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In Zambia, Text Messages Save Lives

BU’s EWB chapter brings clean water, internet to rural village


Two College of Engineering students from the BU’s student chapter of Engineers Without Borders traveled last summer to Zambia in partnership with BU’s Center for Global Health & Development to work on several projects designed to improve the lives of rural residents. This is an account of their trip.

When we first stepped off the plane last August in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, we were greeted by the ubiquitous dust of the country’s dry season. We drove past fires on the side of the road, whose smoke mixed with the dust and followed us throughout our trip: from the bustling city, south to Livingstone, and out to our destination, the rural village of Naluja.

Two members of the BU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-BU), founded six years ago, Nathanael Lee (ENG’15) and Dan Sade (ENG’14), traveled to Zambia in a partnership with BU’s Center for Global Health & Development (CGHD). We were joined by our mentors, Mohammed Jafri and Hunter Chaconas of the Boston chapter of the national organization of Engineers Without Borders, which focuses on global outreach.

As members of EWB-BU, we want to use engineering solutions to improve the quality of life of people in developing communities, the mission of the national EWB. Our chapter is currently concentrating solely on our partners in Zambia.

Our two and a half weeks in the landlocked central African country took us through many different cities and towns. In Lusaka, we saw people living as they do in cities elsewhere: driving cars, using smartphones, and wearing designer clothing. Smaller towns like Choma or Kalomo revealed a slower side of Zambian life, one strongly tied to the country’s agrarian roots.

Engineers Without Borders, Naluja, Zambia

Life in Naluja, a village of about 11,000 people, is a combination of tradition and modernity.

Naluja is a village of about 11,000 people, located in a region of climatic extremes. Each season brings a different threat, and the health and safety of Nalujans are never guaranteed. In the dry season, perhaps the most forgiving time of the year, wells go dry, livestock die of thirst, and people struggle to sell their crops on the national market. In the hot season that follows, temperatures exceed 100 degrees. While the wet season brings much-needed water and rain, it also brings malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Life in Naluja is a combination of tradition and modernity. Despite its isolation, residents text friends and family on cell phones whose ring tones may be the latest Kanye West song.

This past summer’s visit was intended to advance projects begun by an EWB-BU team that visited Naluja in August 2012. That team, comprising Lee, Jafri, Grace Wang (ENG’14), and Declan Bowman (ENG’15), gathered valuable information about health care, electricity and water usage, and infrastructure. A baseline community health assessment was also conducted. Team members then considered four options for bolstering the text messaging system: a parabolic dish reflector, an active booster, a cantenna (a homemade waveguide directional antenna), and a Yagi antenna. Throughout the following academic year, the entire EWB team at BU dedicated a large part of their efforts to identifying the best solution, and settled on the Yagi antenna, a robust device that can be made relatively easily from low-cost materials available in Zambia.

The 2012 team also identified water quality as a significant issue. The BU chapter designed a slow sand filtration system that gave individual families access to clean water.

Engineers Without Borders, Naluja, Zambia

EWB mentors Mohammed Jafri (left) and Hunter Chaconas mount the Yagi antenna on top of the village water tower.

This year we wanted to use the research our group did throughout the year and implement the Yagi design, while presenting the idea of water filters to the Zambian community. Because the projects required diverse engineering skills, our team comprised one student in mechanical engineering (Sade) and one in biomedical engineering (Lee). Jafri is an electrical engineer and Chaconas a civil engineer.

No matter how thorough our research and prototyping efforts were in Boston, it was hard to anticipate the situations we would face in the harsh Zambian environment. In the case of the Yagi, we decided that the optimal mounting site would be on top of the village’s water tower. After several days and many attempts to align the antenna, the moment of truth arrived. Nate pulled out his phone to check if we had a signal: two bars. Yes! We were thrilled that our project was successful, and we were happy to hear that some of the villagers planned to copy the design in their own homes, projects that were already under way before we left.

This school year, we expect to further refine our antenna to make it more functional and robust, and we are pleased that the Zambia Center for Applied Health Research and Development, a CGHD partner, is interested in expanding our Yagi antenna to other rural clinics.

Our assessment of the water filter was also encouraging. The original aim was to test the viability of the design, which was widely used in the United States until the 1980s. Once local villagers saw the ease and simplicity of our design, they quickly adopted it and made modifications. In the eight days we were in the area, we saw them scale it up from a simple 5-gallon bucket to a 55-gallon barrel that could filter water for multiple households. With the current setup, testing kits for water quality will be sent monthly to our local NGO in the area, allowing us to closely monitor how well the prototypes made by the locals perform. In keeping with Engineers Without Borders USA regulations, the locals have agreed not to use the water unless it has been tested and cleared. We are looking forward to next year’s project implementation on a much larger scale, and to looking into a water storage system that can help alleviate the village’s water needs during the dry season.

Engineers Without Borders, Naluja, Zambia

The water filtration system installed by EWB filters water for multiple households from a 55-gallon barrel.

