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Engineering HELP in Africa: Departing to Dar es Salaam

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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barber shop in tanzaniaEditor’s Note: Students from Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering are working in Tanzania to help improve sanitation and energy technologies in local villages. This series chronicles work being done by the student-led group, known as Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects (HELP), to design "rocket stoves" in the village of Mwamgongo and top-light updraft design (TLUD) gasification stoves in the village of Kalinzi. The goal is to create a healthier, more energy-efficient cooking apparatus that these villagers will accept and use. HELP students are filing these dispatches from the field during their trip. This is their first blog post for Scientific American.

DAR ES SALAAM—We’ve been in Tanzania for a little over a month now, but I (Tim) want to update you a little on who we are and how we’ve gotten here. We are members of Dartmouth HELP (Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects) Worldwide, a student-led organization at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering that aims to reduce global poverty through socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable engineering solutions. HELP trips are developed in a way that makes sure locally expressed needs are met with community materials and ideas. The group aims to help Dartmouth students put their education to use by partnering with sponsors and NGOs to develop and implement technological solutions in the developing world. We have been working in the Kigoma region of western Tanzania since the spring of 2008 through partnerships with the Dickey Center at Dartmouth, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, The University of Dar es Salaam College of Engineering and Technology (CoET), and the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). Our goals for Tanzania’s Kigoma region are to improve sanitation and energy technologies in selected villages in order to address severe health and deforestation concerns.

This summer, there are nine HELP members in Tanzania working on improving water system maintenance and promoting efficient cookstoves. We all arrived in Tanzania in three separate groups with three separate experiences. Mitch and Aaron arrived first with multiple delays and layovers that kept them in Amsterdam for over a day. On the other hand, the flights were rather smooth for Kevin, Zach, Kanika, Parker and Ryan. When they checked in at John F. Kennedy International Airport, they received nice exit row seats and since they were flying Emirates—there were also gigantic TVs at every gate showing the World Cup matches. My trip involved multiple stops before finally arriving. After leaving Vermont, I went to Hanover, N.H., for a HELP meeting, and then I proceeded to New York for a few nights before my departure. Wendy met me at Times Square, and after a nice full day layover in Zurich, we finally reached Dar es Salaam. The culture of each of these places was so different it was amazing to visit them all within a week.

Each of our arrivals at the Dar es Salaam airport also varied. While the larger travel group came prepared with crisp 2006 series $100 bills for their visas, Wendy and I were not aware that American bills made in the 90s are not accepted in Tanzania due to a previous counterfeit scandal. As a result, the airport personnel directed us to walk outside, withdraw Tanzanian shillings from an ATM, exchange the shillings for dollars, and then return inside. While we easily left the airport without going through customs or actually having visas, it took us a long time to convince the guards to let us back in the airport to buy our visas.

We all met up at the same hotel in Dar es Salaam near Kariakoo, which is one of the main markets. One of our rooms had no electricity or fan and a toilet that ran all night long; but besides that, the place was quite nice. The hotel was located in a Muslim district, and there was a mosque down the street where a muezzin began melodiously singing the Islamic call to prayer in the early hours of the morning. The hotel also had a very good restaurant serving Indian food, and although there was no beer available, the local (Tanzania) delicacy of Stoney Tangawizi offered a bubbly, gingery alternative.

The next day it rained, which is not common during the dry season in Tanzania. While this subdued the heat and dust, the rain formed mud puddles and grime across the city. By the end of the day, we decided that dry weather was better, despite the novelty of rain. After a morning of gathering project supplies at the Kariakoo market, we met with Dr. Rajabu, one of our advisors from the University of Dar es Salaam’s College of Engineering and Technology (CoET), and he invited us to the "Saba Saba" trade fair. (The Saba Saba is the holiday of the ruling political power, commemorating the day they took power.)

