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Students, faculty, and alumni are bringing water and other services to Africa

Two industrial design students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies have brought clean water to five eastern African villages.

    A faucet.

Then rising fourth-year student Jonathan Mills from Fredericksburg, Va., heard about a group of villages in Africa that had no convenient source of clean water.

Mills got in touch with John Ywalasiwa, a village resident, and decided to raise the necessary funds to travel to Africa after his graduation from Virginia Tech to help. Mills told fellow fourth-year industrial design student Howard Chen, from Richmond, Va., who also jumped at the chance to help.

The villagers were walking about thirty minutes each way over hilly terrain to a clean water source to bring buckets of water back to their village.

In June 2007, during the African rainy season, with a combination of funds they collected (about $4,000 from family and friends; their major contributors were Ove and Elanor Green, parents of Associate Professor of Industrial Design Bill Green.) and their own money, the two flew to the eastern African country of Kenya, and then traveled for more than a day by bus and truck. The final leg of their journey took them 3,000 feet up the side of a mountain to reach the village area in the Cherangani Hills of Africa’s rift valley region.

    Four people near worksite.

Once there, Mills and Chen set to work mending and expanding a rudimentary pipe system. They created catchment basins, cleared sediment buildups, replaced busted pipes, refitted sections with larger pipe, and crossed taps to various villages.

In the village of Mungat, Mills and Chen also improved a family’s latrine and surrounding grounds. The Standard 6, which is akin to sixth grade in the United States, students pitched in helping Mills and Chen tote handcart loads of handmade bricks to the school.

Assessing building construction needs

    Group photo.

In July 2007, Annie Pearce, assistant professor of building construction, and Christine Fiori, assistant director of undergraduate programs, industry relations, and outreach in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, visited two villages in Kenya to assess local building projects.

The first was a 140-child orphanage—Faith Brethren Children’s Home. Pearce and Fiori helped the orphanage create a punch list thereby giving them time to address the structural and developmental issues.

They also met with individuals in the Ngeta village to determine projects Virginia Tech students could help find solutions to, or to design and build; discussions were conducted to define potential areas where collaborations between the village and other stateside groups could be established.

Pearce and Fiori evaluated the feasibility of the conversion of an existing residence to an orphanage and clinic facility to serve village residents. The venture was organized and sponsored by Peacework, a Blacksburg-based organization that works to build community-to-community alliances to address global challenges.

Inventing transportation solutions

A group of three industrial design students led by Ron Kemnitzer, professor of industrial design, and Akshay Sharma, assistant professor of architecture, both in Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design, participated in an “interdesign” project that addressed the topic of rural transport in South Africa.

The program, sponsored by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, is an invitation-only program usually consisting of professional designers and professional groups.

The students—architecture graduate student Nicholas Monday of Richmond, Va., fourth-year industrial design student Junko Hosokawa of Sapporo, Japan, and architecture graduate student Jason Zawitkowski of River Vale, N.J.—composed one of only two student teams invited to participate.

The students, who had conducted preliminary work on the topic developed in the industrial design thesis class taught by Kemnitzer and Sharma, went to South Africa and worked on design teams to develop a donkey-powered transport vehicle and a bicycle manufactured from reclaimed parts. After returning to campus, they continued work on the task and later submitted it as their thesis project.

Fostering economic independence for women and families

In summer 2007, a group of Virginia Tech students led by Binioube Aleyao, a planning, governance, and globalization doctoral student in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, took part in a global education opportunity to ‘help’ Africa.

Students helped establish a computer
training center during a summer
abroad program.

Aleyao, a Togolese national, is the executive director of HELP Africa (Humanitarian Effort to Lessen Poverty in Africa) and spearheads a summer abroad program for the university through the organization.

The non-profit organization works to empower self-reliance by implementing sustainable development and relief projects in sub-Saharan Africa. For more information about the summer abroad program, read the “Unique summer study abroad program allows Virginia Tech Students to explore Togolese culture” article.

Project sponsors are Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs and The Institute for Policy and Governance.

Photo Gallery

    African hut and landscape

Learn more about Mills and Chen's trip to Africa.

More on the water project...

Mills and Chen have self-published a book, Maji Safi: Mbara Water Project, chronicling their trip.

Mills, now an industrial design graduate student, and Chen, now employed as a content, technology, and design specialist, say they have continued interest in designing elements for simple systems—like water pipes—which can be easily understood by other cultures.

They say they plan to return to Africa to expand the pipe system to additional villages.

Soda treat

    African students drinking cola.

Local students pitched in to help Mills and Chen transport handmade bricks to their school.

When the 36 students finished their part, they were rewarded with soft drinks purchased by Chen from the local store.

Many of the students said they had never tasted one; they are luxury items not frequently purchased.

Preserving the African interior

    PLUG deployed in Africa

Another group led by the college's faculty have created an environmentally friendly lightweight mobile laboratory.

The lab, called PLUG (Portable Laboratory on Uncommon Ground), houses researchers from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine while they are in the field in Tanzania.

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