Sunday, February 13, 2011

Hydroelectric - Beginning Microgrids

This video shows two technicians, Patrick and Gerald, testing the first
hydroelectric generator. It worked, but immediately the technicians
destroyed it and started to build a bigger version. Now that they went from
having the bicycle generator powering a light bulb and then a colored tv...
they want their hydroelectric generator run a tv! While they are doing
this, you can see in the background the vertical wind turbine (a discussion
left for another blog coming soon).

A lot of times when groups bring devices to developing nations, they simply
mass implement their machinery throughout the area. This is because they
have the mindset that if a device works from an engineering aspect, then it
will have success in the field. Our research, however, disputes this
approach, for it ignores the area’s social constraints and the ability of
local technicians. Once again, the philosophy of designing with Africans
versus designing for Africans comes up. When you design with Africans, you
design technologies that are needed in the area and utilize local resources
and geography, something that doesn’t happen when you design for
Africans. An example of this is the hydroelectric generator and something
Professor Debey will be immediately implementing in Liberia after they
successfully go through the bicycle generator knowledge.

Therefore, we believe in creating micro-grids where we first test each
individual device success in a small area and then all the devices together
in the same area. While this may take longer and is less efficient, it
ensures that all of the local constraints are satisfied and increases the
probability of our endeavors having success - it is therefore more
effective. Once our micro-grid shows that our devices will work, then we
plan on expanding them throughout the entire area. Since few will believe
this, we will start talking next week about our curriculum including
building a small scale microgrid.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Industrial Designer about "Design for the Other 90% Paradigm"

Like many design students in the U.S. I fell in love with the idea of using design to help developing countries. This career path seemed to align with my two chief interests: designing stuff and helping others. I soon found a small project I could sink my teeth into, and with the support of my professors I began working tirelessly, with the passion and vivaciousness that comes from working with a purpose.

The goal was to design a low tech dirt mixer for use with Dr Moses Musaazi's (our colleague at Technology for Tomorrow) interlocking soil-stabilized block (ISSB) press. This ISSB machine is a simple, lever-operated tool which compresses a mixture of soil and concrete into an interlocking brick shape. As I used the machine on a mission trip I found most of my energy went into mixing the elements of soil and concrete(which was done by hand with shovels), whereas the compressing phase was quite easy. Hence my training in design dictated this mixing process needed improving upon. The first design that I sent over was a goliath of a machine, which was designed to never break and mix a very large quantity of soil as fast as possible, via hand cranks and gears. This mixer was doomed from the beginning. It was a product of the wrong approach to aid: ambitious people going to a foreign country and trying to crank out a "life-changing difference" as fast as possible. Needless to say, this project failed. The people who received it didn't understand how to use it, they had no respect for it as it was simply dropped upon their feet so it fell into the disrepair that I so desperately wanted to avoid. Despite the simple design, fixing the device was understandably more trouble than it was worth. Utter failure. Ouch.

On my second trip to Uganda, I had the privilege of working within Dr. Musaazi's company, Technology for Tomorrow Ltd, as an intern. No making the same mistakes twice, I told myself. This time, the mixer would be designed from local materials alongside local craftsman to ensure we created a machine that was easier to use, easier to fix and cheaper to make. The resulting design was an eclectic hodgepodge of parts found in nearby markets: car parts, an oil drum, scrap steel, among numerous other repurposed components. Despite being far more affordable and user friendly, this project also became an unused piece of the landscape as well and it certainly wasn't built for aesthetics! Though it addressed numerous failures of its predecessor, it fell to scrap for the same fundamental reason. It was not driven and invested-in by Ugandans so after the foreigner's work was done, it stagnated. Finally I truly understood that I was my own worst enemy.

My passion for design and for improving lives blinded me from the true situation. I saw problems that I wanted to fix, and I wanted to see that fix as soon as possible. What I missed was that Ugandans don't just need designs, they need to start designing. Abigail Mechtenberg once spoke of design as bread; design has the ability to tangibly improve peoples lives, but to dedicate a career to designing for the other 90% is just as unsustainable as spending a lifetime donating food. Certainly there are times when relief work is absolutely needed, in times of emergency and crisis. But spending a lifetime donating food to people that have the ability to farm, is no worse than designing for people that have the ability to design. Should foreigners design to fix problems or should we instead empower design?

