Student engineers in Tanzania seek government support for stove-design project


Tanzania, DartmouthEditor'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 11th blog post for Scientific American.

If we want the stove to spread, we need to get people excited about the stoves and excited about improving the welfare of their community. Excitement was a missing element from last year's stove project in Mwamgongo. Because individuals from the community were not included in the design process, they were not invested in seeing the project succeed. To design something is to make it your own. Any design process requires a significant investment of time, thought and effort into solving the problem. The procedure bestows on the designer an in-depth understanding of the problem and the solution. If people from Mwamgongo contribute to the process, the community will be poised to distribute the stoves within their own community and elsewhere.

To get the ball rolling, we had our first meeting with Mwamgongo’s government office. Working closely with the government is essential from a sustainability standpoint. The government of Mwamgongo includes a head officer, an assistant officer and a social services committee. There are many other committees dedicated to tackling challenges in the community, including sanitation, water distribution and education. But working with the government can be a frustrating experience. As Dr. Charles, the head laboratory technician in Mwamgongo explained: Government jobs pay poorly, but you have job security since it is difficult to fire a government employee. This freedom makes some employees difficult to catch at work.

The government offices are located in the center of town, around one hundred feet from our field station in a crumbling white concrete building. As we approach there is a large crowd assembled out front indicating that the government was actually working today. Much to my chagrin we are immediately ushered into the office, displacing the present occupants. I don’t want to get special treatment, but sometimes it is unavoidable. The head government officer is an extremely friendly person who, like everyone from Mwamgongo, loves our translator Revo. They talk for a while before I begin to explain the project, our goals and aims and the fact that we want to work closely with the government. I want to convey that we are here to work for the government of Mwamgongo to help them accomplish their development goals. Without government support this project, like so many charity-based projects in Tanzania, will eventually fail due to lack of maintenance and oversight. We must make the understanding clear that we are not here to give anything. We come only with information and ask for the community’s involvement. The government helps us form a list of 12 people to work with: eight women and four men. Among the group we include members of the social service committee, enthusiastic people we worked with last year, and also two men who single-handedly brought an improved charcoal stove design to the village.Tanzania, Dartmouth

From the head officer we learn that throughout the Kigoma region deforestation has become such a severe problem that wood limits have been imposed and a committee called VLAM has been established to control deforestation. VLAM is responsible for restricting wood gathering and also charged with ensuring that everyone use improved cookstoves by Jan. 1, 2010. This is extremely good news for our project as these mandates are directly in line with our goals and the formulation of a committee indicates awareness of these issues. It seems like Mwamgongo is ready for and needs a stove project.

In preparation for the first design meeting, which would happen the next morning, Revo and I go to collect clay and materials to build the first stove. Getting clay is probably the hardest part about making the stove. It involves swinging a heavy pickaxe in 90-degree heat [32 degrees Celsius] to access clay buried about a meter below the earthy topsoil. By the time you’re finished, you’re sweating so much you might as well have jumped in the lake. It doesn’t help that my form with a pickaxe is terrible and a large group of people have arrived to watch me flail at the soil, but Revo gives me some positive encouragement. When the task is completed, we return to the field station with two sacks of clay, enough for about four stoves. Now it is time to build.

Photos courtesy of Wendy Hado

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

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