Thursday, July 9, 2009

Day 2 - Hands on "Build It" Modules

After a day spent in the sanitized environment of the KCCR and the Credit Union Hostel, participants today had the chance to do what they came here to do – get their hands dirty! Yesterday evening they had the chance to pick one of six possible “build-it” modules that would be taking place concurrently throughout the course of the day. The options included a Solar Lantern, a Humdinger wind energy machine, a water pump, a hacksaw made from bicycle parts and a corn cob sheller. Some of these took place in workshops on campus, some in the hostel itself and the last two, of which I was a part, boarded a bus to Suame Magazine.

Our mission for the day...

This was my first time both in the centre of Kumasi but the Magazine itself is what leaves an indelible impression on your mind, rather than the city. It is in many respects a mechanical engineer’s paradise, with a cacophony of sounds greeting you as you make your way into the sprawling collection of workshops that help make up this gigantic construction hub. The constant din of hammering, welding, sawing and drilling had many of the engineers I was with in raptures but even an English student can appreciate the atmosphere of hard work and invention that dominates the place.

Joseph hammering some aluminum to pieces

The speech that John Powell had given yesterday morning was instantly contextualized, as we saw first hand the effect that this grassroots movement had on the local economy. The Suame Model seems an exceptionally sustainable one, and even more than that, an intrinsically practical one too. All of the items that we saw being made and sold are things that are physically applicable in the daily context of Ghanaian life and thus, it is understandable why there is such a market for them.

After a quick stop off at the Information Technology Transfer Unit (I.T.T.U) workshop we finally had the chance to meet one of the workshop masters, a legend by the name of Stone. He runs a foundry a couple of minutes walk into the hub of the Magazine and we spent the day with him and his team of apprentices, learning how to make corn Sheller’s from heated aluminum moulds. We first set prepared the mould, heated the aluminum in the furnace, before pouring it into our moulds to cool into the shape we had set. After pouring the aluminum (I did the honors for my team) we decided to go back to the I.T.T.U. for the next phase of our build it, all the while secretly hoping we hadn’t messed up our aluminum casting!

Sean is given the crucial task of pouring the aluminum - no pressure!

David and Joseph, enthralled by the mould they have just made

Stone - The great man himself!

On the way back I had a very interesting chat with Radikha Bhalla, a Masters student in the Art College of Design in Passadena, California, about the need to create whole development programs for rural communities, rather than simply introducing them to time saving technologies. I mean, Corn Sheller’s may speed up the process for the villagers but at the end of the day, there may often be constraints about the amount of corn they can actually grow in the first place. Radikha is actually doing part of her Masters research on this project and we concluded that user centered design has to be the focal point in terms of seeing exactly what the villagers can do to make the best use of this increased time. One thing that Amy always remarks upon when she meets local men and women from the rural villagers, is the strength of their hands, and indeed, she believes that if we can help those hands with even a little of their work, we can be happy with our effort.

Radikha adds some final touches to our mould

We arrived back at the I.T.T.U. at about 2pm, ready to grab a quick bite to eat, before learning how one can make a corn sheller through simple sheet metal. We spent the next hours cutting, bending, fastening and in some cases welding, before eventually having some prototypes to show for our hard work. Not before the Engineers had some fun with their token English student though. Gwyn Jones, one of this year’s trip leaders, is never one to pass by an opportunity for mirth and as I looked quizzically at the hole puncher for the sheet metal he quipped “Just imagine it’s an A4 sheet of paper and you’ll be fine”. The unsettling thing about it was that his advice actually worked

Taking a bite to eat between sessions

On our return to the Foundry some of us were horrified to see that our moulds had not quite formed in exactly the manner we had planned them. Due to the moist nature of the cast sand and mould our aluminum had not quite reached all the way around. As such we had something which much more closely resembled a horseshoe! Our names that we had carved into the underside of the mould were still just about readable so that provided at least some consolation. Overall though, we followed the Confucius wisdom mentioned earlier in the blog, and learned by doing, rather than simply observing.

Nadia shares a joke with one of the workshop managers

Up close and personal with one of the machines at the I.T.T.U.