When we asked the Nalujans what projects they would like us to take on next, a dam was high on the list. The villagers had built two dams for watering their cattle, and one had fallen into disrepair, largely because of a design flaw. We know they are capable of building one, but they need a better design, something that none of us was equipped then to help them with. We will, however, use our resources at BU this year to see what solutions we might be able to implement.

The village elders and the head nurse of Naluja also asked us to help them turn an SUV into an ambulance to transport the sick and injured to a hospital two hours away. We hope to do that next year, if and when sufficient funds can be raised to buy a vehicle.

Having completed two successful student-organized trips to our partner community in Zambia, EWB-BU is anxious to grow our membership and raise money. We have an ambitious goal of raising $50,000 this year to fund our projects and ensure we can fulfill our commitment to our Naluja partners. We have a long road ahead, but we know that our hard work and passion are being translated to a better quality of life for people around the world. As engineering students, we can think of no better way to apply our skills.

Anyone who would like to make a donation to Engineers Without Borders at Boston University can do so here.

Learn more about the BU chapter of Engineers Without Borders here or follow the group on Facebook and Twitter.

Nathanael Lee can be reached at natelee@bu.edu, Daniel Sade at dsade@bu.edu, Alan Pacheco at pachecoa@bu.edu, and Teresa Fulcher at tfulcher@bu.edu.


4 Comments on In Zambia, Text Messages Save Lives

  • Natalie McKnight on 10.23.2013 at 8:15 am

    What an inspiring story! Keep up the good work, and I hope this article attracts lots of donations to your project.

  • Tyler Robinson on 11.03.2013 at 7:37 am

    Well intentioned, but this article and the projects it describes still strikes me as very “Global Health 1.0”, rather than representing the new wave of global health entrepreneurship that’s been building over the last 15 years. The students went to Zambia, did a “needs assessment” that was likely biased by their own socioeconomic perspective, and returned to the United States, where they decided on the best of the four antenna designs they were considering. This decision should be made by no one other than the locals who will be using it for the foreseeable future. If Western humanitarians hope to have any local buy-in and any real impact, we must recognize that it’s not us that will be using the products we pander. True global work must be based in education (“train the trainers”) and capacity building, with locals identifying their needs and solutions that will work for them.

    Although I’m sure these students got some really important education, and perhaps they will truly invent the next tool that will revolutionize global health, they shouldn’t delude themselves that they are really doing that much for Zambia. A much better use of the 4 roundtrip airfares and $50k would be to sponsor a young aspiring engineer from Naluja to come to study at BU and return to her own community.

    I’m a medical student at BUSM, and I want to do global health. I’m struggling with the same conceptual challenges. Let’s work to build Global Health 2.0 together — one that’s driven by local need and actually builds local capacity, rather than what looks good to our friends and funders back home.

    • Alan Pacheco on 11.17.2013 at 4:44 pm

      I understand your concern and want to add a few clarifying points to this article. EWB is entirely focused on community partnership and takes no action before ensuring that what we propose is appropriate for the needs of Nalujans. The projects we implemented are the result of extensive consideration and dialogue with the community, and we have had to discontinue various proposals on our end due to lack of interest in Zambia.

      I absolutely agree that there is no point in implementing a project and have all the money we raise and the effort we expend go to waste simply for the sake of making a good appearance back home. It is imperative to first educate ourselves and then train the community, as we have done, to ensure the sustainability and replicability of our designs. More importantly, this educational initiative empowers community leaders and members with applicable technical knowledge relevant to their situation.

      It is unrealistic for any student organization of our limited scope and resources to think we are solving the immense and multifaceted challenges Naluja faces. Instead, aware of our limitations and geographical, economic, and cultural differences, we do what we can to make a targeted impact to improve quality of life. We encourage all who are interested in us to become informed on what we do and continue challenging the way we operate to augment the work we are taking on.

      • maria haynes on 05.15.2014 at 10:22 pm

        A good reply Alan., I have been volunteering for the past 8 yrs. with a group (Communities Without Borders-local to Boston area) that has been raising money here to fund orphaned children in Zambia (Lusaka area) to attend public school there. There are summer visits for those who have participated in the project, and while there we have engaged in projects requested ( I stress ‘requested’ ) by folks in the compounds/communities- those of us who are teachers have done workshops for the relatively untrained community school teachers, others have helped with painting, repairs, and biggest of all was helping them with their plea for nearby access to health care. We formed a board there- all residents, who then formed a gov’t/community partnership . We raised funds here, The board in Zambia hired the local workers, bought local supplies, made the bricks , and built themselves a basic health care center. The Zambian gov’t agreed to supply a 24/7 health care worker. Last year on our visit, we found that another International donor was impressed with the arrangement and local control/involvement that they supplied solar power for the now 3 buildings. The gov’t has added another health care staff, and supplied a radio connection & ambulance arrangement with the hospital 25 miles away , pending the compound residents filling of huge potholes in the 3 mile long dirt road up to the main road where the ambulance would meet them.
        There have been times when I have heard the same complaint about the ‘feel-good ‘ trip- but have seen what happens when people themselves are honored for their intelligence, and being trusted to know what they need and manage the outcome.

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