Engineers look to spark success in Kenyan village

Posted: January 21st, 2011 | Communities, Lifestyle, North Park | 1 Comment

By Christy Scannell | SDUN Reporter

North Park resident Chris Willemin, shown here, will be helping lead the first Great North Park Hunt on Feb. 5 to help benefit a community center in Kenya. (Courtesy of Chris Willemin)

A Feb. 5 event in North Park will have powerful effects halfway around the world.


The Great North Park Hunt is a fundraiser sponsored by the San Diego chapter of Engineers Without Borders to provide solar electricity to a community center in Mbita, Kenya. But while participants in the “Amazing Race”-style hunt will enjoy an afternoon of fun in North Park, it’s the villagers in western Kenya on the coast of Lake Victoria who will benefit most, said Chris Willemin, an Engineers Without Borders member and North Park resident.

“This (community center) is a place where they can teach basic computer programming skills, data entry, computer repair and understand how the Internet works,” he said. “Hopefully it will lead to jobs. We are helping to provide a tool and put it in the hands of someone to let them be innovative.”

Engineers Without Borders is a volunteer service organization based in Boulder, Colo., with 12,000 members in 250 U.S. chapters. Similar to the organization Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders works in developing countries to provide potable water, bring renewable energy and supply sanitation. The local chapter, which began in 2005, has 50 members initially focused on water projects in India and El Salvador, as well as the power generation for Mbita, an area that is home to 68,000 people, many of whom have HIV or AIDS.

The “teach a man to fish” theory is important to Engineers Without Borders’ mission, Willemin said.

“The idea is that there is a transfer of knowledge from both student and professional engineers to communities, so we’re not just plopping down a solution. There is shared energy in the project,” Willemin said. “There is usually a sustainable component so the project will be able to operate and be maintained for some duration. So, for example, we don’t want to install a water filtration system and then a few years later there is no way for them to fix it or they’re stuck with equipment they don’t know what to do with.”

Another key component, he said, is that Engineers Without Borders partners with a non-governmental organization (NGO) to ensure the engineers are not the only stakeholders in a project. For example, the group’s recent water distribution effort in Tijuana ended early because local political snafus prevented the volunteers from completing it.

“A project’s success is incredibly tied to how reliable the partner is,” Willemin said.

The Mbita community center came to the local chapter’s attention when they were searching for available projects on the national Engineers Without Borders website, which solicits submissions that meet the organization’s guidelines. Dan Orao, an Mbita native who has lived in Michigan since 1968, had posted his request for an Engineers Without Borders team to install electricity at the 4,600-square-foot community center he built in his hometown.

“The project was not plausible (without the addition of electricity),” Orao said. “Even with regular electricity, it would have just made it difficult to operate. The energy bill would have been too much in the long run.”

The San Diego Engineers Without Borders chapter decided to accept the challenge in 2009. After working on a detailed plan, Willemin and six others flew to Kenya last June to investigate how they would install the solar system.

“We determined the scope of work needed to change once we got there,” Willemin said. “There is an actual power line close to the building, albeit very intermittent. It’s not uncommon for the power to go out four times a day. But we saw how a hybrid system could work and at much less cost.”

Rather than the $150,000 pure solar solution, the group is designing a system that works off the power grid but includes batteries for when the grid fails. Meanwhile, solar panels will constantly feed the batteries, providing what Willemin called “grid-tied solar” for the building at a cost of $60,000, including all equipment and installation.

With a reliable source of electricity on its way, Orao’s dream to open the community center will be a reality in early 2012. He said the opportunities that will come with it—such as Internet access—are numerous in a place where most people live off bartering and few ever leave their immediate surroundings.

“We do have education there, and the best students can go to college but for most young people there is nothing after high school,” he said. “So through the classes at the community center people might learn a skill and attain something they never would otherwise.”

But even that aspect will require some education for locals, he said. While the villagers are eager for the center to open, they looked at him in disbelief when he told them what they could expect from the Internet.

“Most of our people are visual people. When I told them you can send mail through the Internet, they asked me who would deliver it. Even when I tried to explain it to them they said, ‘When I see it, I’ll believe it,’” Orao said with a laugh.

Orao’s commitment to Mbita began in 1968 when townspeople pooled their resources to send him to the U.S.—first to finish high school and then to attend the University of Michigan. Today he owns a credit-card processing business in Grand Rapids, where he spent years fund-raising for the community center through the soccer teams he coaches, plus local churches and the local Rotary Club.

“Ninety percent of the funds (to build the community center) were from Michigan. The village provided for the land and labor,” he said.

When Engineers Without Borders agreed to take on the project, Orao said it gave the effort credibility both with his Michigan donors and with those back in his hometown.

“When I told [the people in Mbita] what Engineers Without Borders was trying to do, they said, ‘But they don’t know us and they’ve never been here,’” he said. “And then when [the Engineers Without Borders team] came (in June) they were all young people. Again I heard, ‘How could these young people with no connection to our village leave the U.S. to do this?’

“This has done a lot for people in my village… And the young people now see that other young people can do great things and volunteer—do it from their heart and not get paid. It’s been a tremendous example of showing you can do a lot if you set your mind to it.”

While Willemin acknowledged the good feelings the team had in helping the Mbita residents, he said it was they who learned some lessons about what it means to be happy with what one has.

“I can’t overemphasize this— this is a poverty-stricken place from the standpoint of material items we would consider a normal standard of living,” he said. “But there was an overflowing of goodwill and cheer. And a lot of smiles.”

The Great North Park Hunt is one in a series of fundraisers Engineers Without Borders is hosting to raise the $60,000 needed to install the power system at the Mbita community center. To participate in the hunt, teams of two ($50) or four ($80) can register at Teams should arrive at True North Tavern, 3815 30th St., by 1 p.m. on Feb. 5 and plan for a lot of walking, sightseeing in North Park and other surprises during the 3.5-hour scavenger hunt, Willemin said. The organization is also seeking North Park businesses at the $50 James Bond sponsorship level, which includes being a pit stop in the hunt. As of press time, sponsors included Olive Branch Green Building Supply, Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center, Sea Rocket Bistro and Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge.

One Comments

  1. avril says:

    I also know an organization from New York that sends young doctors in Africa to help the locals. The manager Donna Rey started this organization 5 years ago and they’ve send over 1000 doctors until now.

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