HELP sends engineers to aid African villages

by Tatiana Cooke | 8/19/10 10:00pm

Although they are spending summer in Hanover thousands of miles away from Africa, members of Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects have used this term to increase their presence in impoverished, villages overseas and are working to create a small-scale hydroelectricity system in Rwanda and improve wood burning and waste disposal technology in Tanzania, according to HELP member Ted Sumers '12. The organization develops and implements designs intended to improve the quality of life in communities ranging from the Migori region of Kenya to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, according to HELP president Annie Saunders '12.

Sumers and Saunders were members of the four-student team that traveled to different countries and regions in Africa during the Spring term to assess the effectiveness of HELP designs one year after implementation, Saunders said. While there, the team conducted research for the coffee husk stove project, developed a map of the existing water system and tested the villages' water supplies, according to Sumers. Two Dartmouth medical students visited the villages as a part of the summer trip to determine the origin of an E. coli contamination detected in the water supply.

The results of the initial design implementation were "mixed," Saunders said.

"The latrine we found didn't work within the community customs, no one really wanted to use the latrine or promote the idea to anyone else," she said. "The stoves we had really positive feedback [for], they were receptive in working with us to test new changes and work with the next group during the summer."

HELP works with the Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania and is collaborating with the institute to implement the "rocket stove" that HELP developed to improve fuel efficiency, Sumers said.

"Deforestation is a big problem, as [one of the villages] borders the side of a national preserve," Sumers said. "Jane Goodall was interested in improving cook stove technology."

The stove designed by students in the Thayer School of Engineering is two to three times as efficient as the current "three stone" model, and reduces gas emissions, which could help lower the high rates of acute respiratory infection that result from cooking in confined spaces for several hours at a time, Sumers said. Though the new stoves are more efficient and burn more cleanly, they have to compete against the well-established traditional models, he said.

HELP started off as a Dartmouth branch of the national organization Engineers Without Borders, but became a local group soon after it was established at the College, Sumers said. The organization is financially supported by Thayer and through student fundraising, Saunders said.

HELP's first international expedition sent students to the Migori region of Kenya to establish a public clean water supply in 2005, according to their website. Since then, HELP has worked on projects in Rwanda and Tanzania that focus not only on providing clean water but also improving access to electricity and effective sanitation.

HELP members spend most of their time on campus developing designs and prototypes for technology that they can implement in communities overseas, Sumers said. A group of fifth-year Thayer students recently designed a stove that burns coffee husks to be used in coffee growing communities as a part of their final engineering project, he said. HELP also brings speakers who have experience in the field of humanitarian engineering to campus, Saunders said.

"For me it's a great opportunity to see an application of classroom studies and gain an understanding of the global impact of our work," Saunders said.

Sumers is also part of a group working on developing small-scale hydropower plants to be implemented in Rwanda or Tanzania, he said. The plants are created by diverting a portion of a stream to charge car batteries, which can then provide the electricity for lights or cell phone chargers in villages that do not have established electrical connections, he said. A HELP group is building a local site in Norwich, Vt., for experimenting with models to find the optimal size of turbine, type of alternator and water flow, he said.

In addition to the logistics of developing a working generator, HELP considers the environmental impact of their projects, specifically the stream's effects on the surrounding area, Sumers said.

Engineers involved in HELP initiatives maintain a blog on the Scientific American website "expeditions" page, which they use to let the engineering community know about their progress and developments.

"It's a cascading effect you get a little more publicity and it's an exponential increase in awareness about what we're doing," Saunders said.

The Tanzania project is supported in part by the Dickey Center for International Understanding and a three-year $141,000 grant that Green Mountain Coffee contributed as a part of their "coffee community outreach" program.