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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Students engineer Ugandan village

When UC Davis students want to give back to the community, they don’t limit themselves to Davis. In fact, they don’t even limit themselves to the United States.

Members of the UCD chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), an international non-profit organization dedicated to helping developing nations with engineering projects, are planning a summer trip to Nkokonjeru, Uganda.

The group of undergraduate and graduate students has been working with local community members to develop environmentally and economically sustainable projects in areas such as sanitation, water, agriculture and energy.

“There is a lot of communication with the local Ugandan agency, the Rural Agency for Sustainable Development and the locals to try to figure out what they need,” said Alea German, co-project manager chair for EWB. “We did a lot of testing, sampling water and surveying the current state of sanitation. A lot of it was focused on water and sanitation, but the idea is that there’s a lot of communication with people on the ground to figure out where our efforts could best be used.”

The goal of EWB is to engineer projects that are needed by the community and able to be maintained by residents.

“A key word is appropriate technology,” said Matthew Bates, EWB secretary. “For instance, going in with a big array of solar panels and a super computer might be the best technological solution, but once it breaks they’re stuck. So we try to build things and design things that can be made by the local mason or welder and with materials they already know how to work with.”

Founded in 2004, the group’s first project was to design water and sanitation systems in Xix, Guatemala. Since then, multiple projects have been completed in Nkokonjeru, including building rainwater harvesting tanks, pit toilets and fuel-efficient stoves.

Dan Nover, president of EWB, said that reactions from residents in Uganda have been overwhelmingly positive. The group relies on both positive and negative feedback to adapt projects to residents’ needs.

“A few years back we tried solar disinfection for the water, which is basically taking the raw water and putting it in a two-liter bottle that destroys harmful bacteria,” said Bates, graduate student in water resources engineering. “But the general social feel from the project was that a bunch of two-liter bottles on their roof kind of looks trashy, and it didn’t go over well with the local attitudes. It’s always a bit of a balance to find projects that fit.”

This summer, EWB plans to build a latrine system to replace the village’s outdated structure and teach residents new farming techniques. The group tries to implement plans that will be able to sustain the community for years to come.

“We try to develop some sort of business plan that can accompany all of our projects because we don’t plan on being there forever. But we can leave them the tools so they can continue,” said German, a graduate student in mechanical engineering.

Small groups of EWB members travel to Nkokonjeru every summer to work on projects. German said the experience of working in Uganda was one she will never forget.

“I had never been to Africa, so it was an amazing, interesting learning experience for me,” German said. “The people there are just so friendly – I was really surprised at how excited they were that we were there and willing to help out with different activities.”

Due to the high costs of raw materials and sending members to Uganda, EWB holds fundraisers throughout the year. The next will be held on Mar. 9 at Uncle Vito’s Slice of N.Y. from 5 to 9 p.m. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to EWB when diners mention the fundraiser.

EWB is open to students of all majors.

“To me the most important thing is the exposure students get to different kinds of projects and settings they might otherwise never know much about,” said Nover, a graduate student in water resources engineering. “I think it’s an opportunity to create graduates with a more global perspective. It benefits them no matter where they end up career-wise.”

Bates said he thinks EWB is important for promoting international awareness.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the world is bigger than America and there are lots of people out there who live lives very different from ours,” said Bates. “If you ranked everyone on a global standard of dirt poor to super rich, even the poor folks in America come out pretty close to the super rich,”

Katie Kolesar, fundraising chair of EWB and graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, agrees with Bates’ assumption.

“It’s not even so much the projects we’re doing, but it’s accomplishing this cultural exchange,” she said. “We’re going in there and looking at how their community works and how we can work within it. It’s really about understanding another culture.”

For more information about EWB, visit ewbdavis.net/index.htm.

ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at features@theaggie.org. 


  1. I can see how this would have been fairly difficult, but it would have been awesome to hear from a Ugandan local they helped or something. That would be pretty hard. Maybe the US embassy has gotten positive feedback RE: the engineers?


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