems (see below) that they have brought to the engineering community at large. Working with MIT's Design that Matters, the ENGhana (Engineering Ghana) team is trying to get the word out about the project.

Design that Matters (DtM) is a Massachusetts nonprofit founded at MIT by students. The group aims to help people in underserved communities improve their quality of life by creating products and services that meet needs identified by the communities themselves. DtM acts as a bridge to bring problems identified by nongovernmental organizations and the communities into the classrooms of MIT and other universities so that engineering and business students can help solve them.

Since its launch in 2000, DtM has worked with more than 300 university engineering and business students to develop dozens of prototypes.

In addition to solving new problems, the ENGhana team members want to make sure that they do not end up working on problems that have already been solved elsewhere. To help spread the word and gain input, the team presented its findings at the Sustainable Resources 2004 conference in Colorado last month.

"A lot of the solutions already exist," said Heidel. "We just need to find them."

Engineering challenges

The ENGhana group identified the following problems that Ghanaians would like help solving in a locally appropriate manner.

Water Scarcity
Water is in extremely scarce supply throughout the Adaklu communities. The problem is compounded by an annual four-month period without rainfall. The community needs a method of supplying and/or conserving safe drinking water.

Road Conditions
The single-track dirt road connecting Adaklu to Ho is an essential resource for the local communities, but it is often in terrible shape because of alternating extreme wet and dry conditions. The communities need a way to maintain the road locally.

Cracking Buildings
Loose and shifting ground at the foot of Adaklu Mountain causes structures built there to crack during or soon after construction. Builders need a way to adapt building styles to the local environment.

Temporary School Buildings
Temporary school structures that are near collapse are being used indefinitely in the Adaklu communities because there are no alternatives. The communities need a way of adapting the temporary structures for long-term use.

Cassava Pounding
Fufu and other popular local dishes are made through a physically demanding and time-consuming process of pounding cassava into dough using an oversized mortar and pestle. The women need a better method of pounding cassava.

Cassava Squeezing
Moisture must be extracted from cassava before it can be used for cooking. The current method--placing cassava in a sack with large rocks on top to squeeze out the moisture--takes three days or more. A quicker and safer way of extracting moisture from cassava would be beneficial.

Honey Production and Bottling
Honey production is an important source of supplementary income for people in the Adaklu communities. They make hives for the bees inside hollow hardwood logs that take several years to prepare. Honey producers need a quicker way of hollowing the logs so they can increase honey production over a shorter period. Honey producers currently distribute their honey only to local communities and Ho. If a cost-effective means of bottling and sealing the honey can be found, the producers could sell honey to the tourist market in Accra.

Gin Distillation
Gin distillation from palm wine is a traditional local process and a source of supplementary income. However, the process currently has a number of areas in which improvement is desired.

Palm Nut Crushing
At present, palm nuts are cracked with rocks to release the kernels. A safer, more efficient method of separating the kernels from the shells is needed.

Sewing Machine Adaptation
Tailors and seamstresses can buy either a hand-operated sewing machine or a more advanced and costly model with a treadle. They would like an easy way to convert the hand-operated machines to a treadle operation to improve the efficiency of sewing garments.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 10, 2004 (download PDF).

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