- Blog Written by Daniel Morgan, an amazingly talented industrial designer whose humility in this blog is to a level which at times is not completely accurate. He co-designed many devices in Uganda and left a legacy and friendships in Uganda which will continue throughout his lifetime. As he goes back to school, he has dreams of co-founding a Design School at Makerere University. He shared what few ever learn... globally, we need to move beyond aid or the perfect imported technology/idea and into Ugandan research and development (R&D). An imperfect device with the backing of Ugandans is MUCH better than a supposedly perfect device with no backing. Note: a device will be backed-up by Ugandans IF it is affordable and most importantly repairable!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Designing With Africans

Chelsea Ransom is a dual-degree master’s student at the University of Michigan, and part of our Empower Design team. She has had previous experience in Africa, as she helped bring clean water to a small Malian village as a member of the Peace Corps. She recently applied to and received the prestigious William Davidson Institute Student-Initiated Summer Internship Grant for an internship in Uganda under Dr. Moses Musaazi, a colleague of Dr. Mechtenberg. Bellow is an excerpt from her application, which details our research team’s philosophy of designing with Africans as opposed to for them:

“Many well-meaning organizations and companies are unsuccessful in Africa when it comes to the sustainability of their projects. Often this is due to the processes used in development of their technologies or concepts. I personally experienced frustration living in Africa over and over again, especially in the technological realm, with new, unsustainable medical, energy, or water devices. Sometimes these “sustainable” devices are purely western in nature, such as photovoltaic solar panels, which were designed for the western world and imported into Africa. Other devices like the solar oven I owned in Africa are designed by westerners for Africans. Frequently, these devices are too complicated to repair, impossible to manufacture locally, too expensive for the majority, or simply impractical. Unfortunately these projects are the ones gaining recognition (Rosenthal 2010), while locally designed, more sustainable projects are not. Many of these organizations are failing to grasp the underlying elements of success. In my experience, the difference between unsuccessful and successful projects lies in the difference between designing for Africans and designing with Africans. Organizations often design and implement projects but never return to evaluate its sustainability. If they did return, they would likely be disappointed to find their expensive gifts broken and in disrepair. Furthermore, there are many technologies being designed by Africans to meet their own needs, and these technologies are often not brought to market as discussed [in recent articles].”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Locally Fabricated/Manufactured versus Imported Devices

The idea is that over dependence on imported products cripple local capacity to think, innovate, and generate new ideas as well as implement them in a sustainable manner. In fact any form of aid to developing countries would be more meaningful it were in the form of capacity building, for example through guidance on how to locally design and build devices whose breakdowns can be locally fixed by the local people as well as emphasizing the need for locally manufactured devices rather than imported devices at exorbitant costs coupled with limited capacity to locally maintain and repair them in the inevitable event of breakdown. There are examples here in Uganda where devices or components are donated or based on microcredits/microloans but become non-functional because locals cannot repair neither can they maintain them (sometimes the solar panels fail before the microloan is due). It is believed and quoted that many biogas digesters have been constructed in Uganda to provide energy, but it is hard to find them and harder to find functional ones. This also applies to other technologies such as solar which is expensive and there is no human capacity to repair them. Furthermore, if the United States is not purchasing solar panels for their residential homes without large tax credits, why are they highly promoted for the extremely poor (less than $1/day)?

It can also be argued that unless developing countries emphasize the concept of locally made devices; technological growth will remain a dream forever. I have gotten involved in the design and fabrication of devices locally here in Uganda and my observation while interacting with stakeholders is the negative tendency among Ugandans: most of them do not believe that reliable devices can be manufactured locally; they do not believe that Ugandans can come up with innovative ideas. Such negative tendencies are unfounded because there are role models such as Dr. Moses Musaazi ( that have come up with brilliant and innovative ideas contributing greatly to the betterment of human life.

The world today is in high gear for technological advances which have transformed it into a global village. It is self evident that technological devices/equipment are a key component in any technological growth since they act as the infrastructure and hardware that drives the software to achieve various applications such as tele-medicine. While that is true, it is instructive to note that many countries and regions that have experienced a technological boom such as China locally manufacture/fabricate their devices and equipment. However, when it comes to developing countries such as Uganda, it is easy to observe that most of the devices are not locally made. This is still a very big challenge and its logical to claim that such situation explains why developing countries are developing countries.

It is why we are teaming up with Empower Design because we know we must Empower Ugandans to Power Uganda as Dr. Abigail Mechtenberg’s workshops are titled.

Written by: Emmanuel Miyingo, Makerere University, Technology for Tomorrow.