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First Person: Travels with Humanitarian Engineering

I traveled to Rwanda in the summer of 2013 with five other members of Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering (DHE)—Joey Anthony ’12 Th’13, Max Sloan ’13 Th’13, June Shangguan ’13 Th’13, Alison Polton-Simon ’14, and Sophie Sheeline ’16—to update two DHE pico hydropower sites.

As a freshman, I had yet to take any electrical engineering classes and only had my experiences training with DHE to rely on. But before the trip, our group had spent two weeks working with Professor Charles Sullivan, a power electronics expert and one of DHE’s advisors, to hone our knowledge of the Banda hydro system and basic electrical engineering. During those two weeks, I went from an embarrassing lack of knowledge about charge and diversion control to being able to justify every component of our system before a Thayer review board.

The hydro sites in Banda function as a business. Customers own large batteries, typically car batteries, that they charge at the sites for a price and carry home to use to power electric lights and appliances. Revenue from this system pays the site’s employees. The business had been operating smoothly for the past few years, but our surveys revealed instances of corruption by some local employees. We also found technical problems.

We reached out to Ben Koons ’08 for help. In 2007, the year he helped start the DHE hydro project, he had met a former forest guide and self-taught electrician named Rick Masumbuko. Rick helped Ben with site assessment. The following fall, DHE sponsored a project in ENGS 89/90. Ben and other Thayer B.E. students designed and tested a small-scale hydropower system that could be entirely locally sourced in Rwanda, and in the summer of 2008, returned to Banda to build systems at Kigogo and Nyiragasigo.

I met Rick near the end of our time in Rwanda. He had been looking for us. He told us that Ben had asked him to help us.

Shinri Kamei and Rick Masumbuko
PARTNERSHIP: Shinri Kamei ’16, left, and Rwandan Rick Masumbuko discuss the hydro sites that DHE is leaving in his experienced hands. Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering.

When I explained what we were doing with the electrical system, Rick pulled out a multimeter, which we later learned Ben had given to him, and started taking data. We traveled together to look for electrical components to replace those that had been fried during an earlier round of testing.

Rick was skilled and resourceful, finding replacement parts by going around Banda and asking people for their broken radios. He even showed us the 12V DC light that he had designed by studying electrical engineering textbooks that foreigners had left with him. The battery used the head of a fluorescent bulb (originally designed to run off of the 220 AC that runs through the electric grid in Rwanda) and other inexpensive parts, most of which can be found in old radios. “He is very serious,” the village doctor told us over and over again—“serious” being Rwandan English for a good, smart, honest man. When we left, we hired Rick to oversee the management and operation of the sites. We knew he would take care of both the technical and business aspects of the projects.

Upon our return to Dartmouth, we got some bad news from Rick: One site’s electrical system, which we had just replaced, had broken. Our team was upset, both because the community would have less access to electrical power and because we couldn’t believe that something we had spent so long carefully designing and implementing could fail so quickly. When we approached Professor Sullivan with the news, he suggested that perhaps the team could move away from our dependence on commercially produced products, which were both expensive and difficult to fully understand. Then he tasked the students in his ENGS 125: Power Electronics and Electromechanical Energy Conversion course with a new final project: to design their own version of DHE’s electrical system.

In the ensuing months we learned that the issues with the hydro sites were due to operator mistakes rather than inherent flaws in the system. However, the projects that came out of ENGS 125 look promising and are a great opportunity for students to better understand the confusing black box systems that electrical systems can be.

As a student organization doing aid in a foreign country, DHE faces a lot of challenges, but they aren’t ones that can’t be overcome. The steadfast support from Thayer faculty and the commitment of Thayer alums is integral to our work. I am so thankful to have had the chance to discover these resources.

—Shinri Kamei ’16

For more photos, visit our Humanitarian Engineering collection on Flickr.

Categories: The Great Hall, First Person

Tags: alumni, humanitarian service, projects, students

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