2009 PFIG Recipient Benjamin Foster

Career Administrator

Benjamin Foster
School of Engineering & Applied Sciences
Civil and Environmental Engineering 
2010 Graduation Year 

Internship: Least of These International in Charlottesville

Notes on the first week 

It has been a great first couple weeks! I am working In Charlottesville on Ivy Rd. for Least of These International (LOTI), a non-profit firm that works with appropriate technology in developing countries. LOTI is about 4 or 5 years old and has 3 employees and a slightly larger volunteer base. The organization was started by Justin Henriques and Reed Barton when they graduated from JMU’s ISAT program. The goal of the organization is “to demonstrate the love of God by meeting basic needs of rural communities in developing countries through the use of appropriate and sustainable technologies, partnering with grassroots and indigenous organizations, and research and development of innovative solutions.” So far I have had the chance to work on some very interesting projects and really appreciate being given the opportunity to get involved so quickly. The first week I helped refine a process for resizing the photovoltaic lighting systems in western Kenya for compact fluorescent bulbs. I also was introduced to some rainwater catchment technology and reviewed and summarized a report on boreholes in Namawanga , Kenya . I also got a taste of working for a small non-profit by running basic errands such as picking up the mail and shopping for light bulbs to test the PV system.

The second week I spent resizing the PV-lighting systems based on information I received on pricing and availability from a contact in Kenya . I also started researching cooking technology for a community bakery in Kenya and dry composting double vault toilets for a community in the Dominican Republic . Additionally I used the PV sizing tool to size a panel for a heated blanket for a refugee camp in Pakistan . There is much more work to do on all the projects, especially the Kenyan ones as my other office mates will be traveling there to implement the projects in August. I have absolutely loved my job so far. It is much different from my other experiences working in offices. I have had freedom to creatively accomplish the tasks that have been set before me and have learned a great deal about appropriate technology just in these first two weeks. It has been a blast so far!

Midway

The past few weeks have stayed just as busy as the first one was. I have continued work on most of the projects I mentioned in my first entry. I finished up testing for the redesign of the photovoltaic lighting system and have moved on to spend most of my time thinking through a bakery design for western Kenya . This has been a great exercise in “appropriate and sustainable” design. Those words have inherited many meanings in recent years, especially in today’s world where “green” has taken on an almost fad like existence in the consumer product world, so I will define our use of the terms. When we use the term “appropriate,” we are talking about solutions that not only intelligently meet the need of the community but also does so using technology community members have the capacity to understand, use, and maintain. Often times in developing countries, this means simple inexpensive technologies. Another key component of “appropriate” is that the technology is culturally and socially sensitive. This is why we work exclusively with partner organizations that have a long lasting presence in each community. When we talk about “sustainable” we simply mean the ability of the solution to meet the specific need without causing other problems over a long period of time. This is achieved through the consideration of environmental issues, implementation of education programs, and installation of business and micro finance opportunities.

I have had the chance to do most of the preliminary thinking for a bakery to make 200 loaves of bread a day in the western Kenyan community of Namawanga. I have spent a couple weeks researching oven/stove technologies as well as fuel options. With deforestation becoming a major issue, my focus was on finding fuel efficient ovens/stoves and/or alternative fuel sources. Through correspondence with our partner organization, we found that there is an abundance of corn stalk waste that is currently just burned off after harvesting. Burning biomass without oxygen in a process called pyrolysis, results in charcoal fines which can then be made into charcoal. A simple pyrolysis process has been developed by Amy Smith, a professor at MIT, using only a modified oil drum. Once the corn stalk is carbonized, it can be mixed with a binder (in our case probably cassava flour and water), and formed into charcoal briquettes. These can then be used as a fuel (just like the charcoal you would use in a backyard grill) to cook the bread in efficiently designed charcoal ovens, significantly decreasing indoor air pollution, wood use, and carbon emissions.

I have also continued my research on dry composting toilets and solar medical refrigeration technologies. In addition to the engineering experience I am receiving here at LOTI, I have had the opportunity to continue to learn about how a non-profit organization runs. Through conversation and just the experience of being in the office, I have learned a great deal about fundraising strategies and philosophy. Overall working with LOTI has been incredibly educational so far and I don’t see how it couldn’t be even more so over the next few weeks. As it gets closer to departure time for Africa (sadly I will not be going), I am assisting in preparations and finalizing project details. I hope, over these last four weeks, to keep learning about the functioning of a non-profit office and appropriate and sustainable engineering design.

Final Reflections

It has been quite an adventure since my last update. About 6 weeks into my internship, LOTI invited me to go with them to Kenya for 2.5 weeks in the month of August. So I spent my last few weeks preparing plans and researching for the projects for western Kenya. I was excited to get the opportunity to see my summer work implemented.

We left on August 8 for Nairobi where we stayed with the director of our partner organization in Nairobi. Possibilities Africa is a Christian non-profit organization that can best be classified as a community organizing institution, although that doesn't fully describe them. PA works in a few rural communities across Kenya. We spent a day planning with PA in Nairobi then headed out on the 8 hour van ride to western Kenya and a village named Namawanga. The first two days saw classrooms filled with about 30 or 40 Kenyans ranging from 16 to 70 years old. We taught about biogas and biochar as well as held business training and various meetings with the local community based organization (CBO) about the credit/microfinance program. I spent most of my time teaching about biogas and biochar and absorbing information about the community around me. After the educational days we started an install of a biogas digester at a local farm. We tried to use as many local parts as possible so we spent many hours each morning and night shopping in Bungoma Town, the closest town to the village. Using local parts also meant being flexible, and flexibility meant late nights and early mornings doing redeisgns and calculations.

After a series of mishaps with some PVC cement that chemically reacted with some of our materials, we were able to mostly finish the body of the digester in two days. We worked alongside Kenyans and used the install as a practicum of sorts. The first day I also had the honor of explaining the technology to two classes of about 30 middle school aged kids who had heard about the project and came by as a field trip. We left Namawanga for Kisumu for a couple days to rest and to give a presentation on the technological and business potential of solar panel lighting systems to a group of youth in the village of Gem Rae. We returned to Namawanga early the second week and installed the digester and gas piping. We also repaired some of the solar lighting systems that had been installed either last year or three years ago with a couple of the technicians LOTI had certified in previous trips. We also made one new install. We spent the last few days in Nairobi, writing up the previous week and a half. The plane ride home was quite an adventure.

We had to be diverted mid flight to Azores, a group of 9 Portuguese volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic, where we spent 30 hrs before getting a new plane from London to fly to DC. The trip was an unbelievable experience and was a perfect way to conclude my internship. It helped bring my experience full circle and gave me an excellent picture of what it might look like to work in this field full-time. I still have no idea what I will I do when I finish this year, but development engineering is certainly still a possibility.