Many small industry entrepreneurs with sustainable energy and stove projects had booths set up, and Dr. Rajabu acted as our tour guide. He explained the process of each technology for us and demonstrated a rice-husk stove with a TLUD (Top Lit Updraft Design) burning system with a fan that is being developed at the University of Dar es Salaam. As we can very well relate to from our own demonstrations, the stove smoked and sputtered quite a bit—obviously due to the number of spectators—but it looked like a solid design. We also talked with an entrepreneur building several sustainable energy products: an interesting stacking charcoal stove, taking advantage of excess heat and cooking lots of different food at once; a biogas reactor, utilizing kitchen waste to produce methane gas for cooking; a charcoal kiln, using small scale biomass (tall grass and twigs) instead of large trees to make charcoal—all with the hope of reducing deforestation. The Saba Saba demonstration inspired us, and we hoped we could achieve stove designs at similar levels of efficiency—but at 20 percent of the cost—these types of stoves were beyond the reach of poor households, and we wanted to make sure that our design was affordable to all.

The next morning the rest of the group headed off to Kigoma to start setting up the project while I stayed behind for some meetings with some potential partners. It was time to get the ball rolling.

Image of barber shop near Kariakoo Market in Dar es Salaam courtesy of Tim Bolger





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  1. 1. aquaponics.me.uk 8:43 am 08/4/2010

    I would like to involve this engineering group with a well founded technology of aquaponics. The engineering and biology sciences need to come together to produce an ingenious non patented aquaponic assembly to give to villages throughout the world. This would be life changing for mankind, and show that we have finally evolved from hunting. How do I get in touch? http://www.aquaponics.me.uk
    Patrick Thirkell

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  2. 2. aquaponics.me.uk 8:48 am 08/4/2010

    HELP is needed to design and assemble Aquaponic Farms in the 3rd World! Aquaponics is an epoch changing event that proves that Homo sapiens has evolved from hunting. This technology will create valuable food, income and relief for the wild aquatic environment. We need to get in touch! http://www.aquaponics.me.uk Patrick Thirkell

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  3. 3. gmbuthia 7:48 am 08/6/2010

    Interesting, but ultimately doomed to failure if it does not involve the local university students and staff – and I mean practically, in the development of the designs not just as tour guides. I’ve been involved previously when well-interntioned do-gooders came from outside African countres to solve local rpoblems. The do-gooders left, the problems remained. Unless driven by someone who actually stays in the country and has to sell his solution rather than get marks for it, where’s the sustainability?

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  4. 4. bmisana 2:29 pm 08/6/2010

    The idea of a "non patented aquaponic assembly" sounds not only trully empowering but also civilised to the core. I would love to participate in a collaborative effort in making it a reality. Why don’t you lead the effort Patrick? We will chip in our pieces as and when relevant.
    Bartolomeo Misana.

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  5. 5. aquaponics.me.uk 9:09 am 08/11/2010

    gmbuthia is totally right. It is wrong to "parachute" technology into a country and then abandon the project. Together with Bartolomeo we hope to fund the local design and erection of an aquaponics farm in Tanzania, test its viability economically, then use a taxation of the profits to fund a second one, using local expertise, and so on until everybody has one! This is not very technical, but it is ecologically sound, see aquaponics.me.uk for more…

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  6. 6. bmisana 4:27 pm 08/11/2010

    Agreed. gmbuthia’s remark couldn’t be more to the point. Fortunately they confirm that "…HELP trips are developed in a way that makes sure locally expressed needs are met with community materials and ideas…" The trips are made to implement projects. If we replace "trips" with "projects" (even better with "programs"), clearly the focus on the local component seems taken care of, even better when we add to it the involvement of the University of Dar Es Salaam. I believe gmbuthia’s caution is taken care of, could be improved perhaps but it IS there. As for Patrick’s warning not to "abandon the project", this would defeat the entire poverty eradication initiative the students have embarked on. I can only commend the students and wish the entire effort a success. B. Misana.

    Link to this
  7. 7. bmisana 4:29 pm 08/11/2010

    Agreed. gmbuthia’s remark couldn’t be more to the point. Fortunately they confirm that "…HELP trips are developed in a way that makes sure locally expressed needs are met with community materials and ideas…" The trips are made to implement projects. If we replace "trips" with "projects" (even better with "programs"), clearly the focus on the local component seems taken care of, even better when we add to it the involvement of the University of Dar Es Salaam. I believe gmbuthia’s caution is taken care of, could be improved perhaps but it IS there. As for Patrick’s warning not to "abandon the project", this would defeat the entire poverty eradication initiative the students have embarked on. I can only commend the students and wish the entire effort a success. B. Misana.

    Link to this

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