A farmer from Ghana and a teacher from Sierra Leone work together to cut some metal

Lisa, one of this year's MIT students, completely at home in the workshop

On our return we proudly (some more than others) showed off our new creations and it was interesting to see the range of work that people had done during the day. Patricia, in particular, was delighted with the Solar Lantern she had created as it meant that she would be now able to have light in her house in the evenings, and thus hold lessons for the girls at a more convenient time. She also already has quite a new range of skills available to teach them!

We reconvened in the KCCR Seminar Room to hear from some of the past participants about their experience post IDDS. Hayley started the ball rolling with a presentation on the impact that her experience in IDDS 2008 had on her personally and professionally, stating that the combination of practical prototypes and inspiring inventors is what makes IDDS so unique. Our second English past participant, Stephen, duly followed with a superb presentation on the work he and h
is Breast Milk team have been doing since the end of the conference. During the summit his team was working on a project to help reduce the transmission of HIV from mothers to their children during breastfeeding. Working in conjunction with a medical team from Boston University, his team devised a nipple shield device that they believed was the beginning of a solution to this problem. Since then, the project has been featured on the BBC and Stephen has been awarded $100,000 from Cambridge University to fund his PHD on the project, as well as receiving an additional $100,000 from the Gates Foundation. Stephen even got the chance to sit down one on one with Bill Gates himself, to discuss the potential of the project. Here’s hoping he can achieve some concrete results over the next few years!

The tough task of following Stephen’s presentation fell on the more than able shoulders of Suprio Das, a past participant from Kolkata in India. Suprio presented, along with former team mate Jessica Huang, the work that his project team has been doing since the close of IDDS 2008. The two worked together on the Power Pump project, and developed a mechanism for generating electricity from the use of a treadle pump. Their team has been numerous grants since the inception of the project and the project stands alone as something which could have a direct impact on people’s lives. While this follow up project work was interesting, and a perfect model of the potential for continuation of projects outside of IDDS, it was Suprio himself who captured the hearts and minds of all in the KCCR Seminar room.

He spoke to his fellow participants about the imminent danger they were in from a new sort of virus, one he claimed was even worse than malaria. The “IDDS fever” certainly took hold of Suprio during the course of last year’s summit, and has had a firm hold on him ever since. Within Suprio himself though, exists the ability to inspire and infect those listening to him with a passion for, and belief in, the power of technology and invention to significantly change people’s lives for the better. He told us that his wife had begun to despair that his whole house was turning into a laboratory and he gave us some interesting examples of some of the water testing and purification work he and Jessica have been doing over the past couple of months.

The IDDS 2008 Power Generation Team

Jess and Suprio present their experiences to the group

He also told us one story which I feel somehow represents a perfect example of how valuable inventors and appropriate technology are to the world. On the verge of finishing up their latest prototype for the power pump, Suprio and Jess heard about a cyclone that had ripped through a nearby delta of islands and left thousands of people with severely damaged homes and without electricity. The two abandoned the work they were doing and instead began to adapt a hand pump that could help charge mobile phones, the only form of communication the communities had with the outside world and particularly important during time of crisis. They travelled up to the region with their prototype and soon found plenty of enthusiasm to encourage them that they had made the right choice in coming. Each of the villagers wanted to try the machine themselves, and were amazed by the practical solution to one of their very real problems.

The region, devestated by flooding

The villagers crowd forward to see the new machine

The phone charging mechanism in action

This highlights just how much of a change inventors can make in the world. The lack of bureaucracy associated with Suprio’s solution was inspiring. He simply saw a need, developed a solution, and delivered on that solution. At the close of his presentation he invited us out to try one of his latest inventions which is explained through pictures below. Apologies for the lack of video content in this blog – the internet connection over here simply doesn’t allow for it!

A trip to a local restaurant was to follow and the Jofel experience provided a lot more amusement than one might have imagined. Given that they had to cater for almost 100 people, the staff moved us upstairs to a huge open area floor, before setting up the table and chairs for the event. Unfortunately, they hadn’t factored in the thunderstorm that ensued and we were thus treated to the hilarious sight of about twenty IDDSters moving 100 chairs, 20 tables and 20 trays of food across a massive open plan hall, with rain streaming in from either side! In the end, it all worked out and was another great chance to talk further with some of this year’s wonderful participants. They are all excited about finding out their teams and design challenges tomorrow!