Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Creative Solutions for the Poor (an engineer wouldn't hurt)

Along with current Vanderbilt student Ari Herrick and two of her friends, I traveled seven hours in a series of tro-tros that took us to the bustling fishing village of Akwidaa, located a few hours west of Cape Coast (the notorious heart of the trans-Atlantic slave trade). On our last tro, I met a man Stephen Apwidaa, who was a primary teacher in Akwidaa and soon became known to me and my friends as “Stephen the Teacher” (my friends in the back of the tro met “Charles the Goldminer”). Stephen and I chatted it up, and he invited me to his home. He passed the this-guy-doesn’t-just-want-to-be-friend-for-money test, and so I said maybe I’d wander over tomorrow.

We stayed at the idyllically set Green Turtle Lodge at the cost of $4.50 a night and a butchering of our ankles by mosquitoes that had us itching late into next week. We had a great time, but after laying on the beach for a whopping total of 20 minutes and wearing out myself bodysurfing, I got curious and tired of being a “tourist”, so partner in crime Ari and I moseyed on over to Akwidaa. We inquired for Stephen the Teacher, and it didn’t take long before 12-year-old Joseph led us to him, with children swarming and holding our hands to guide us.

Stephen took us to a chop bar, where we enjoyed Fantas and talked abouthis family and the village. A father of four, his oldest son had just completed high school, and though he wanted to send him to a university to pursue his son’s interest in land economy, finances didn’t allow it. His son would stay home to work until next year, when Stephen would look at the possibilities.

We talked about several topics, including jobs. It seemed like fishing was still intact, but coconut sales from the palm trees were starting to drop off and as a result that form of livlihood. He pointed to some nearby brown palm trees, according to him affected by water pollution from oil – possibly the recent oil spill near his community. “They will not produce again,” he explained.

At the same time, they have no electricity. He pointed out the door to a nearby steak in the ground which demarcated the future installation of a light pole, but the government had not yet acted. Even if the power grid were to be extended to them, it’s a wonder how consistent it would be and how many people would benefit. Ari and her friends live just two hours outside of Accra and say power outages are common.

The most compelling problem was that of rubbish (don’t worry, I’m not coming back a Brit). They piled a lot of their garbage on the rocks very close to the water (see pic), and when the tide came in with bad weather, it would wash a lot of the garbage inland to the beaches of their estuary that bisects the town into New and Old. Why they couldn’t pile it somewhere else got lost in translation – maybe it was because no one wants to live next to a landfill. As a result, they were burning the trash or burying it in the beach, and the garbage that was washing up was having to be raked up by government workers (see pic).

So, taking all this together, there are job, energy, and waste problems. This may be just optimistic thinking or actually an opportunity for bottom-of-the-pyramid engineering (or both), but wouldn’t it be amazing if the trash, or at least some of it, could be converted into energy? It could help light the town. And trash might then become, in an odd way, potential revenue. It could employ collectors or pay people small fees for bringing it to the conversion center, where employees could convert it. This is almost certainly wishful thinking, but just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done at all. And at the very least, thinking creatively about solutions for the poor gets the ball rolling. For proof, see here.

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